James Cameron to Make 'Avatar' Sequels in Manhattan Beach (Exclusive)

4:38 PM PST 04/11/2011 by Daniel Miller, Alex Ben Block
Studio: FPI/Alamy; James Cameron: Courtesy Everett Collection

The blue people are on the move. 

Director James Cameron and 20th Century Fox have signed a lease for studio and office space at MBS Media Campus in Manhattan Beach and will use the facility for the motion capture photography and high-tech production on two highly-anticipated sequels to Avatar, the biggest blockbuster of all time.   

Cameron confirmed to THR the deal for space at the 1600 Rosecrans Ave. property, formerly known as Manhattan Beach Studios, in a brief interview at the National Association of Broadcasters show in Las Vegas on Monday. The length and dollar value of the lease are not known.  

The 580,000-square-foot studio and office facility, which houses 15 soundstages, also is likely to become the new home of Cameron’s company, Lightstorm Entertainment. Sources said Cameron has been in the market for as much as 90,000 square feet of production and office space.  

Production of the original Avatar was centered in Playa Vista at a property now known as the Hercules Campus, named for the Spruce Goose, the mammoth airplane built there by Howard Hughes in the 1940s. During the film’s four years of production, Lightstorm remained headquartered at a three-story, 26,277-square-foot office building Santa Monica, but Cameron spent most of his time in Playa Vista.  

If things go as planned, Cameron would consolidate his offices and studio into one location -- down the coast from his Malibu home. His Santa Monica office building is listed for sale for $11.85 million by brokerage CB Richard Ellis Group. Entertainment office specialist Jim Jacobsen of Industry Partners, who is not involved in selling the building, said there have been several offers made for the Santa Monica Boulevard property but a deal has not been struck. In a brief interview with THR on Monday following his keynote address at NAB, Cameron did not provide details on whether Lightstorm would also be relocated.   

Completion of the Manhattan Beach deal with Raleigh Studios, which operates the property for its owner, private equity firm Carlyle Group, ends a long search for Avatar’s new home. Cameron considered returning to the Hercules site, now owned by the Ratkovich Co., which purchased the property last year for $32.4 million, but the timing was a problem because the aging facility is undergoing renovations throughout this year. Ratkovich Co. told THR: “Lightstorm Entertainment expressed interest…however we are not currently in negotiations.”   

Cameron’s search also took him to an office park in Agoura Hills, where owner Realty Bancorp Equities earlier this year gained preliminary approvals to construct a building for Lightstorm. The Toronto Sun in March reported that Cameron had settled on that property because it was close to the home of his mother. However, Doug Hooper, Agoura’s assistant director of community development, said the city hasn’t heard from the developer in several months, and the project would still require final approval from the city’s planning commission.  

“Given the two different requirements -- needing soundstages like he had before and office space, and the fact that the Hercules Campus has started demolition, it’d make sense he’d be interested in a studio operation like Manhattan Beach Studios,” said Jacobsen. “90,000 square feet of space on the Westside is very difficult to put together.”  

The complex Avatar production also must adhere to a schedule, and would be helped by using existing buildings. Avatar 2 is slated for release in December 2014 and Avatar 3 the following December. While MBS Media Campus will now be the location for the films’ extensive motion capture shooting, in which actors are filmed by a special computer camera and then transformed by special effects artists, it is unclear if any of the live action portions of the movies will be shot there as well.   

For the original Avatar, the live action scenes were shot in New Zealand, where Cameron employed the special effects company WETA, partly owned by filmmaker Peter Jackson. WETA is expected to be involved in the two sequels (although that has not been confirmed), and Cameron said Monday he is still unsure if he will shoot the sequels’ live action scenes in New Zealand.   

One current tenant at MBS Media Campus is Marvel Studios, owned by Disney, which filmed Iron Man 2 and Thor there. It has also been home to various TV shows including Ally McBeal, CSI: Miami, Medium, and America’s Funniest Home Videos.

Commercial real estate broker Matthew May says that MBS Media Campus’ location makes sense for Cameron. “With Playa Vista, when all that stuff is built up, trying to get onto the freeway at Jefferson at 5:30 -- that’s not going to be pretty,” says May, who is not involved in the Manhattan Beach lease.  

Also on Monday, Cameron and Vince Pace, who co-developed the Fusion 3D camera system used to film Avatar, announced during their NAB Show keynote the formation of the Cameron-Pace Group to facilitate 3D broadcasting with the development of new technology. As part of the venture, the company has already expanded the existing Burbank offices of PACE, located off of West Empire Avenue.  

Fox and Steve Wiseman, the broker who has the Santa Monica listing, both declined comment. MBS Media Campus, and Doug Jacobsen of Realty Bancorp, could not be reached for comment.   

Carolyn Giardina contributed to this report.    

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