To counter rising costs and grass-is-greener mentality, studios spruce up their back lots

As runaway production takes its toll on Hollywood, studio back lots have become more important than ever — attracting productions, earning revenue and sometimes being used as a marketing tool.

The heads of three major back lots in Los Angeles are well aware of this and have made changes or upgrades to suit their customers. From building sets, to installing wireless services, to just creating a great atmosphere to work in, these studios have the customer always in mind — because that customer might want to shoot in Canada.

For David Beanes, senior VP of production services at NBC Universal, there is not only the studio but the immense theme park to be considered when coordinating business with events on the back lot.

Beanes is responsible for 30 back lot location zones, the production service department, managing the Universal Studios lot, the production lot and the NBC Burbank lot. That responsibility also entails the lighting department, grip equipment, construction, stock units, costume department, property, the sign and graphics department and special effects.

“I am also responsible for 100 staff, which includes a staff of six production service representatives; they are the liaison for any production that comes on the lot,” says Beanes. “When a production makes the call to a representative, that person makes sure that any needs are taken care of.”

As far as non-NBC Universal productions go, a large part of the back lot’s business has to do with third-party business, such as musicvideos, commercials and independent features.

“Unlike other studios that have a similar back lot — but not as big as ours — we have the ability to draw in more business because of the space we have. And we can handle a project from beginning to end; once they capture their project on film we can accommodate them on post-production too,” adds Beanes.

“We are constantly upgrading and changing the look of the back lot. For example, for the court house square, the one that was in ‘Back to the Future,’ one production wanted to make it into more of a government type of building without the clock tower; it looked great and it actually helped us to rent out the street more, because the clock tower used to remind people so much of ‘Back to the Future.’ “

Another upgrade is a new wireless service that will be implemented in all the soundstages so that clients can have laptops and computer access; half of the soundstages are wired with a T1 connection.

Jeanne Cordova, vice president of marketing, publicity & special events for NBC Universal Media Works, adds that the company is involved with all of the different entertainment industry communities.

“We try very hard to send a positive consistent message to the entertainment community that we support them,” says Cordova.

Organizing departments and simplifying procedures were the foremost thoughts on Charles Armstrong’s mind when he came to Paramount Studios as the president of the studio group. An outsider to the industry when he started at Par five years ago, he was brought into a company that had many departments “operating individually of each other and not aligning with the customer’s needs.”

“Things were reorganized and realigned so that we could serve the customer in a more simplified manner. At one point in time, technical operations might have reported to three different departments and a person might have tried to figure it all out on their own when they came here,” says Armstrong.

“Now we try to generate a one-phone-call system here. We as a studio group have tried to create an organization that tries to anticipate a production’s needs before they have to ask. “

Armstrong also notes that Paramount Studios doesn’t differentiate between Paramount and non-Paramount productions. Several years ago, only Paramount productions would shoot at Par; since the reorganization, the goal is to provide an environment that will support all productions.

And upgrades have followed Last year, a new production building was completely redesigned, while other improvements include upgraded edit rooms; projection screening booths for datastreaming and digital cinema; new nonlinear high-def editorial services, new MTI software for cleaning up images and expanded HD fulfillment services.

“It ties into the philosophy of showing productions that we are friendly and cost-effective. Also, we have 60 different locations on site that you can shoot, so we try to make people aware of that,” says Armstrong.

There is also a new piece added to the back lot called “Chicago Street,” which has 15 fresh facades.”We understand productions are operating under tight budgets and we want them to be successful” says Armstrong.

Jon Gilbert, president of Warner Bros. studio facilities, is no less concerned with productions being happy with the back lot there.

“We do a lot of business with DreamWorks and Disney because they don’t have back lots.”

Chris Columbus filmed Sony’s “Rent” at “Hennessey Street,” which has the look of a New York tenement street (not to be confused with the back lot’s “New York” street).

TV productions are also key.

“There has really been a focus on back lots; people say, ‘how can we do that on the back lot?,’ ” says Gilbert. “For instance, ‘ER’ is shot here on the lot, they have the hospital emergency building, they shoot all the exteriors and they have an elevated train track, as well as snow.

“Television productions are shooting more on back lots because it’s economical and they aren’t shooting as much on location,” says Gilbert.

One of the back lot’s biggest upgrades is the “Warner Village,” a big project of 11 houses built to look like New England two-story houses. But the most unusual thing about the Warner Village is that people are actually working in them; while scenes are being filmed from the front, staff inside can slip out the back without disturbing any filming.

“I think people in this town want back lot locations that are not easily recognized as back lot locations. They also don’t want to worry about traffic and police. And television shows are budgeted for only so much on location shoots. The more you can do that on the lot, the more you can get the production value down.”

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