Lights, Camera, Action

Sara Zehnder-Wallace helps put Alameda on screen.


Zehnder-Wallace is sole proprietor of Alameda on Location.

Photo by D. Ross Cameron

Sara Zehnder-Wallace, full-time middle schoolteacher and mother of two, has a media, photography, and writing background and is a small business owner. Sole proprietor of Alameda on Location, Zehnder-Wallace works with film and commercial scouts finding and managing locations for production companies to film in Alameda. She gives the behind-the-scenes scoop on what it is like to be the liaison between production companies and property owners.


How did you get into the business of being a location liaison?

I started this journey accidentally, as the best journeys often do. A neighbor referred our home for a shoot, because she knew we had recently renovated it. A scout came over and immediately said to me, “You know you have just created an ideal shoot house.” Of course, I had no idea that we had done that, but I quickly learned what this meant. Large rooms, light-colored walls, and an open floor plan on a moderately quiet street was what he was referring to. He asked if I knew of other “shoot” homes, and I did, so he suggested that I look into creating a cottage business connecting production companies with local locations. I ran with the idea. My business grew a little each year, and I’ve really enjoyed the experience. I’ve met so many different types of people in our community and am always struck by how helpful people are. I’ve worked with the mayor, the police department, the fire department, the permit department, public works, neighbors, businesses, schools—you name it. 


What type of homes or properties are you usually looking for?

While there is a definitely a “type” in that production companies really cannot work around cluttered interiors, and they usually need rooms that are large enough for camera, lights, and crew, I have arranged some shoots on a small scale in modest homes. It really depends on the storyboard, the budget of the shoot, and the shoot date. Some companies come to me in a complete bind; they need a location yesterday, so at that point, they don’t have many options and are more willing to work with fewer location choices. What the production company needs is based on the market-research data. Sometimes, I’ll get a request for a specific type of backyard, kitchen, or sunroom … it really just depends. You can go to my website to learn more about the process at


Some people are uneasy about handing their homes over to strangers for photo shoot. Is there reason for concern?

In the hands of a professional production company with an expert location manager, the only concerns should be overall neighborhood impact. I have had only one property sustain notable damage in my 10 years of doing this. A production assistant drilled a nail hole into a redwood panel—ugh. Of course, insurance covered the repair. By the time the shoot day arrives, the homeowner has probably met the major players in the production, so no concerns remain. The production people I know always impress me with their creativity, dedication, intelligence, and conscientiousness. And I am there to help all of the stakeholders. I am the middle person between the neighborhood, the homeowner, and the production company. There is a lot to prepare for and a lot of stress for me on shoot day, but that is usually how I know that things are going to go well for everyone else. I always work hard to impact as little as possible the neighborhood of the shoot location, whether it is Park Street or Gibbons Drive. I knock on a lot of Alameda doors.

When shoots are successful, the city as well as other participants, such as property owners, neighbors, coffee shops, catering companies, and Alameda police—when needed—all profit. When Apple Inc. came to town, they spent over $25,000 in locations and fees that touched many property owners and businesses. Combine that with city of Alameda permits and parking fees and money to APD, you begin to see what’s behind the curtain. I’ll also say that productions are very cool to watch. I’ve seen nighttime created at high noon, a rainstorm produced just above a front porch, a 9-foot marshmallow man, and my own century-old living room turned into a modern loft.


Does Alameda draw the attention of many producers?

Yes, more and more, I think. Although this is not a steady industry and jobs that look like a go can fall through at the last minute, even after hours of work. I put in many hours trying to get 13 Reasons Why, a Netflix miniseries, shot here but they ended up in San Rafael. Alameda has a lot to offer with its rich mix of architectural styles and wide, flat, tree-lined streets. We’ve hosted Bank of the West, Apple Inc., Orchard Supply, and Muscle Milk, to name a few. There’s a Ford ad running nationally now that I am sure everyone is sick of seeing. The real trick is moving the productions around the city so that no one neighborhood grows weary of the experience.


What would people be surprised to learn about this industry?

Unless you are involved in a production, you can’t imagine the amount of effort and talent it takes to produce anything. To be multitalented is an absolute in this business. What happens behind the scenes is really mind blowing. I think people who aren’t in the field would be surprised to know that a 30-second scene often takes a full day to shoot and endless hours to plan for. Sometimes 50 to 80 people will show up with motor homes, trucks, vans, and a generator. But sometimes, and this is my preference because of community impact, we get a little production of just 15 people who are still willing to spend quite a bit for the right Alameda location. And when they shoot here, we can profit from that process. I always say that if they don’t shoot here, they will shoot in Oakland or San Rafael or Livermore, and then those cities will get the money. It makes sense to say yes to these productions and stay on the Island.


Published online on June 14, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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