Universal Studios unveils rebuilt N.Y. backlot

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger speaks at Universal unveiling. (Getty)

13-city-block area rebuilt for $200 million after 2008 inferno

As Universal Studios unveiled its rebuilt New York Street backlot Thursday, testimonials were offered to the firefighters who extinguished the 2008 inferno that razed the place and to the location's role in lighting up the local economy.

"This is great for job creation," California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said. "It's about jobs, jobs, jobs."

Schwarzenegger stood on a stage on a corner of New York Street along with Steven Spielberg, Universal Studios president Ron Meyer, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and other city and studio officials as they unveiled the 13-city-block area that was rebuilt for $200 million.

Much of the four-acre location was destroyed in the accidental blaze that also burned down the King Kong theme park attraction and a video vault.

Spielberg, whose DreamWorks is located on the lot, was a key figure in the refurbishment, enlisting one of his longtime production designers, Rick Carter, and art director Beala Neel. Other members of the team included Jim Watters, president and GM of NBC Universal Operations Group, and Dave Beanes, senior vp of NBC Universal Production Services.

Less than two weeks after the fire, the team had developed a scale model and received the go-ahead from NBC Universal president and CEO Jeff Zucker.

The rebuild was dubbed the Phoenix Project and offered a rare opportunity to mold a backlot to modern specifications. Key objectives were to make things cheaper for producers and give them more control in filmmaking.

Facades were given more detail, and their heights were increased from 10 to 25 feet, giving them more of a city feel and masking the surrounding hills. Streets were narrowed so both sides could be captured by cameras in one shot. Roofs were made practical for shoots, and manholes and chimneys were outfitted for special effects steam and smoke. Hidden outlets were installed for functions ranging from charging batteries to powering dollies.

Practical interiors also were created, making it possible to shoot inside looking out or vice versa.

"That is huge cost savings to a producer," Neel said. "They won't have to rent stages."

Many new buildings were added. One such structure was built in an Art Deco style; "People always wanted one, but it was too expensive," Neel said. Six 21st century glass-and-steel buildings are a work in progress, with one completed and the others projected to be ready next month.

Even the fabled courthouse in Courthouse Square, memorably seen in "Back to the Future," and a row of nearby buildings that weren't destroyed were rebuilt. "They were like a cake left outside on a sunny Sunday afternoon," Neel said, explaining why those structures needed a makeover.

The new backlot comes with plenty of fire protection, with firewalls made out of two layers of Sheetrock. There are sprinklers in the rooms, and wood has been coated with fire retardant.

The studio brought in Peter Jackson, who directed the 2005 version of "King Kong," to create the revamped ape attraction, which will open next month.

"We're proud to have the largest working studio in the world," said Meyer, who later said that Universal will donate $100,000 over five years to the county and city fire departments.
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