Los Angeles’ New Tech Scene Flourishes Downtown

Portal A offices photographed by Damon
Damon Casarez for Variety

Last fall, Portal A decided it needed to move. The digital content studio, best known for creating the annual YouTube Rewind video, had been in its first floor offices in the Los Angeles Times Building for a little more than a year, but it was already at capacity. On any given day, the 20 full-time employees who worked in the San Francisco-based company’s L.A. outpost could be joined by a dozen or more writers, directors, digital influencers, and other production freelancers, and those numbers were only going to be growing.

Fortunately, the company found a second floor space just three blocks away, at the 600 Wilshire building with double the square footage (4,000 vs. 2,000), tech company-friendly offices (high ceilings, polished concrete floors, etc.), and amenities including a gym and a game lounge.

Digital-media hubs have sprouted up all over Los Angeles in recent years in areas such as Venice, Playa Vista, and Culver City. But now the city’s downtown is also becoming a hot spot for a growing number of tech-minded firms.

“It feels like you’re in a real city, not in a Hollywood or Silicon Beach bubble,” says Portal A co-founder and managing partner Zach Blume. “You look out of the windows and it’s like you’re watching a scene from ‘Chinatown’ or some other movie like that. There’s such a hubbub of activity. It just feels vibrant and thriving, which is not something you could say about L.A. downtown 10 years ago.”

All Def Digital CEO Sanjay Sharma (right) leads a meeting in the conference room; the corner-office studio of All Def Digital artist-in-residence, Blue the Great.
Damon Casares for Variety

For decades, downtown Los Angeles was in a state of decline. While major corporations did business in its skyscrapers during the day, when the sun went down, it became a veritable ghost town. That began to change with the opening of the Staples Center, in 1999, and L.A. Live, in 2009, along with the expansion of the L.A. Metro Rail system, which has made it easier for people in outlying areas to access the businesses that have surfaced since.

“With the new tenants moving into the market, you’re seeing rental rates as high as almost $5 a square foot,” says Andrew Tashjian, managing director of real-estate-services firm Cushman & Wakefield, who brokers the leases for 600 Wilshire and other downtown properties. “But in West L.A., you’ll see rates still much higher — almost $7 a foot in areas like Santa Monica and beach-adjacent cities.”

In June 2016, when All Def Digital relocated from Culver City to its current home a block away from the Staples Center, better economics were a big part of the draw. But the move also had deeper significance.

Collab employees enjoy a multiplayer-videogame break in a living-room space adjacent to their work area.
Damon Casares for Variety

“It’s core to the company’s mission to be representative of urban hip-hop culture, and it feels a little funny to say that’s your brand and your mission and you’re in Santa Monica,” says Sanjay Sharma, All Def Digital CEO.

In addition to administrative offices, All Def’s two-floor suite boasts 20 editing stations and several soundstages, including one with an infinity green screen. It shoots twice-daily Facebook Live broadcasts in the common areas, from standup shows in the middle of the office to comedy roasts in the break room. The walls are adorned with murals by artist-in-residence Blue the Great, along with rows of platinum records earned by the company’s co-founder, hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons.

“The idea is to create an incubator and a creative engine that cross-pollinates across video, music, comedy, and visual arts,” says Sharma.

Elsewhere, at the 600 Wilshire building, to help facilitate teamwork at Evite’s new offices on the fourth floor, the digital invitation company used a tech-firm-trendy open floor plan, with no private offices — not even for CEO Victor Cho.

“It absolutely enhances collaboration,” says Cho. “You’re much more likely to see somebody and think, ‘Oh, I should go chat with them.’”

Cho also enhanced employee involvement in the new space by establishing a culture committee, which voted to name its conference room, editing bays, and other creative spaces after various local venues (the Wiltern, the Greek, the Palladium, etc.).

At the offices of the digital talent network and entertainment studio Collab, in the SoLA neighborhood, one of the perks for employees and visitors is a VR room outfitted with HTC Vive and Oculus Rift systems.

“We’re experimenting with 360 video, so it’s important for us to have the latest in VR technology and also provide a fun experience for our guests and clients and creators when they come visit the office,” says Tyler McFadden, who founded Collab with his brother and co-CEO James McFadden. “We do photo shoots for them here, acting and improv classes, and we also throw parties here every once in awhile.”

When Collab first moved into the building in 2006, it had a single office with 2,500 square feet. Today, it occupies approximately 20,000 square feet on two floors. The surrounding area has retained a grittier edge than other downtown neighborhoods, but that’s likely to change with the completion of the $1 billion multi-use SoLA Village development down the street.

In the meantime, more digital companies are moving downtown, from the website HelloGiggles, which recently set up shop in the penthouse of 600 Wilshire, to Latino digital media network Mitu, which is scheduled relocate to the area in mid-2017.

“The market is going nowhere but up,” says Tashjian.

Collab publicist Tiffany Au tries out the HTC Vive in the company’s VR room; a set for an All Def Digital production.
Damon Casares for Variety
Collab’s claims team doing rights-management work for its network of creators.
Damon Casares for Variety
Portal A holds a round-robin table tennis tournament in its office every Friday.
Damon Casares for Variety

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  1. Sarah W says:

    You guys really need to cover Stage 32. What they’re doing for people in the industry is game changing. Their support of diversity and empowering female voices is also progressive.

  2. Frank says:

    That shot of shiny happy millennial tech drones-cum-hipsters playing ping-pong on a casual Friday makes me want to hurl.

  3. Esteban Sanche says:

    I would call label of those companies as “tech” companies, but media companies. The are closer to your typical Hollywood studio than they are to Google/Microsoft. There still are no software development centric companies of note in DTLA.

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