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Building a legacy

Lucas opening Digital Arts Center in San Francisco

George Lucas has nurtured another passion that’s received less attention than his filmmaking: architecture.

He spent $100 million developing the Skywalker Ranch in Marin County in Northern California; he’s been hired by more than one city over the years to consult on development projects; and this summer he’ll realize a longtime dream with the opening of the Letterman Digital Arts Center in San Francisco.

The 850,000-square-foot, $300 million complex will bring four of his divisions — Lucasfilm, Industrial Light & Magic, gamemaker LucasArts Entertainment and Lucas Online — under one roof for the first time.

Giving up a years-long battle to bring all of his companies under a single roof at the Skywalker Ranch, Lucas instead took a lease on 23 acres in the Presidio, a 1,200-acre former military preserve turned national park at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge.

The site was the home of Letterman Hospital, which was named for a Civil War surgeon, not the talkshow host.

Lucasfilm holds a 60-year renewable lease, at $5.8 million a year, on the site, which has enough workspace for 2,500 employees. The building seems like a proclamation that Lucasfilm is here to stay.

Lucas doesn’t necessarily think that way, though.

“He just loves to build,” said a former Lucas staffer. “I think if he hadn’t gone into films, he would have gone into architecture or some form of building.”

Whatever the rationale, Lucasfilm prexy and chief operating officer Micheline Chau and new ILM president Chrissie England are sure to have their hands full just getting the company through the move, which one f/x industry exec called “a technological morass.”

ILM also faces rising competition, declining margins and an industrywide trend away from big effects houses.

England stepped into the shoes of much-admired Lucas Digital prexy Jim Morris, who ankled the company in November. She immediately found herself dealing with a restive labor force and an expired IATSE contract.

The union recently demonstrated outside ILM’s San Rafael HQ. Management changes, the longer commute to the Presidio and job security are issues.

ILM workers also are concerned about possible outsourcing of jobs from California to the new Lucas facility in Singapore.

Some ILM artists are considering leaving the company, though it probably was planning to downsize anyway after “Revenge of the Sith.”

Even those ILM artists who want to work in San Francisco may not be happy once they’re there. Lucasfilm has a larger plan to create synergies by moving its artists from visual effects to games to animation, as the workload demands.

The artists would get job security, and the games and animation divisions would get the benefit of ILM’s world-famous artists. The downside is that feature f/x artists often turn up their noses at working on games and animation, and may grow restless.

Whether as a result of downsizing or not, Lucasfilm is planning to sublease parts of the Letterman center. Space for 1,000 is reported to be available for sublet (at a tidy profit for Lucasfilm).

Some even wonder if the Letterman Center will end up not as a production center but as the home of a fully endowed film school, a Lucas School of Digital Arts.

That way Lucas could build a legacy, too.

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