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‘Burbs blossom on H’w’d backlots

Studios raise roofs to keep pix in town

When Revolution’s Joe Roth was scouting for the perfect neighborhood to shoot his holiday comedy “Christmas With the Kranks,” he did what many directors have wanted to do — especially those who double as studio presidents: He decided to build his own.

Nearly 13 weeks later, Roth began filming at Downey Studio on a brand-new tree-lined residential street with 17 houses of various architectural styles, pine trees and fake snow, doubling for a quiet suburb outside Chicago.

In an age of cost-cutting, Hollywood is in the midst of a ‘burb boom, spending millions to build backlot neighborhoods — a vote of confidence in on-the-lot lensing, which defies the conventional wisdom that CGI or Canadian lensing are the solutions to location filming.

In recent years, Hollywood’s majors have either torn down their outdoor sets or sold off the backlot altogether. So the recent construction mania seems a retro move that indicates studios believe in filming on Hollywood’s lots again.

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The majors insist that these big outlays are smart investments. While some questioned the wisdom of building a $5 million set, Revolution insists the site will generate income.

As part of a deal to build the neighborhood, Revolution will split revenues generated from the rental of the set for the next two years with Downey Studio.

But Roth’s not the only one recreating surburbia. Consider:

  • Warner Bros. leveled its Old West-themed Laramie Street to create Warner Village, an 11-house suburban street with a breezy New England aesthetic whose two-story dwellings, some with front porches and white picket fences, double as high-end production offices.

  • In 2002, Universal Studios replaced its Industrial Street with Elm Street, which has six Craftsman- and Tudor-style houses that mimic those in Pasadena. The street was initially built for “The Hulk,” but since then, “Garfield: The Movie” and the TV shows “Monk,” “Boomtown” and “Crossing Jordan” have filmed there.

U recently went one step further for the new Will Ferrell soccer comedy “Kicking and Screaming.” The studio built an elaborate sports complex called Freeway Park on five acres, complete with a full-size soccer field, baseball diamond, bleachers and concessions stand.

Facades aren’t new for an industry that makes money from make-believe. The new housing developments, however, are a considerable departure from the traditional wooden walls with nothing behind them.

Four of the two-story houses in Revolution’s new neighborhood also include fully functioning rooms, complete with fireplaces and built-in bookshelves, that enabled filmmakers to shoot interiors on site without having to build sets on soundstages.

At Universal, the interiors of four houses on Elm Street can be used for filming; they’re framed with steel beams to eliminate interior columns, allowing filmmakers to design their own rooms, as needed.

Hollywood’s new-housing boom is part of an effort to create more residential sets, cut production costs and eliminate the headaches that go along with shooting at real locations, such as pesky permits, unruly weather, relocating people from their homes, or complaints from locals over parking and noise.

At Downey Studio, nobody was bothered when “Kranks” spent four weeks shooting at night. Traffic didn’t need to be controlled. And trucks, trailers and equipment could be parked on site.

“Shooting in a practical neighborhood would have been unpractical for this movie,” says “Kranks” producer Charles Newirth. “We needed to be in a neighborhood for a long period of time. It made more economic sense for us to build it.”

But Hollywood’s new homes don’t come cheap.

Warner Bros. found itself in the costly construction business when it decided to build Warner Village, which involved building the street it sits on and adding the infrastructure like utilities, power, air conditioning and telecommunications for the offices inside the homes.

The studio won’t disclose how much it spent on the development, which took 10 months to build. But Revolution’s neighborhood in Downey, which doesn’t even include fully functioning houses, cost $5 million, so WB’s outlay must be considerable. WB didn’t really have a choice.

Filmmakers had been requesting another residential street, rather than a new New York or urban setting. The studio’s residential streets were already being used during much of the television production season by the WB’s “Gilmore Girls,” forcing other shows to go elsewhere.

Warner Bros. had other problems. Things were getting cramped for its producers on the lot, with high-end office space hard to come by.

And Laramie Street wasn’t being used. There were just 10 days of production in three years at the former home of John Wayne’s “The Cowboys” and Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles.”

“We’re a working studio,” says Jeff Nagler, executive veep of studio services and administration at Warner Bros. Studio Facilities. “We needed to find a better way to use that space.”

Warner Village’s houses now provide 42,000 square feet of office space, with the largest of the houses encompassing 5,000 square feet. In addition to offices, all of the houses include writer’s rooms, kitchenettes and bathrooms, as well as rear entrances that can be used when filming is taking place on the street.

Hollywood’s new neighborhoods may be the first real significant additions to studio backlots in years, but the building boom is not over yet.

WB has plans to add another Warner Village-like residential street, with houses that double as offices, at its 40-acre ranch facility in Burbank in the next two years.

Downey Studio — a former NASA facility 24 miles south of Los Angeles — also has been approached to build other suburban streets, as well as a New York street, on its expansive 15-acre lot in the middle of an industrial park, where the pics “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events,” “Spider-Man,” “Van Helsing” and “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” shot.

DreamWorks spent tens of millions to build a massive three-story airport terminal for Steven Spielberg’s “The Terminal,” with 35 retail stores, escalators and a working food court. Last year, Universal and Imagine constructed a whimsical suburban set outside Los Angeles for “The Cat in the Hat.” And WB built miles of freeway for “The Matrix Reloaded” outside San Francisco.

But whereas those expensive sets were torn down after the films wrapped, Hollywood’s newest production-friendly neighborhoods will remain standing and be available to rent.

They couldn’t come at a better time.

Since Sept. 11, more films and TV shows have been set in the suburbs, forcing producers to go house hunting. Even if the few suburban houses on backlots were available, many producers consider them to be too old, too small or too familiar. That left them having to deal with the Hollywood-savvy residents of Hancock Park or Beverly Hills, if they wanted to shoot locally.

“The familiarity with filmmaking has existed here for decades,” says producer Newirth. “Whenever a community has had exposure to film companies, they realize that there’s compensation that they get for having their lives are inconvenienced. If you have to be in a given place for a long period of time, it becomes more of an inconvenience.

“Ultimately we felt that it could be something that would be good for the Hollywood filmmaking community. There’s now a place where people can go uninterrupted and do what they want. You can have complete control over an all American neighborhood.”

Tim Allen, Jamie Lee Curtis and the rest of the “Christmas With the Kranks” cast have moved out of their Downey homes, but other productions, including commercials and musicvids, are eyeing the property.

The first residents, including “Ocean’s 12,” and the TV shows “Gilmore Girls,” “Joey,” “Cold Case” and “Commando Nanny,” moved into Warner Village’s production offices weeks ago. But the street itself won’t be available for filming for another several months.

“We wanted to let people move in and get settled before we start letting people shoot on the street,” Nagler says.

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