Soundstage presence goes global

Need experienced crews, exotic locales and state-of-the-art equipment? Look no further than the next generation of international film studios.

It wasn't so long ago that producers looking to shoot abroad typically chose from a short list of high-end soundstage facilities. There were the giants -- Pinewood in London, Babelsberg in Berlin, Barrandov in Prague -- and very little else. No longer.

From Cape Town to Melbourne, from Toronto to the Philippines, production facilities are being built to rival the old giants and provide some much-needed market competition.

It is a mark of how truly global the film business has become that a major studio production now can shoot on virtually every continent. While the deciding factor for "runaway" production used to be cheap, union-free labor, the new wave of international studios are aiming higher. Like Pinewood or Babelsberg, they want to provide the full package of facilities, services and trained local crews. Add to that production subsidies, often 20% of local spend, and it is easy to see why the major Hollywood studios are leaving their backlots and flying to Australia or Spain.

These new international production facilities also serve as a boon for the local film and television industries. It's no accident that plans for major studios such as City of Lights in Spain or Dreamworld in South Africa come on the heels of a resurgence in homegrown production. Director Luc Besson's still-unrealized plans to build a complex outside of Paris are driven in part by a desire to take French film into the big-budget arena.

But running a studio is a tricky, risky business. With only a handful of potential clients and hundreds of millions of dollars in start-up costs, even established outfits can teeter ominously on the brink between boom and bust. International producers might rub their hands with glee at the new location and subsidy opportunities, but the operators of international studios will have to deliver on their promises if they are to compete in what is now a truly global game.

The following is a look at five international studio facilities with the goods to join the A-list.

-- Scott Roxborough

Melbourne Central City Studios

SYDNEY -- Each of Australia's significant East Coast locations -- Melbourne, Sydney and the Gold Coast -- host major studio complexes; but the privately run Melbourne Central City Studios (MCCS) is the newest facility, having opened for business in 2004. On the edge of the Melbourne central business district in the newly developed Docklands area, MCCS is billed as Australia's most technologically advanced studio complex, with five soundstages covering a total of 68,000 square feet, 16,000 square feet of production offices, 73,000 square feet of workshops and parking for 800 vehicles as well as easy access to Melbourne's Port Philip Bay and the city's international airport. MCCS is operated by a consortium led by Melbourne businessman Sino Guzzardi, now the executive chairman of MCCS. After initial concerns over soaring construction costs and inflated production forecasts, the complex has managed to host a virtual revolving door of international feature films and television programs -- 2006 miniseries "Nightmares & Dreamscapes: From the Stories of Steven King," Sony's Nicolas Cage starrer "Ghost Rider" and Warner Bros. Pictures' planned 2008 release "Where the Wild Things Are." Additionally, HBO's epic miniseries "The Pacific" has booked the facility through early 2008, and several locally-produced TV shows, including the long-running Endemol Southern Star game shows "Deal or No Deal" and "1 vs 100" also are shot at the studios. And just to up the glamour quotient, MCCS has hosted the prestigious Australian Film Institute Awards for the last three years running.
-- Pip Bulbeck

Filmport

TORONTO -- Set to open along Toronto's waterfront early next year, megastudio Filmport aims to provide a much-needed shot in the arm for the city's ailing film industry. Construction got under way on the $60 million facility in 2006, and the final complex will house seven soundstages and more than 260,000 square feet of studio space for marquee Hollywood shoots, according to Ken Ferguson, president of Toronto Film Studios, which is building Filmport along with veteran production equipment supplier Paul Bronfman. Phase one of the development will include a 45,000-square foot soundstage with enough floor space to house a full-size replica of the Parthenon. If all goes according to plan, Filmport eventually will contain 550,000 square feet of soundstages and support facilities on Toronto's abandoned port lands. Ferguson says that he expects to announce Filmport's first Hollywood bookings in September. The complex is designed to ease a chronic shortage of quality studio space in Toronto, a fact that has led many expensive Hollywood shoots to set up shop in Montreal or Vancouver, where purpose-built studios can accommodate blockbuster movies. Elsewhere, there was more good news for Toronto when local real estate developer Alfredo Romano announced in April that he's partnering with Britain's Pinewood Studios Group to build another 100,000 square feet of studio space for big-budget Hollywood movies in mid-town Toronto.
-- Etan Vlessing

City of Lights

MADRID -- When directors Frederic Forestier and Thomas Langmann needed to recreate a comic book-style Athens, it wasn't Iberia's olive trees that landed them in Spain. It was Europe's most modern facilities that drew the $100 million "Asterix at the Olympic Games" to Alicante's City of Lights studio, and other filmmakers seem to be equally excited about the complex. "It's brand new and has all the latest technology and modern design to aid production," says Antonio Meliveo, executive producer of Antonio Banderas' Spanish-language "Summer Rain," which shot a number of scenes at City of Lights. "We're a one-stop shop, which always cuts costs," adds Colette Maynard, City of Lights marketing manager. "City of Lights brings together the ability to shoot aquatic, interior and every imaginable exterior possible in an accessible, sunny climate where you can film 365 days of the year." The state-of-the-art studio does have plenty to offer: eight air-conditioned soundstages built in pairs and connected by elephant doors; an exterior water tank; 52 acres of backlot with water, power and fiber optic network; and advanced technology for filming conventionally and in digital. In October, the facility will open an exterior water tank with a blue screen backdrop and a 57,000-square foot superstage, set on a 27-acre backlot with panoramic views. (The natural-horizon water tank that was trumpeted in the complex's original plans won't be available until 2009.) City of Lights recently launched a training center designed to overcome the one major hurdle productions might face -- the lack of experienced crews in and around Alicante. But in the meantime, until the local populace can hone their below-the-line skills, the Valencia government, which owns City of Lights, will compensate productions for the the expenses they incur flying in and housing technicians. The government also has set up a special fund to assist companies looking to contract with local equipment suppliers.
-- Pamela Rolfe

Dreamworld Studios


CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA -- The brainchild of eminent South African producer-director Anant Singh, Dreamworld Studios has just broken ground on a R450 million ($61 million) studio complex 12 miles outside of Cape Town. The plans call for a one-stop shop for the film industry -- with four soundstages and competing camera, lighting, visual effects and postproduction service providers under one roof -- that will offer prices 20% lower than comparable facilities in Canada, the U.K. and Australia. The consortium backing Dreamworld -- which currently includes Singh's production company, Videovision Entertainment; independent broadcaster e.tv; the Western Cape economic development agency, Wesgro; the Western Cape provincial government; and the city of Cape Town -- expects the studio to be operational by October 2008. It's been a long time coming. Singh first announced his plans for Dreamworld five years ago, and the development had been scheduled to be completed by the end of this year. But the project met with a series of delays, first in the form of environmental and legal challenges, then management changes in various government agencies investing in the facility. Forecasts suggest that 50% of Dreamworld's first-year revenue will come from foreign production, but some critics are concerned that the studio's location poses security risks to visitors: Dreamworld sits on the fringe of the Cape Flats, an incubator for organized crime in the area. Singh, however, dismisses such claims. "People said it was irresponsible to bring Whoopi Goldberg into the township when we filmed (1992's) 'Sarafina!'" he says. "But the people of Soweto embraced the project. I think we can achieve a similar result in Khayelitsha." He adds that he is optimistic that the community will recognize and respect the studio's positive economic impact, since the development will create more than 8,000 jobs for locals. "Cape Town enjoys the advantage of proven technical expertise, a talented English-speaking work force, a diverse metropolis and a wonderful infrastructure."
-- Margaret O'Connor

Bigfoot Studios

SINGAPORE --The Philippine island of Cebu is about to take another giant step up the filmmaking ladder with new studios that promise to rival Hollywood, and a tank that will make underwater shoots in the Philippines possible for the first time. The company driving much of the island's filmmaking progress is Bigfoot Entertainment, which set up in Cebu in 2004 with an $8 million-$10 million first-phase budget. German mogul and movie director Michael Gleissner founded Bigfoot Entertainment as part of his communications, business process outsourcing, education and real estate interests held under the Bigfoot Group of Companies, and today, Bigfoot produces film and television projects in its own right. But it also helps visiting productions set up in Cebu, handling everything from casting services to renting one of the two technocranes available in Southeast Asia and offering location support across the Philippines' 7,000-plus islands. The country also has a sizable stable of English-speaking crews and warm weather year-round."People are looking for new and easy places to shoot," says Bigfoot Entertainment chief executive Kacy Andrews. Andrews expects construction on the new water tank to be completed by September, and he says that work is also underway on an expansion project that will house four studios, a helipad and facilities for the construction of props, slide sets and swing sets in addition to a park, a mini zoo and a hotel. The new facilities, the company promises, "will equal such famous film outfits as Universal Studios and Warner Bros. Studios." Another advantage Cebu can offer productions is a dramatic range of shooting locations -- beaches, jungles and cityscapes. "Filmmakers can get a lot of different looks," Andrews says. "There's definitely more that can be done," Andrews says of efforts to attract international productions, adding that local film authorities are ramping up efforts to accommodate film shoots. "They are new. They are still getting their feet wet in trying to figure out how to compete with Thailand and Singapore, but there is a lot of growth potential."
-- Janine Stein


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