Studio amenities key as biz worries about runaway shoots

Paramount brass, press and selected pros will gather tonight to toast the official opening of a state-of-the-art sound facility in the heart of the Melrose Avenue lot. The celebration will be low-key, since much of the facility has been operating for several months while construction was completed. But the lack of fanfare doesn’t diminish the importance of the addition to Par’s long-term business plan.

With the majors making fewer movies and production fleeing to places with enticing tax incentives, studios are competing to attract production and tenants to their lots. High-end post facilities, whether operated directly by the studio or with a tech partner, have become an important selling point — one that Par realized it could no longer live without.

“Our stages have been very full for the last number of years, but (the new facility) also allows us to attract all of the pieces of the productions,” Randy Baumberger, president of the Paramount Studio Group, told Variety. “On a major production, whether it’s a feature or a major network show, you want to be able to make sure you have an offering that allows you to attract all of those pieces of the production and keep them within the facility. We get a much better return on our lot that way.”

The majors are working harder to make their lots pay nowadays, and all but Disney are looking to their post businesses to add to the bottom line.

Universal, which has a thriving third-party post business, recently opened a digital intermediate farun as a joint venture with Deluxe’s eFilm. The Sony lot has Imageworks for visual effects and animation, Colorworks for digital intermediate and a thriving sound department. Warner has a busy sound business, and Warner Motion Picture Imaging does digital intermediate, editorial and high-end film restoration. Fox, too, has a highly regarded sound department. (Disney recently converted its dubbing stage to a theater, and its top sound pros have left for other studios.)

Par had lacked a first-class post sound facility, which had become a liability as the studio tried to fill its stages. By collaborating with Technicolor to upgrade its sound facility — and luring topnotch sound pros to staff it — Paramount has upgraded its pitch at the same time.

A studio lot represents a massive investment in commercial real estate (Par’s is 65 acres, with almost 30 soundstages). Studio brass are trying to keep occupancy high at a time when production and studio deals are down, the economy is still cool and competition from Louisiana, Canada and other production centers is red hot.

“People are looking for value,” said Kim Waugh, Warner Bros.’ senior VP of post-production services. Waugh said Warner offers productions a bundle of services, including grips, scenic, lighting and more, all the way through post sound.

Last fall Par announced “the Hollywood Project,” a $700 million plan to expand and upgrade the lot, championed by chairman-CEO Brad Grey (Daily Variety, Sept. 20). The goal is to make the lot “a magnet for creative talent,” Baumberger said. “The growth of this lot is going to be through third-party clients being attracted to come to the lot for everything from the offices to the stages to the restaurants, the fitness center, all the amenities.”

Amenities and convenience are especially important for TV. The team on a long-running TV show, said Baumberger, “virtually live here on the lot, so you want to create atmosphere.”

Waugh agreed, saying for TV productions, the lot is “their new second home.” Warner is posting 30 TV shows a week, and 34 of its 36 stages are booked with TV. A long-running series keeps space occupied and revenue flowing for years.

“It’s convenience with a high level of creativity and a cost structure that makes sense within their production,” Waugh said.

Baumberger said Par’s improvements won’t end when the current plan is complete in about 25 years. “It’s kind of like painting the Golden Gate Bridge,” he said. “You start on one side and by the time you’re done, you’re painting the other side again.”

That commitment to maintenance and upgrades represents a big change from the previous Par regime, which was notoriously lax about infrastructure investment. As long as CBS did its TV post on the Par lot, that wasn’t a drag on the bottom line. Once the Eye departed, though, Par found itself with empty post rooms, many of them behind the times. Competition from other studio lots, independent facilities and other territories made upgrades urgent.

Par found an eager partner for the sound facility in Technicolor. The longtime lab giant has been diversifying its own offerings as it eyes the end of film and its own transition to digital services. It had no theatrical sound department, and its TV sound operations were scattered to several sites.

“We were looking at different options, and when (the Paramount) opportunity happened, it was a great option for us, to extend our relationship with Paramount and consolidate our sound operation,” said Claude Gagnon, prexy of Technicolor Creative Services. “Getting into the sound editorial and mixing business was a great win.”

Par’s Hollywood Project includes plans for a “post-production village” of some 400,000 square feet, which would include the new 90,000-square-foot sound facility.

The Technicolor/Paramount facility has two large dubbing theaters, two medium dubbing stages and four television dubbing stages. The facility is linked with Technicolor’s Sunset & Gower HQ by a fiber-optic backbone, so directors working on a mix at Par can collaborate with colorists working at Technicolor without having to shuttle back and forth.

But the building is only half the battle; it’s talent that lures shows. Directors and producers “ask who’s available and what stage they’re available on,” Waugh said. “For feature films, they all want to be on the biggest stage with the best talent.”

The new Technicolor/Paramount facility has staffed up with some big names, luring mixers Greg P. Russell and Anna Behlmer from Sony and Fox, respectively, and four-time Oscar-winning mixer Scott Millan.

Baumberger hopes the new offerings will even help cut down on runaway production. “A show like Fox’s ‘Glee,’ which films here on our lot, has not only the Fox lot (but) all these lots (and) New York to choose from.” He acknowledges the pull of tax incentives, but said, “The more (we can) increase the assets of this lot, the better chance we not only have to keep that in L.A. but also bring it to our studio.”

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