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On Location: picture shop frames a Hollywood future

Uframe-it 
A set decorator from the CBS comedy “How to be a Gentleman” walked into the U-Frame-It store in Van Nuys Saturday and ordered 25 custom-made picture frames for black and white photos of various bridges and buildings in Chicago.

That was no problem for owner Adrianna Cruz, who had one of her framers complete the work by Sunday, generating a tidy $3,200 for her shop.

Catering to Hollywood has become an increasingly vital source of income to small business owners like Cruz, who have been buffeted by a deep recession and an anemic recovery that has kept may consumers from buying discretionary items like picture frames.

“If it wasn’t for the film and TV business, we would be in hot water,’’ said Cruz, who generates 75% of her annual sales -- more than $500,000 a year -– by supplying frames to set decorators on such TV shows as “CSI” and HBO’s “True Blood” and movies including “Spider-Man 3,” “Funny People” and the upcoming December release “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”

To be sure, like caterers, prop houses and scores of other firms that service the local entertainment industry, Cruz’s company has been squeezed by runaway production in recent years as films and TV shows have left Los Angeles to such states as Michigan, Louisiana and Georgia.

But enough film production has remained in L.A. to offset a 50% decline in her consumer retail business since 2008, said Cruz, whose Van Nuys store employs five people.

What’s more, she said, there are signs that production activity is beginning to rebound in L.A. Her film and TV business is up about 15% so far this year compared with the year-earlier period, which she partially attributes to the state’s film tax incentive program. California allocates $100 million annually to keep productions in-state.

Her shop, wedged between an Armenian and Russian deli and a Norms restaurant on Sherman Way, is adorned with dozens of photos autographed by the various stars and cast members of shows she’s supplied, including “Medium,” “Matlock” and  “Chicago Hope.”

The 46-year-old Colombia native launched her business in 1988, buying the store where she had worked part-time as a teenager and college student with the help of her parents, who took out a second mortgage on their home.

One of her first Hollywood customers was Thomas Roysden, a set decorator from the 1986 Robert Redford movie “Legal Eagles” who purchased much of her store’s equipment and supplies to be used as props for an art gallery scene in the film.

When Roysden went on to work as a set decorator for “Chicago Hope,” he hired U-Frame-It to supply most of the frames for the scores of medical certificates and office paintings featured in the long-running medical drama.

“I was like, ‘Wow, this is a good business,’’’ Cruz said, who was soon generating half of her income from movies and TV shows.

Key to U-Frame’s longevity, she said, is the ability to turn around orders quickly to meet the demands of the entertainment industry and having a large inventory of product. U-Frame-It, which also has a store in Tarzana, has about 100,000 feet of molding and 2,000 ready-made frames in every possible design and style, from Art Deco to American classical.

Unlike a prop house, U-Frame-It sells rather than rents its frames. Buyers are typically set decorators, who bring in photos and other artwork for various sets of offices, bars, doctors offices, hallways -- anywhere a picture or certificate would hang. Cruz’s job is to help pick a style and color for the frame that suits the scene.

“Every picture tells a story,’’ she said.

For a fee, of course. The store charges anywhere from $4.50 a foot for a black metal frame to $90 a foot for a gold-leaf Italian wood design frame. Cruz makes as much as $25,000 in revenue by supplying frames for a single film; a TV series brings in between $3,000 to $5,000.

The vampire drama “True Blood” is a regular client. Set decorator Ron V. Franco, who used U-Frame-It regularly on the TV drama “Heroes,” recently hired the company to build special stands for two Greek statues and scores of frames for artwork in a vampire’s old antebellum mansion.

“The quality of their work is above and beyond, and they are very, very fast,’’ Franco said. “They know that we work on a tight time frame.’’

One of the more unusual orders involved building glass cases for skeletons of lizards and frogs featured in “Spider-Man 3.”

More recently, the store built 44 glass frames for dried flowers depicted in the “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” Columbia Pictures’ big screen adaptation of the award-winning Swedish crime novel.

“I’m ready for whatever they need,’’ Cruz said.

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-- Richard Verrier

Photo: Adrianna Cruz at her U-Frame-It shop in Van Nuys. Behind her is a wall full of pictures from movie stars and designers whose motion pictures she has supplied. Credit: Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times.

Where the cameras roll: Sample of neighborhoods with permitted TV, film and commercial shoots scheduled this week. Permits are subject to last-minute changes. Sources: FilmL.A. Inc., cities of Beverly Hills, Santa Clarita and Pasadena. Thomas Suh Lauder / Los Angeles Times
 
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