Robinson to widen Morgan Creek flow

Morgan Creek Prods. is planning to build a major studio from the ground up in the northern San Fernando Valley, according to James Robinson, chairman and CEO of the 6-year-old independent.

The 30-acre studio would cost from $ 300 million to $ 500 million for land and construction, and would include three or four high-tech sound stages, pre-production facilities, lavish screening rooms and offices. Financing would probably come from a combination of partnerships and loans. Computerized post-production, said Robinson, would come later.

Although Robinson stressed the plan is still preliminary and that no site has been chosen, the decision puts to rest speculation that Morgan Creek might buy or merge with an existing studio. Robinson, currently basking in the glow of his sleeper hit “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” has long stated his desire to transform his indie into a major –“either through building one, buying one or merging,” he once said.

Robinson said that after inspecting virtually every facility in L.A., he decided that refurbishing an existing studio wasn’t worth it.

“No matter how much you spend, you still have outdated buildings,” he said. “I want a studio where the air conditioning actually works, and where actors can take an elevator from make-up and be right in front of the camera.”

He believes that the other reason for buying an existing studio — its library — is overrated, because most titles are already fully exploited.

As for U.S. distribution (Morgan Creek already has its own international division headed by COO Gary Barber), Robinson says that’s the last thing he’ll set up — in the meantime continuing to use Warner Bros. His ties to that studio are about to get closer: In July, Morgan Creek moves from its Century City digs into new offices on the Burbank lot.

Morgan Creek continues to expand its exhibition chain, buying and building theaters in the American Midwest and in Europe. The company will soon boast some 110 screens; one theater under construction now is a multiplex in The Hague, Netherlands, a joint venture with Warner Bros.

Meanwhile, Robinson’s quest for a production chief continues, nearly two years after firing David Nicksay. Although skeptics say Robinson simply can’t let go of the reins, Robinson insists he’s still looking for the right person. “I want a filmmaker, not a suit,” he says, adding that Nicksay is indeed a filmmaker, but one more comfortable nurturing one project at a time.

The list of studio wannabes has grown considerably since Robinson announced his intentions to expand more than a year ago. But the former Subaru distributor says the competition doesn’t faze him, insisting he won’t be drawn into high-priced talent auctions — such as the one that saw “Ace Ventura’s” Jim Carrey land $ 7 million from New Line for “Dumb and Dumber.”

After its 1991 hit “Robin Hood,” which grossed more than $ 400 million worldwide, and the following year’s “Last of the Mohicans,” for which Morgan Creek had foreign rights, the indie entered a period of box office decline. Outright flops like “White Sands” and “The Crush” were followed by disappointments like “True Romance.”

“Ace Ventura” has been the only major bright spot, grossing a phenomenal $ 67 .5 million in the U.S. Last Friday, Morgan Creek opened “Chasers,” which registered a disappointing estimate of $ 705,000 on 783 screens. Next fall comes “Imaginary Crimes,” starring Harvey Keitel.

A 30-acre Morgan Creek studio would be smaller than the existing majors’ lots: Paramount has 62 acres, Disney 45, and no one comes close to Universal’s 420, which of course includes a mall and theme park. But it would be more than twice as large (in acreage if not sound stages) as the Santa Clarita Studios, which would be a nearby competitor in the facility-rental business.

Robinson is no stranger to real estate ventures. He still owns dock operations in Long Beach, a major port of entry for Japanese autos. And although he sold his Baltimore car distribution biz, he still owns the land under it, as well as port facilities there.

Robinson, who commutes to Hollywood from his Maryland home every week, admits his studio plans can’t go forward until he finds a production exec to lighten his load. But he’s getting restless: “I’m 58 years old, and I want to do this before I die.”