L.A. outlook sound

Local soundstages fill up, but locations suffer

Adding to the controversy over the effects of runaway production, a new survey finds that soundstage occupancy in Hollywood for the month of July averaged a healthy 94%, much of it the result of a booming television industry.

While a good deal of low-budget TV and feature work is being lensed abroad, the PriceWaterhouseCoopers survey shows that stages owned by content producers in the Los Angeles area appear to be booked to capacity, regardless of size. The figures hold true in spite of seasonal fluctuations in TV production, says the report.

Although smaller, independently owned stages, or those under about 7,000 square feet, show the greatest booking weakness, they are still being used at rates consistent with the season, the survey says.

However, figures for off-lot location shooting in Los Angeles County in July were down 16.8% when compared with the same month last year, according to the Entertainment Industry Development Corp., a local government agency that issues permits for filming in the area. June was off 13.8%.

July’s location figures mean that, for the year so far, off-lot filming is down 8.3% from last year.

The disparate numbers illustrate the extent to which the industry in Hollywood is beset by uncertainty and contradictory signals even as, paradoxically, audiences are firing up a summer box-office boom.

PriceWaterhouseCoopers undertook the survey because its accountants were hearing ominous reports from industry clients about the consequences of production flight to Canada and elsewhere, according to the firm’s Bennett McClellan. He and his colleagues also questioned the accuracy of a June 22 story in the New York Times to the effect that “soundstages are sitting empty across Los Angeles.”

“That doesn’t match our perception,” McClellan said. “We’re finding that they’re not empty at all.”

The survey looked into July occupancy of 289 soundstages covering 3.7 million square feet. That’s about 80% of the 330 soundstages in Los Angeles, a total of 4.1 million square feet.

Some stage operators, such as Sunset Gower Studios, chose not to cooperate with the survey. Also not included is the new Los Angeles Center Studios lot in downtown L.A. and a number of spaces, mostly warehouses and aircraft hangars, that are often used for indoor filming, but which do not qualify as professional stages.

The survey includes 27 new soundstages equaling 400,000 square feet of space that have opened in the last two years, including the Raleigh Studios operation in Manhattan Beach and various stages on majors’ lots.

“Because there is an abundance of new stage space available for use, we may have expected them to be relatively vacant,” the report says. “Our data proves the opposite; new, larger stages are used most often.”

According to the accounting firm, the 60 largest stages surveyed — those 18,000 square feet or larger — had a usage rate last month of 98%. The smallest stages — measuring about 8,000 square feet or less — were occupied 83% of the time in July.

When broken down into the category of stages owned by major distributors or broadcast networks, the survey shows that stages in the range of 8,000 to 18,000 square feet and up were occupied without interruption for the whole month.

Almost invariably, the health of the soundstage biz is due to TV production, while the number of features remains stagnant or is falling at most studios and production houses.

“What you see going up are TV primetime programming hours,” McClellan said. “Between 1993 and ’96, there were 154 new cable-channel launches. Not all of them survive, but cable has continued to launch new channels. And they want original programming.”

In addition, McClellan said, the growth of broadcast and satellite options overseas means the demand for programming continues to rise.

“Movies are not necessarily increasing,” McClellan said, “but everything in electronics is, so that’s taking up the extra soundstage space.”

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