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Amid a production rise fueled by Hollywood’s pivot to streaming, the need to lock in filming space is becoming more critical — and a soundstage boom is overtaking the Southland, with competition for space and clients.
“I’ve never seen so much activity in my career,” says Bob Hale of architecture and design film RIOS, which completed the Harlow production building at Sunset Las Palmas Studios and is in development on Echelon Studios on Santa Monica Boulevard. “Through the early 2000s, I think most people thought soundstages were almost dead, and there was a certain amount of redevelopment of them. Then in the last five years it’s just blown up.”
In the past two years, as the pandemic has left office buildings empty, this has been especially true — Warner Bros., HBO, Sony and NBCUniversal are all developing or leasing new Los Angeles stages, and companies like Hackman Capital, Hudson Pacific and Quixote are in construction on more, adding to the total of 394 city stages FilmLA reported in 2019. (Hackman Capital added another jewel to its portfolio on Nov. 30 with the purchase of CBS Studio Center, and its 22 stages, for $1.85 billion.)
New players are also seeing dollar signs as current L.A. facilities cannot keep up with production demand, which architect Tima Bell says stands at 90 percent to 95 percent occupancy rate. “I’ve lived in Los Angeles my whole life and I’ve never known a stage to close,” says Bell, whose Relativity Architects firm used to count studio builds as 10 percent of their business — since the pandemic, it’s become 50 percent. “It’s an incredibly resilient technology, and they’re not terribly difficult to build, though they do require a lot of property.” Amid the work-from-home shift, “all of a sudden, banks began to back them,” he adds, “and once that happened, it’s almost like the floodgates opened.”
Both Bell and Hale say they’ve been approached by warehouse owners looking to get in on the boom and revamp their buildings for film shoots, and architect Richard Berliner says he’s had to relay that “it’s not as easy as just taking an old warehouse and doing an inexpensive retrofit,” with specific needs for power, size, column-free layouts and city codes. Plus, as Jeff Stotland, head of global studios at Hudson Pacific Properties, notes, there’s a whole other side of how to “build the brand and operate the studio.”
Hudson Pacific focuses on new structures — including the upcoming seven-stage Sunset Glenoaks Studios in Sun Valley — and drawing in new clients with the same approach as a hotel operator. “It tends to look a lot like the hospitality business, where you have a high-expectation clientele and you have to provide them with really good services, not just stage management services,” Stotland says.
Sunset Studios offers transportation services, dining and catering, tech support, broadcast engineering, lighting, grip and mill space, all to set itself apart in the increasingly crowded space.
“We’re not just a white box,” says Jesse Rogg, president of Mack Sennett Studios, who is also working to elevate his stage, with the availability to help with equipment rentals and staffing. “Historically, soundstages were hired at the end of the whole preproduction process, but I’m seeing that we’re being rented earlier on because we can help support the production process in an easy way.”
And Quixote, with six studios set to open in the next year, is aiming “to provide everything that everybody needs from one company,” says senior vp studios and location rentals Cheryl Huggins, with access to trailers, grip, lighting and production supplies, on top of the stages themselves.
The soundstage landscape has been changed, in large part, by Netflix and its fellow streamers, who have opted for multiyear leases on production facilities, rather than just for a single shoot. “In the past you would get a production, you would find a set, you would shoot it, [then] you would pull out unless you have a confirmation of a second season,” Bell says. “Now Netflix can shoot in a space, pull out and put someone else in right after it,” on repeat, with Apple, HBO and other studios replicating the same model. “I’d probably say 50 percent of these things are going to end up in long-term leases; the rest of them will end up in maybe short-term or one-off shoots.”
This means that stages not getting those long-term leases are fighting for the individual productions. Huggins says Quixote is “comfortable being an alternative to the long-term leases and not locking in necessarily one company,” with an eye on the old guard of Disney, Universal and Warner Bros.
Virtual and augmented reality stages are also adding another layer to the new builds, as LED-paneled studios are “the newest twist on designing a soundstage,” says Berliner, who has constructed them for two different studios as special effects become the norm.
And that competition will just become fiercer as the wave of new soundstage development crests. Before long, “those lines will cross,” predicts Stotland. “There’s going to be too much supply, and only those with the best quality and the best locations are going to be able to maintain.”
A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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