With Comcast taking control of NBCUniversal, a harsher spotlight is now likely to be thrown on Universal Studios and its contributions to the bottom line of the entire media conglom.
One of the brighter spots on U’s balance sheet is Universal Studios Operations — a separate entity from Universal Pictures — which has become one of the more profitable units in the NBCU family.
Consisting of approximately 200 editing suites and 52 sound-editing suites, the unit not only services Universal Pictures but also others who pay to use its facilities.
“About half our business is through third parties,” says Chris Jenkins, senior VP of sound services at Universal. “We are constantly renting out space and time, like a hotel, which can get a little chaotic, but in this business, chaos is a friend.”
While other studios such as Warner Bros. and Sony also offer production and post facilities to third parties, including competing studios, projects such as “Watchmen” (Warner Bros.), “The Book of Eli” (also Warners), “Biutiful” (Roadside Attractions), Fox skein “House” and the ABC series “Happy Endings” have used the U lot.
Universal Studios Operations promotes the convenience of one-stop service — including editing, digital intermediate, even some vfx — as a major selling point.
Many are drawn to the marriage of that convenience with a veteran staff. “I’ve been a client for years now, and the talent is what constantly draws me back here,” says Steve Mesner, associate producer on ABC skein “Happy Endings.” “From the ADR folks to the recordist to the mixers, the people are top-of-the-line. I really can’t say how much easier it makes a job like mine.”
Ironically, an incident of destruction was the catalyst that spurred Universal to beef up its inhouse facilities. In June 2008, a three-alarm fire destroyed part of the studio’s backlot and a vault housing video duplicates of many of the studio’s films. Even though the fire did little damage to the studio’s post facilities, it helped put U in a rebuilding frame of mind.
Among the projects constructed in the fire’s aftermath was the Universal Virtual Stage 1 facility, a virtual-production environment with motion-capture, camera tracking and several related technologies.
“We see the virtual stage as a bridge to that internal vfx department we have been trying to develop for years,” Jenkins says.
The facility contains a green-screen stage, two editing bays and a conference room. It can be used for multiple types of projects, including TV, film, commercials and musicvideos.Universal also has teamed with Efilm, the digital intermediate subsidiary of Deluxe, to build a DI suite on the lot.
The suite is located within Universal’s sound department and allows filmmakers to finish picture coloring while supervising other aspects of post-production, including sound mixing.
“This suite is the new playbox for post-production,” Jenkins says. “It used to be that color timing was all done in a lab with chemicals, but now it’s all done on computer. It saves time and money — and provides instant gratification, because once they are done here they can just walk over to the next department and get started on that next phase of post.”
Universal’s third-party services are not limited to its lot. “House” shoots on the Fox lot but has long mixed at U. To save time and travel, the “House” producers approached Universal and asked it to build a mixing room on the Fox lot so they wouldn’t have to drive across town every time they needed to mix something. Universal gladly obliged and built the room, with its own team running it. Ron Silveira, Universal’s client services veep, agrees that U’s recent physical enhancements have been a drawing card. He points out that the studio was among the earliest to install a file-based workflow, which routes tasks through a central server, improving quality control, speed and efficiency.
“A lot of others have followed in this area, but we were definitely among the first to do this,” Silveira says. “It really goes back to the senior management, who have championed these upgrades and supported our improvements.”