Top Production Execs Talk About How Netflix Fuels Race for Studio Space

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Netflix has purchased ABQ Studios in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

During the panel with The Hollywood Reporter editorial director Matthew Belloni, representatives from Marvel, Netflix, Paramount and CBS also opened up about sticking to budgets, assembling inclusive crews and Robert Downey Jr.'s on-set injury.

A collection of Hollywood's top producers, distributors, film commissioners and other industry pros gathered Thursday morning for a brunch honoring the town's top physical production executives.

More than 150 senior film and television execs from the major studios and streamers turned up at The London in West Hollywood for the second annual event — a joint effort between The Hollywood Reporter and the Association of Film Commissioners International (AFCI), a group made up of more than 300 commissioners worldwide. The brunch served as the first of seven events held during AFCI Week, a multi-day networking event put on by the organization that is currently underway. 

After the production insiders chatted over eggs Benedict, fresh fruit and coffee, THR editorial director Matthew Belloni took the stage to moderate a 45-minute panel with four of the production execs on hand: Marvel Studios' Victoria Alonso, CBS TV Studios' Kevin Berg, Paramount TV's Debra Bergman and Netflix's Patricia Whitcher.

The conversation touched on a wide-range of topics, including the growing concerns of on-set safety, the effort to diversify crewmembers and, of course, the limited studio space that has resulted from the unprecedented number of productions filming today. With a Netflix executive on the panel, the discussion naturally turned toward the streaming giant's rapidly growing originals output.

"Netflix created a space race — meaning they're racing to get all the space," said Berg, drawing laughs from the audience. The streamer has, in fact, scooped up so many of the go-to soundstages that CBS TV Studios is building its own 260,000-square-foot studio in Toronto. Several production outfits are now entering into long-term deals with facilities and even converting old warehouses into soundstages. Added Alonso, "We're all feeling the impact of our friends at Netflix."

When asked how many projects the streamer currently has in production, Whitcher couldn't even name a number. "More than I can count," she admitted. The exec, who joined Netflix last year after a stint at Marvel, works on the streamer's original movies, where she takes a more hands-off approach. "With this volume we're making, we can't micro-manage every single production, so we really impress upon the producers and filmmakers out there to make the best decisions that they can," she said, while adding, "But freedom and responsibility doesn’t mean an open bank account. We all have budgets and we expect we're all grown-ups and will work to that end."

The discussion then turned to the importance of assembling a diverse group of crewmembers. "It’s all about taking a pause in the hiring process, instead of the usual suspects," said Bergman. "What we always hear when we're looking for a gender hire or a person of color hire is, 'We can't find anyone.'" For example, that there's only one female construction coordinator who works in film and TV. "She can't do all the shows," Bergman said, adding that it's important for studios to band together to create lists of potential inclusive hires. It would also help, she noted, if the guilds could start providing more information: "A lot of these unions are just old school and don't have the information on peoples' race and gender."

"I don't want to say anything nice about Netflix," Berg joked, "but one thing they have done is actually opened doors, because there is so much opportunity now." The sheer volume of productions has, of course, forced production outfits to hire more crew members — which can be a valuable pipeline for new talent. To that end, Bergman shared that Time's Up — in partnership with several physical production heads — is creating three 30-second PSA spots that will air in theaters ahead of all the summer blockbusters that encourage women to get into below-the-line jobs. Exhibition giant AMC is on board, giving away the coveted half-a-minute slot for free.

When it comes to film incentives, the execs onstage agreed that they are crucial in determining a production's location — but not the only factor. For Whitcher, being able to tell the story authentically is key. "It's hard to tell a Rust Belt story here in L.A.," she said. Bergman, for her part, noted that the sweet spot is having the esthetic, the infrastructure, the crew base and the stages: "If we can get that all in today's day and age, we're super lucky." Though she has, on occasion, had to take a show to New York or Los Angeles because of a star's demand, even if it didn't make sense financially: "That's just the world we're in, and sometimes in television it's a big enough showrunner that could dictate that."

Another significant change in recent years has been the prioritization of on-set safety. Noting that there's "absolutely" been a shift in the industry on the issue, Berg pointed out that assistant directors have been become much more aware of safety concerns. "The ADs really are taking the lead on it because they're now empowered to take the lead on that," he said. "I get more AD calls than I've ever gotten. They know that they're on the line for it now more than ever and that there's actual ramifications if things go wrong."

Alonso, who has worked on all the Avengers movies, said often turns to CGI in potentially dangerous situations. "Sometimes actors want to do it because it's something they haven't done and it's like playing with a new toy," she explained. "But we're in charge of saying, 'That's not a good idea.'" Asked whether big Marvel stars like Robert Downey Jr. take that news well, Whitcher joked, "After he broke his foot in Iron Man 3, he's been really good."