Driving down Van Nuys Boulevard on Thursday morning I suddenly spotted a bunch of police cars and a truck that said "SWAT."
In fact, one of the patrol cars was parked right in front of what looked like a bank.
Wow, I thought, this could be a big news story that I knew nothing about. Pull over quick.
"Sorry, you can't park there," said a guy in an LAPD uniform.
I quickly moved my car, and found a space two blocks away.
I hurried back to the corner of Van Nuys and Burbank boulevards and immediately encountered a group of about eight or 10 people who seemed to be watching the action.
"What's going on?" I asked. "Was the bank robbed?"
A tall man in jeans looked at me and said, "We're waiting for our scene."
"Your scene," I replied.
"Yeah, we're supposed to be bystanders. We get $8 an hour for this. It's a production of Law & Order: L.A."
Oh. I suddenly noticed there was a guy with a large camera standing on top of a high tower, looking down on a cluster of people who seemed to be doing a variety of things.
One man began yelling out orders, and suddenly a guy on a bike rode through the center of the action, and I guess they were filming him.
Then I got a closer look at the truck with the word "SWAT" on it. Actually, it looked like a vehicle that might once have said "Fed Ex." Perhaps it was retired and repainted.
The bank in the scene had a canvas sign that said "Western Bank," or something like that ,but on the side of the building there was a fading sign with the name of an auto dealership that had previously occupied the place.
I didn't see any stars of the television show, but nobody stopped me from wandering close to the action. What struck me was the large number of people working at the site.
"We've got about 100 people working here today," said Ari Joffe, an employee who was involved in moving the extras onto the set.
"These people only earn $8 an hour?" I asked.
"Yeah, but they get paid for eight hours even if they only work one hour. So they are guaranteed $64 for the day. That's the nonunion extra rate; union extras will make more than $150 a day."
"No question shows like this are great for the local economy," said Pam Golum, a spokeswoman for the production.
At a time when the "real" rate of unemployment in Los Angeles is about 20 percent, according to City Council President Eric Garcetti—the official figure is lower—it's clear that shows like this one provide jobs that are needed.
FilmL.A., the nonprofit entity that processes permits for TV and movie productions, reports a 15-percent increase in the amount of on-location filming that took place in Los Angeles during the last 12 months.
"This illustrates the importance of this [entertainment] sector," said a FilmL.A. statement. "Estimates from the California Film Commission show that $2 billion in direct spending has been injected into communities."
At a time when many industries in Southern California are still suffering in the soft economy, the entertainment sector is showing a double-digit gain in production and jobs.
"Law & Order: Los Angeles actually employs nearly 200 people, if you include the crew and the office staff," Golum said. "The show shoots everywhere: the Valley, Venice, San Pedro, Century City, you name it."
Later in the day, I contacted someone involved with the production and was told it had moved to another location in the Valley.
"We're sealed off here," she said. "They won't let you in."
Maybe the show's stars had shown up.