This season on Sons of Anarchy, biker henchman Tig gets shot in the ass. As you’d expect, he skips the emergency room; instead getting operated on in the clubhouse. No anesthesia here, a few swigs of whiskey must do. As Tig is about to go under knife, you see a familiar bottle of scotch: "G-L-E-N-"
But the Sons haven’t splurged on high-end Glenmorangie. This label eventually reveals itself: “Glencallan.” Don’t bother, not even the biggest booze aficionado will find it. There’s a good reason—it’s one of millions of props perfectly blended into a scene, made by Independent Studio Services.
ISS is one of the most prominent Hollywood prop supply companies, among the largest (more than 1 million pieces inside its main prop house) and oldest (35 years old). The company’s Burbank location sounds like film nerd paradise. It’s a few hundred-thousand square feet of props being constantly created, stored, and procured.
“Different carts are loading up with props for 90210 right next to The Lone Ranger,” says Michael Bertolina, ISS’s vice president of Entertainment Marketing and Acquisitions. “The shop guys are working on a custom credit card slot to go onto a bus while building Robocop’s new motorcycle right next to it. So many different projects at one time, it’s a fun thing.”Can I interest you in a Bilson?
Bertolina is quick to note “prop” can encompass everything onscreen, calling them “really anything that comes up in the environment of a scene that actors handle, touch, or interact with.”
But in this age of cross promotion—James Bond drinks Heineken?—it’s hard to believe there’s much demand for anything less than real brands. Simple logic, right? Brands lend realism, and there’s money to be made via product placement. But Bertolina points out plenty of reasons this isn’t the case. Creatives don’t want their final products becoming advertisements. And there will always be scenarios where crews can’t use branded goods. (Maybe a high-end scotch doesn’t want to be associated with gang DIY health care.)
“We’re trained to see brands, so when you don’t it’s almost jarring,” he says. “But the network won’t use a brand if it interferes with an advertising deal they have or if it’s not used for its intended use. So instead of covering it with tape or running into a legal nightmare, we create these brands that are fictional.”
Given the normalcy of brands, prop houses like ISS base their fake products on them. Bertolina says the prop version gets modified to the point where it won’t impede on anyone’s intellectual property, “just like private label cereal boxes versus something from Kellogg’s.” So Leonard on Community reviews “Let’s” instead of Lay’s, or Ben Harmon drinks “Haberkern” on American Horror Story last season instead of Heineken.
“Our owner’s name is Gregg Bilson, so you’ll find Bilson cigarettes all over TV,” Bertolina adds. “If you watched Justified on FX, [Mags Bennett] ran a shop and had a rack of cigarettes behind her head all the time. They’re all Bilson.”
As a bit of smart business, ISS has worked with brands directly on product placement for a while too. Ultimately partnerships in this area allow ISS to better serve their customers. Need an energy drink in your scene? They can pull Rockstar from the prop house fridge. But if some reckless adolescent chugs energy drink and alcohol in a particularly destructive moment, they can offer the off-brand too.
Over the years, on- and off-screen changes forced many ISS adjustments. For instance, in the 1970s the company started only in California. But today’s media producers operate in places like Louisiana or New Mexico to take advantage of certain tax incentives or landscapes. ISS expanded its operations accordingly, and they now have bases in seven states (New York, Michigan, Massachusetts, and Georgia are the others).
But content evolves too. “We’ve all grown up watching movies and we know just as there are trends in the marketplace, there are trends in films,” Bertolina says. This seems to directly impact ISS in two ways. First, as topics cycle, prop masters want to make sure items they use are up-to-date. “As researches and procurers of whatever’s cool, we are always looking for the next big thing. Propmasters do too,” Bertolina says. For instance, when an audience sees EMTs come out of an ambulance, they have a specific image in mind: an orange bag, a holster with scissors, etc. But companies work on new items all the time. ISS must keep tabs on this through research, interviews, firsthand looks at the products and more.
With this flow of information, ISS must always archive and access it. They maintain an ever-growing, in-house library for all their genre research. Today’s cop-drama in Juarez, Mexico could be tomorrow’s period piece on bordertowns. “We create files on each show, so when someone asks what was used in 2012 in Juarez, Mexico, we can tell you exactly. We spoke with someone who worked with it in the that prison or that office.”
This R&D isn’t always easy. Even if they know modern cops use a certain Glock, demand can simply overwhelm their supply and force more production. And obtaining info itself gets tricky. The most difficult items, according to Bertolina, happen to be military technology (and naturally a boatload of Navy Seals-oriented content seems to be on the way). Thankfully, years in the business mean ISS can make even the faker fakes appear genuine to viewers.
“There’s very limited access to the props themselves; obviously when we’re in wartime most of those items go to actual operators,” Bertolina says. “It becomes very difficult to source things like accurate night-vision goggles, or there’s a different camo release for every new campaign. But if we can’t get it, we can certainly build it.”