The limos begin pulling up to Alex Rodriguez's North Bay Road mansion at dusk, disgorging one celebrity after another: Owen Wilson, Real Housewives star Lea Black, even murderer-turned-mob-rat Chris Paciello. A-Rod, clad in a navy blazer, checked tie, and Italian loafers, welcomes each with a meaty multimillionaire's paw. Two months earlier, Rodriguez's New York Yankees crashed out of the playoffs as the slugger capped a miserable year with two hits and six strikeouts in 18 at-bats. His last whiff came with two outs in the bottom of the ninth to end the season.
But tonight he's the toast of the town. Art Basel Miami Beach is in full swing, and Rodriguez is hosting a party at his recently completed $24 million, 21,746-square-foot bachelor pad. A-Rod ushers guests into his batting cage overlooking Biscayne Bay, which he has transformed into a temporary art gallery. Giant comic-book-like paintings of bullet holes cover the walls.
"It's got a little bit of a different twist," he tells reporters while celebrity-hungry cameramen circle the room, documenting every moment. "It's fun, right?"
Next door, however, Irwin Friedman isn't enjoying himself. Noise from the soiree seeps into his study, where Friedman is trying to read. For more than a year, he and his wife, Nora, have suffered through construction on A-Rod's ode to his own awesomeness.
Now, the superstar hasn't even moved in yet and his party is already turning the quiet block into a SoBe nightclub. Bowel-trembling beats echo as supermodels clutch champagne flutes and cameramen scuttle everywhere.
That crazy scene was December 2, 2011. Friedman stayed quiet that night, assuming calm would return when Basel ended. He was wrong. Though he rarely saw A-Rod, the star's house became a hive of commercial activity, rented out weekly to one film crew after another to document underwear ads, reality shows, and TV spots.
"They didn't ask me," Friedman says. "They just clogged up the road with their trucks and put a notice in my mailbox advising me that they were shooting next door... This was not a one-time-a-year thing. This was a business."
That business is booming, well beyond A-Rod's casa. In the past five years, Miami Beach has blossomed into an East Coast film industry mecca, doling out nearly 1,000 film permits last year and raking in almost $90 million — nearly twice as much as in 2008. It's no wonder why: Driven by the cheapest permits in America and an abundance of empty or rarely occupied luxury properties, absentee celebrities and shady businessmen are renting out their mansions as movie studios like never before — neighbors be damned.
Friedman, at least, isn't taking it. The 69-year-old Holocaust survivor has become a symbol for fed-up homeowners across Miami Beach as he wages an expensive battle against A-Rod, the city, and its booming film industry by demanding a crackdown on loose regulations and a limit on movie shoots.
His crusade could kill a budding industry, as film execs threaten a boycott that would cost millions to the local economy. "It's become a huge industry here," says Jerry Libbin, a city commissioner and the president of the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce. "And we would not want to do anything to damage it."
But Friedman is calling their bluff. "The city administration wants to shove this goddamn thing down the people's throats," he says. "Sooner or later, people are going to give up and start shooting themselves."
And not with cameras.
Two police cruisers idle outside Villa Vecchia's iron-and-mahogany gate. Their flickering lights throw menacing shadows across scenic Pine Tree Drive. Men hurry in and out, shouting and cursing. Brawny security guards glare at passersby. But this is no crime scene. It's the set of Starz's hit television show Magic City.
"It happens all the time," says next-door neighbor Leah Frand, a pretty blond with impossibly pouty lips and a Pomeranian named Dustin. A former live-in nanny for Britney Spears, Frand is unfazed. "We're used to it by now," she says with a shrug.
As Miami Beach has morphed into movie central, this home has become a star. The week before, Robert Downey Jr. filmed scenes from Iron Man III here. Before that, Telemundo taped telenovelas. Over the past three years, the 84-year-old mansion at 4821 Pine Tree Dr. has hosted shoots on no less than 30 occasions. Yet it's not even the most frequently filmed spot in the neighborhood — more than 100 nearby homes have been converted into for-profit studios for nearly 350 days of shooting. On any given day, there is a professional crew filming something somewhere in Miami Beach.
"Filmmakers are welcome in this city," Commissioner Libbin says. "The industry is in a good spot right now. We've built back what we lost, and we have momentum to go further."
This isn't the first golden age of filming in the 305. By the end of World War I, directors such as Richard Stanton and D.W. Griffith were already using the Magic City as a backdrop for their silent movies, says local historian Paul George. In Stanton's 1919 movie The Jungle Trail, the Miami River was a stand-in for the Amazon. Four years later, Griffith shot The White Rose in Hialeah.