Culver City’s Modern Props is a Seasoned Veteran in Runaway Production Fight

Posted on May 10, 2011 by

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One of the first things visitors notice in the lobby of FilmL.A. is a prominently displayed skateboard with artwork and messages urging films and television shows to shoot their projects in California.  The skateboard has, in effect, become a “prop” for the Film Works campaign effort to combat runaway production.  Appropriately, this prop was made by Culver City’s Modern Props.  The skateboard is one of hundreds designed by Modern Prop’s founder John Zabrucky, who distributed them in 2009 to city and state elected officials, as well as hundreds of Hollywood executives, in hope that the “don’t run away” message would make an impact.

Zabrucky, who founded Modern Props 32 years ago, says he is fighting runaway production not just because he is trying to save his business — he is also trying to save the film and television industry.  At a recent State Assembly hearing in Pasadena about the effectiveness of the California Film & Television Tax Credit in stemming runaway production, Modern Props Vice President Ken Sharp told lawmakers that “the [film & television] industry is one of the last great industries we have left.  If we let it go, what will we have left?”  Sharp is increasingly frustrated at the “economic warfare” other states are waging against California.  “With tax incentives,” Sharp said, “these other states are trying buy our industry.”

Since Canada enacted the first significant film incentives almost 15 years ago, California has been losing the economic war for Hollywood.  Canada’s approach was quickly copied around the world and in other states, creating a very uneven playing field for California.   The people at Modern Props were among the first to see the threat such incentives posed to the state.  In 1999, just two years after the first Canadian film incentives took effect, Modern Props began distributing free bumper stickers that read “I Want You To Film in Town” next to an image of Uncle Sam.  The company also participated in political rallies in Burbank and Hollywood that same year.  Incidentally, 1999 was also the peak year for employment at Modern Props, with 50 employees.  During a decade fighting runaway production, Modern Props eventually lost 66 percent of its workforce.

Runaway production not only caused the drop in employment at Modern Props, it also forced the company to change long-standing policy.  Until the late 1990’s, it was actually a violation of company policy to lay staff off when business was slow.  When times were lean, the policy dictated the company take out loans to cover payroll expenses.  As runaway production continued unabated after 1997, the company asked its workers to volunteer to take unpaid breaks in an effort to save money.  “At first, the breaks would last about a week,” Sharp said, “and then they lasted two weeks, and then a month and so on.”  Employment dropped from the high of 50 in 1999 and bottomed out at 17 in 2010.  But hope springs.

Modern Props is not willing to give up the fight.  In fact, Modern Props is giving Canada a small dose of runaway production of its own.  The company recently closed its satellite location in Vancouver and opened a new location in North Hollywood.  To keep up with the new location, Modern Props hired additional employees, bringing the number of people employed to 19.  The new North Hollywood location consists of a 19,000 square-foot warehouse, which compliments Modern Props’ 120,000 square-foot facility in Culver City.  Sharp said Modern Props is hoping to send a message to film and television productions that “L.A. is still the place to film.”

Film Works had the privilege of visiting Modern Props’ impressive warehouse in Culver City and was overwhelmed not just by the quantity of props (over 70,000), but the quality.  The company specializes in furniture, lighting and electronic equipment.  And the inventory is full of items meant to last

The cavernous and “modern” building houses row upon row of furniture.  If you have a specific need for–say, a white couch–then Modern Props does not have one for you to look at…they have an entire row.

After moving from aisle after aisle of home furnishings that could match any style or creative need possible with high-quality items, one Film Works representative asked Ken Sharp if he could buy a piece of furniture that would perfectly match his own home furnishings.  It may feel like an Ethan Allen or a Restoration Hardware at times, but Modern Props does not sell its inventory, it only rents them.

Speaking to the impressive collection of electronic hardware and equipment panels, Sharp said he has lost count of how many films, television shows, commercials or music videos any particular item has appeared in over the years.  On our way into Modern Props’ machine shop, Sharp pointed out a computer console that had just come back from New York, where it was used for the upcoming Men in Black 3.  “If some elements of it look familiar, it’s because it was first used in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn,” Sharp said.

Modern Props is the perfect example of why the film and television industry is so vital important to California.  The most interesting props the company has were built in-house by highly skilled and talented employees with backgrounds in electronics, engineering, construction and so on.  One particular prop, the sci-fi looking “Orbitron” (Star Trek: The Next Generation), was the product of founder Zabrucky’s own imagination.  

As the United States confronts the challenges of globalization, many point out the importance of education, with particular emphasis on science, mathematics and related fields.  But if fostering a highly-skilled technical workforce is important to policy makers, then it is also important to safeguard the industries that provide jobs to sustain it.

Zabrucky is a perfect example.  “In elementary school, I was the type of kid who would build  science fair projects,” Zarbrucky said.  “I built a working volcano in the seventh grade that erupted every 30 minutes and I built a robot in the 10th grade.”  Making props for movies from his imagination is something Zabrucky was born for.  The magic and allure of the movie industry in Hollywood is what attracted Zabrucky and a girlfriend to move to California from Ohio in the 1970’s.  Indeed, the massive entertainment industry job cluster centered in Los Angeles has long been a magnet for top-tier talent.  Unfortunately, that’s no longer a sure bet.  Hollywood might have brought folks like Zabrucky from Ohio in the 1970’s, but it’s Ohio that now attracts big Hollywood productions from California in 2011.

For every well-known celebrity, there are countless highly-skilled and talented workers employed off the screen on film, television and commercial projects.  So the next time you sit down in front of your screen of choice, give a moment’s thanks to the local prop makers and machinists who help make film work in Los Angeles.

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