Don't call 'em hangars: Soundstages elevate battle for major productions


On both coasts, huge projects are taking shape, one in Wilmington, N.C., the other in Long Beach, Calif., proving that the battleground in luring production is moving beyond the incentive one-upmanship and into the who-has-the-bigger-soundstage phase.

Last week saw the groundbreaking on Dream Stage 10 at Wilmington's EUE/Screen Gems Studios. Politicians including North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley and about 200 guests gathered at Stage 3 for the symbolic silver shovel gesture as the studio began an expansion that its owners hope will take it, and the state, to the next level in terms of filmed entertainment.

The 50-acre EUE/Screen Gems was built in the 1980s by Dino De Laurentiis, taken over by Carolco and then passed to its current owners in 1996. The new stage will be 37,500 square feet and 45 feet high with dimensions of 150 feet by 250 feet. It also will be home to a massive indoor water tank that's 101/2 feet deep, measures 60 feet by 60 feet and holds 283,000 gallons. The studio boasts that it will be the largest and deepest indoor water tank in North America.

"What we were missing was that enormous stage to capture the big films with the big ideas," EUE/Screen Gems president Chris Cooney says, "the '300s' or the 'Iron Mans' that you need a big footprint to do that in."

The feeling is that the studio will attract the big productions to complement the midlevel ones like the recent "Nights in Rodanthe" or such TV series as "Little Britain USA" or the CW's aging "One Tree Hill," which helped bring in more than $160 million in production revenue last year.

The film commission, led by Aaron Syrett, hopes the stage buttresses its 15% film incentive plan, which almost seems quaint in these 40%-plus days.

The eye is on the big prize. As Cooney says, "These big productions are not going away."

On this coast, actor Jack O'Halloran (best known for playing Kryptonian Non in "Superman II") and Jay Samit, a former executive at Sony and EMI, have partnered with real estate developer Michael Adler to purchase the former Boeing 717 factory in Long Beach in order to create Long Beach Studios, a 78-acre facility with a space the size of 17 football fields under one roof. The cost: $500 million.

O'Halloran discovered the facility, and the trio saw an opportunity for growth in an area that had been all but ceded by the big studios and other companies, which are selling off land or, like Universal, trying to turn part of its backlot into condos. Just don't call this a hangar.

"This is not another 'convert a hangar' project," says a bristling Samit. "A hangar is flimsy shell that cannot support any weight from its ceiling. And supporting weight is a key function of a soundstage. This is a factory, a plant, a building built during the Cold War to build planes that was built out of all steel so that the Commies couldn't stop us from making planes."

The company is planning 40 stages, a private five-star hotel, bungalows for talent and crew, the largest water tank in California (everybody loves water tanks!) and an indoor New York street. It'll also be green, with a million square feet of solar panels, and wired up the wazoo.

The largest Long Beach stage will be 200,000 square feet. And because it was an airplane factory, it comes with a 30-ton crane, perfect for those shots that call for a Sherman tank to fly through the air.

"No one has built a modern studio in this town," Samit says. "Every studio has evolved, by adding this or by adding that, since the 1930s. We're asking ourselves, 'If you have the luxury of planning in advance, what would you do?' "

However, productions are leaving the state not because of lack of space but because of the economics: California's budgetary mess leaves no room for film incentives. Building this complex in these harsh economic times would seem risky, but the trio have a card up their sleeve that they are not quite ready to show but involves working with the city of Long Beach.

"We are in an enterprise zone," Samit says. "There will be tremendous tax advantages for working on our lot, and … we will be competitive with other states that have rebates."

"A friendly skirmish" is how North Carolina's Syrett describes the brewing battle of the soundstages, but the fact that companies on both coasts are ready to spend hundreds of millions to take on existing facilities in such states as New Mexico and Louisiana, as well as the one already in California, means the real battles are ahead.

Borys Kit can be reached at