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Universal to Build New Soundstage Complex, Expand Theme Park in 5-Year Plan (EXCLUSIVE)

Universal Studios is embarking on a new five-year plan that will reorient many of its production soundstage facilities to the east near its backlot, as it makes way for additional space to expand its theme park.

In the works is a new complex of ten soundstages, to be built in 2017 and 2018, as a cluster of smaller stages on the front and west portion of the lot are removed to make way for new theme park attractions.

Also in the works is a new childcare facility, an expanded fire station and sheriff’s substation, and a trail head park and bike path along the Los Angeles River.

In the first phase of its expansion plans, Universal and its parent Comcast invested $1 billion in the lot and theme park, including the recently opened “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter,” as well as extensive upgrades to its infrastructure, such as a bridge over Lankershim Boulevard to accommodate visitors coming with the Metro, a new parking structure and new and widened  ramps along the Hollywood Freeway. Two new soundstages are under construction and are scheduled to be completed later this year.

A new theme park attraction, located near “Transformers: The Ride” in the lower part of the theme park, is expected to be announced soon.

The next phase represents a commitment to shooting projects and series in Los Angeles. But it is also a recognition of how much on-the-lot production has shifted to a mix of scripted TV, live audience shows, sitcoms and new media projects, as feature films migrate to other states and countries offering generous incentives.

“All in all we have had tremendous support from Comcast and have done a lot of to make this a better lot,” Ron Meyer, vice chairman of NBCUniversal, said in an interview. “In every way we are going to have better and more advanced production facilities. They will be shifted around and put in different places, but we have 400 acres so we have a lot of luxury to do that.”

The soundstage complex — to be built at the backlot’s Park Lake — will be constructed in two phases in 2017 and 2018, ranging from 16,000 square feet to 18,000 square feet, with attached or adjacent offices, dressing rooms, rehearsal halls and parking. The stages are designed to be flexible enough to accommodate a variety of types of productions, and will be in closer proximity on the lot to the backlot sets and support facilities like props and transportation.

Two additional stages will be built at the complex if Los Angeles is awarded the Summer Olympics in 2024. If so, the lot would be the site of the international broadcast center, according to the bid proposal from LA 2024.

Meyer said that while the television stages are full “all the time,” when it comes to major feature films, studios are still finding that California still has trouble competing when it comes to tax incentives.

“If you go to places like Atlanta or Montreal or even New York, sadly they treat us much better than they treat us in California, and because of the significant cost savings, especially in the motion picture area, so much of the production of every studio is outside of where it should be,” he said. “We would all like to keep it in Los Angeles. On rare occasions we do shoot in L.A. But I will tell you that maybe 80% of the films that are shot, and maybe more, are shot outside of L.A.”

He added, “They have improved it. It is better than it was, but it is not as good to be really competitive.”

California has more than tripled the size of its production credit, to $330 million per year. But states like Georgia offer a larger credit and allocate unlimited sums.

The nature of production on the lot also has changed as Comcast has centralized its Los Angeles operations since it merged with NBCUniversal in 2011. E! Entertainment and Bravo have moved to the lot, and the network and local affiliate news operations were moved to the Brokaw News Center. Comcast purchased the 35-story 10 Universal City Plaza in 2013, and under construction is a walkway connecting the office structure with the rest of the lot.

Michael Moore, president and general manager of NBCUniversal Studio Operations Group, called the changes a “pivot” to new production needs.

“Most of the studios were designed many, many years ago, and much of it was not in a master plan and it was designed for a different type of production in a different era,” he said. Universal has stages “that were designed to accommodate production from 50, 60, 70 years ago.”

He said that the changes will “allow us to align the various uses of the property in the right areas.”

He said that the construction was being planned to not disrupt current productions.

Universal plans to remove 13 stages from the front lot, on the northwest side of Universal, to make way for future theme park expansion. The studio ultimately will have four fewer stages but, because the new facilities will be larger in size, a gain of about 11,000 square feet for production, a studio spokeswoman said.

Stage 28, built in 1924, already has been demolished, but the studio has preserved what was inside: The 91-year-old set of the silent film “Phantom of the Opera.” The studio would like to place it in a prestigious facility like the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, currently under construction.

“We took great pains in making sure that none of the iconic aspects of that have disappeared, so it can be recreated at any time,” Meyer said. “We made sure that is all safe. It is frankly in better shape than if we left it up there. You couldn’t have preserved it the way we have now.”

There’s good reason to make way for theme park expansion — attendance growth.

According to consulting firm Aecom, 7.1 million people visited Universal Studios Hollywood in 2015, an increase of about 4%. That is expected to jump this year, given the interest in the Harry Potter attraction, which officially opened in April.

Larry Kurzweil, president and chief operating officer of Universal Studios Hollywood, said that they have “taken almost every corner of the park and transformed it into an entirely new place.”

He said that attendance in the ten weeks since “Wizarding World” opened has “exceeded all expectations,” with a spike not just in attendance but retail and food sales.

“We have never had so many wands in any of our parks,” he quipped. “Our wand sales are through the roof.”

Other plans include moving the childcare center from a building on a hillside near Barham Boulevard to one near the Los Angeles River. It will be able to accommodate almost double the number of children.

Also in the works is the construction of a public trail head park and bike and pedestrian path along the Los Angeles River. When it obtained approval of its master plan in 2013, Universal agreed to build the path as a way of connecting a larger network of biking trails.

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