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Setting the Stage(s) for Production Coast to Coast

By Mark R. Smith

sound stages
Full Sail University (www.fullsail.edu) in Winter Park, Florida recently unveiled the 22,000 square-foot Full Sail
Studios Gateway Project which includes an illuminated main archway that serves as the official entrance to
the school's Hollywood-style film backlot. The backlot, which totals 2,078 linear feet and offers 19 different
outdoor scenic environments, is available to industry professionals and is used daily for student class projects.
It features such iconic locations as the Seattle Fish Market, New Orleans French Quarter, Amsterdam and
New York City brownstone neighborhoods as well as generic locations like a gas station, multiple urban
and suburban storefronts, a Venetian-style bridge and studio water tower.

It's been a challenging economy for just about everyone in every industry, including the companies that set the stage(s) for the country's movie and TV output. But major stage complexes nationwide are staying profitable by catering to new markets, investing in infrastructure and offering new capabilities while promoting those oh-so-crucial tax incentives that progressive states offer. That translates to more prospects, more work, more expansion and more content on a screen near you.

  soundstage stages
  Prepping a shot on the set of Beverly Hills 90210 at Raleigh's
Manhattan Beach studio.
  soundstage stages
  Raleigh Studios Budapest just opened in the Hungarian capital.
  soundstage stages
  Rendering of Raleigh's planned Motown Motion Picture Studios in
metro Detroit.

Raleigh Goes International
Raleigh Studios (www.raleighstudios.com) is, in a word, huge, in stature and dimensions: In Hollywood, it offers 12 stages, ranging from 2,000 square feet to 16,320 square feet in size; in nearby Manhattan Beach it runs 14 stages from 18,000 square feet to 25,350 square feet; and in Playa Vista it has six stages starting at about 10,000 square feet, with two tallying more than 75,000 square feet. The company bills them as the country's largest.

But that's just in California. Down South, Raleigh also operates Celtic Media Centre in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where eight stages range from 4,125 square feet to 29,000 square feet, and it just entered a management deal with Atlanta-based Riverwood, a four-stage studio that doubles as a backlot for classic Americana-type productions.

Then there's the new facility, Raleigh Studios Budapest, featuring nine stages, including a 45,000 square-footer, and inspired by strong Hungarian production incentives.

Raleigh also has plans to break ground by the end of summer for the approximately 600,000 square-foot Motown Motion Picture Studios at the Pontiac Centerpoint Business Campus. It's expected to employ more than 4,000 workers in the Detroit area and draw incentivized producers to another turnkey studio complex.

Activity in each location varies. Hollywood is all TV programming, including Castle and Private Practice for ABC and The Closer for TNT; Manhattan Beach, the headquarters of Marvel Studios, hosted Iron Man 2 and now Thor plus Beverly Hills 90210 for FOX, and CSI: Miami and Medium on CBS. The Playa location, once business tycoon Howard Hughes's airplane hangar, "is home to any shoot that requires a lot of space," says Michael Newport, director of marketing and client development for Raleigh. The Transformers series was shot there, with more shows on the way.

Business on the West Coast has been good, as those credits would suggest. "We're at 100 percent capacity in Hollywood and Playa, and we almost are [there] at Manhattan Beach," notes Newport.

He's looking for an upswing elsewhere, too. "There's considerable interest in tax-credit areas [where] we have our footprint. Louisiana is probably the most established, and I would call it a good model for the rest of the country," he says. Credits include Battle: Los Angeles from Sony and the upcoming Battleship for NBC Universal.

But it's Budapest, which will host the feature Monte Carlo from FOX, that's garnering the attention these days. "It's probably our most impressive studio," Newport says. Linked to Fotokem's Burbank lab facility, it offers total postproduction capabilities. "This is a game changer because it brings everything people are used to doing in LA to Budapest."

In response to "Why Budapest?" his answer is simple. "They have a great incentive plan, and we are hoping that the same thing that happened in Canada during the '90s will happen there, too."

Austin Studios is Texas-Sized
There's nothing like having a huge Hollywood movie in town, such as the Coen brothers' remake of True Grit,to create fan interest and provide a healthy infusion to a state's bottom line — which is the whole idea, isn't it?

That's what makes Catherine Parrington a happy camper. She's director of operations for Austin Studios (www.austinstudios.org), a 20-acre facility operated by the Austin Film Society. It offers 100,000 square feet of production space in five stages that range between 29,000 and 16,000 square feet and houses the largest cyc wall in Texas, 87x23 feet on each side. "As far as we know, it's the third largest in the nation," she says.

Although Austin Studios originally opened 10 years ago and has hosted 55 films, it held a grand reopening about 18 months ago after a city bond issue for the arts was approved. "That gave us $6 million to upgrade the facility," Parrington reports. "We fully sound-proofed Stages 3 and 5, which each have 50 tons of silent HVAC; the whole campus is now digital infrastructure and wireless; plus we enhanced the cyc wall." The campus also provides support services and vendors onsite, including Chapman-Leonard, Rhino Grip and various rental companies.

soundstage stages  
Austin Studios hosted the Make Watch Love Film Party when
infrastructure improvements were complete.
 
soundstage stages  
Austin Studios' Stage 3 cyc wall is believed to be the country's
third largest.
 

Currently, the 28,000 square-foot Stage 4 is being remodeled to create seven rehearsal studios for a newly-signed, long-term tenant, Soundcheck Austin, which provides band support services — and hopefully more movie production.

While there was some controversy in the local film industry about sacrificing the soundstage to a music company, Parrington calls the decision a success. "We're gaining continuing business that might bring production with it," she says. "The funny thing is that [Soundcheck Austin] just opened and their first [space] rental was to Paramount's True Grit."

True Grit is delivering big economic clout to all of Austin Studios these days. It has taken up "every available space on the entire campus since before Thanksgiving," according to Parrington. Before November 2009, the stages hosted two films by Texas native Robert Rodriguez: Predator from FOX and the lower-budget Machete from Hyde Park Entertainment.

Efforts are underway to find new bookings after True Grit vacates in June.

"The campus has been booked solid for a year," Parrington says. "It's been our best in our 10-year history, and we have continuous holds coming up from another Hollywood feature and perhaps a series from FOX TV."

The next push for Austin Studios comes in 2012, when the adjacent National Guard building becomes available and expansion begins. "The expansion won't cost anything initially," she says, noting that the facility is on land leased from the city and the lease has been renewed to include the Guard building. "All we have to do is the upkeep, but we're getting ready for fundraising efforts to repair and renovate the entire facility," which is estimated to cost about $4 million.

NorthStar is Revamped 'n Ready
While the occasional indie film visits NorthStar Studios (www.northstarstudios.tv) in Nashville, its market is primarily TV production.

The facility encompasses four large stages (A through D) that span the 125,000 square-foot campus and are approved for audiences of up to 300. They each measure about 65x65x24 feet and form a giant square with partitions separating them; space may be allocated as required by moving the partitions.

  soundstage stages
  On the set of HGTV's Design Star at NorthStar Studios.
  soundstage stages
  Taping Gospel Dream for the Gospel Music Channel at
NorthStar Studios.

Then there are three smaller stages that are typically used for cooking shows, including 21x29-foot Studio E that has single cameras for stand-ups.

The big news is NorthStar's $4 million-plus HD studio upgrade for the seven stages. It entailed adding five Sony PDW-F800 cameras connected via Telecast Fiber Systems' CopperHead 3200 camera-mounted fiber-optic transceivers "so we have complete control of the cameras from our video control area," says Mike Arnold, vice president of engineering.

The reason NorthStar chose the Sony HD cameras "was the flexibility they give us to shoot in a multi-camera studio environment or a 24p film-style shoot," says president Grant Barbre, citing projects such as pilots for cable outlets RFD-TV and BizTelevision and shows for Knoxville-based Scripps Networks properties, including Food Network, HGTV and DIY Network.

The facility also updated its three control rooms with Miranda Kaleido-X systems that feature multi-image monitors with an unlimited ability to display any source at any size.

In addition, NorthStar upgraded the audio in these rooms. "Since we're in Nashville, we do a lot of music, so we installed Digidesign Venue systems in all three control rooms," Arnold reports. "They're set up with a stage rack in each studio with up to 48 mic inputs. So basically, we can connect any studio to any control room with the flip of a switch."

NorthStar also added a full-service postproduction facility with three Apple Final Cut Pro HD suites fully networked through Facilis TerraBlock. So clients at NorthStar can "shoot and post [their] HD production in a tapeless environment," says Barbre.

Recent projects include the new season of Country's Family Reunion, which features titans of the country music industry reuniting for live performances. The program is syndicated nationally, as is Writer's Showcase, which brings up to a dozen country songwriters together to discuss their art.

Also in the mix are 13 episodes of Gospel Dream, which airs on Gospel Music Channel, 13 shows for the HGTV Design Star series' last season plus business-to-business and news programming for FOX News Channel, such as FOX News Sunday with Chris Wallace.

Business has been tougher than usual for the last year, of course, but Barbre reports that NorthStar has been "keeping competitive with pricing this year and holding our own. Otherwise," he notes, "we wouldn't have invested in our infrastucture."

Kaufman Astoria Builds on History
New York City's historic Kaufman Astoria Studios (KAS) opened its doors in 1920 and was a hub for silent and sound films for two decades before the Army took it over in 1942. It functioned as the Signal Corps Photographic Center until 1970; production returned in 1975 and KAS (www.kaufmanastoria.com) was officially reborn in 1980. Today, it offers seven turnkey soundstages with the largest, Studio E, occupying 26,000 square feet.

President Hal Rosenbluth notes that "energy-filled" New York always got its fair share of film and television work until business shrank in the aftermath of the September 11 attack and unfavorable production cost comparisons with Canada, Eastern Europe and other states that began to introduce tax incentive programs. "The cost gap grew to a point where even a star-driven concept wasn't enough to keep the project in New York," he notes.

soundstage stages  
Kaufman Astoria Studios just unveiled 18,000 square-foot Stage K.
which will host Men In Black 3 this fall.
 
soundstage stages  
New York City's historic Kaufman Astoria Studios.  
soundstage stages  
Sesame Street is a longtime resident at New York City's.
Kaufman Astoria Studios.
 

Things began to turn around in 2004 when New York State launched a 10 percent tax credit on below-the-line expenses. That was enough "to allow creatives [pitching shooting in New York] to have a fair shot in the argument with financial people," Rosenbluth reports. Two years later the pool supporting the tax-credit program was increased, and in 2008 the credit was upped to 30 percent (New York City offers another 5 percent tax credit). Despite state budget woes, the pool grew again last year, and a five-year, 30 percent program has been proposed.

"There's enough data today to show the tax-incentive program delivers a positive return to New York State," says Rosenbluth. "Film and television production has been one of the few growth industries in the state in the last few years."

For its part, KAS recently opened Stage K, an 18,000 square-foot soundstage with 22,000 square feet of support space and offices. It has already hosted a roster of commercials and is prepping for the arrival of the feature, Men In Black 3, this fall. Other stages are currently servicing The Smurfs Movie, season three of Showtime's Nurse Jackie, and the iconic Sesame Street, which has been a resident since 1994.

The company's K/A/S Lighting division has "quickly grown to serve productions here and on location," Rosenbluth reports. "It also services productions not utilizing our studios, including the Vancouver Olympics."

KAS Music & Sound is also gaining recognition. "It's probably the finest recording facility in New York if not on the East Coast," says Rosenbluth. "Its acoustics are pretty nearly perfect" as clients like Placido Domingo would attest, and productions requiring ADR are happy to be accommodated on the lot.

KAS is home to a number of tenants from independent producers to VFX and titling companies. The complex has "changed the dynamics" of its neighborhood as well, attracting new restaurants and fast-food chains and reinvigorating area shopping.

With stages now flanking both sides of KAS's 36th street location in Astoria, Queens, a secure area Rosenbluth calls an "outdoor blackbox theater" is on the drawing board. It would act as a slightly unconventional backlot.

"Producers come to New York to shoot New York, but sometimes it's easier not to take the whole army onto the streets of Manhattan," he explains. The secure area would give producers an alternative to closing off streets in Manhattan for an effects shoot, for example, or accommodate shots that would require a long stay on site. "It will add another dimension to our services here," Rosenbluth declares.

Albuquerque is Braced for Recovery
Wayne Rauschenberger is three months into a job that most anyone in the production business would love. After all, the COO of Albuquerque Studios (www.abqstudios.com) works in a modern facility that launched three years ago in New Mexico, a state renowned for it generous production incentive program.

  soundstage stages
  Albuquerque Studios' facilities host numerous features and TV series.
Photo courtesy of and © Albuquerque Studios 2010

Within the last year the studios have hosted the features The Book of Eli, Due Date, The Resident, Let Me In, and Passion Play. While all systems are 'go' under its roof, business has been slow this year, but Rauschenberger sees more production gearing up as the economy starts to recover.

Albuquerque Studios "has had a lot of interest from studios, as far as holding stages goes, for various projects. But we don't have down payments yet," he says. Columbia, FOX, Dreamworks and Paramount have all inquired about space.

"This is not uncommon, however. They're just covering their bases. Fluctuating schedules cause a bit of a juggling act here, so a lot needs to happen before the idea gets kicked off, and the studio starts moving sets. But you play the odds and hope that you get one or two" of the pending productions.

On the TV front, AMC's critically-acclaimed Breaking Bad is shooting season three on Albuquerque Studios' lot, but the show is currently on hiatus; Scoundrels, a Disney/ABC series starring Virginia Madsen that debuts this summer, also shot at the complex.

The facility is home to ReelzChannel, an independent cable channel that reviews movies and trends in the industry. It produces programming in the studios, including shows with famed critic Leonard Maltin.

soundstage stages
Stage interior at Albuquerque Studios.
Photo courtesy of and © Albuquerque Studios 2010

Albuquerque Studios boasts eight soundstages, including four measuring 24,000 square feet each; the other four each have dimensions of 18,000 square feet. All were built in pairs with fully-operational, soundproof walls to facilitate greater production flexibility; all of the larger stages can be paired off and combined as can two of the smaller ones. Each pair includes offices.

The facility also offers about 100,000 square feet of mill space, plus considerable open space to work around the stages.

Rauschenberger notes that New Mexico is "probably doing better than most states with location shoots," citing ongoing production for Hollywood flicks like True Grit and Cowboys and Aliens. "Yet, those productions have not called for heavy stagework."

But when they do, he knows where to direct them.

"There are some smaller warehouses and conversions elsewhere in New Mexico, but we're the big place that was built for movies," he says. "Producers cut corners during a bad economy, but when they need a shot and the cameraman is 50 feet in the air panning, he needs the additional space we offer. We get some business for that reason only."

Second Line Greens NOLA
A new player in the nation's soundstage market officially opened in March, nestled near the banks of the Mississippi River in New Orleans's tony lower Garden District. However, by then, Second Line Stages (www.secondlinestages.com) — the first green studio in the country — had already passed its first screen test with a 'thumbs up' from Hollywood.

The facility initially opened it stages toward the end of 2009 for the major feature Mechanic and by January was occupied by the crew of the Warner Bros. feature, The Green Lantern.

  soundstage stages
  Second Line Stages' office building jazzes up the New Orleans night.
  soundstage stages
  Entrance to Stage 2 at Second Line Stages

The latter commitment "should extend to August," says Kevin Murphy, director of studio operations, who notes that the production has taken all of Second Line's approximately 250,000 square feet of stage and support space, as well as the parking lot.

Second Line is metro New Orleans's only studio facility built with the production industry in mind, as well as the only LEED-certified green film studio in the U.S. The facility's accommodations encompass three soundstages: the largest, 18,000 square feet, has a catwalk system, which no other facility in Louisiana can offer; the other two large stages, with dimensions of 12,500 and 7,500 square feet, are also built to industry standards. And all three are NC-25 soundproofed.

Also under the roof is an additional 50,000 square feet for mill, staging and support services. "In addition, we're aligned with several vendors," says Murphy. The largest, TM Motion Picture Equipment Rentals, is Second Line's lighting and grip vendor.

As shooting for The Green Lantern wraps toward summer's end, Murphy and crew are "talking to several companies about [rentals] when the space becomes available. If a feature comes to New Orleans that requires [a] first-class facility, we will fill that bill," he says. "Warner Bros. would have had to go elsewhere to shoot The Green Lantern if this facility did not exist — even with the generous tax credits that Louisiana has in place."

Murphy notes that the district where Second Line was built is "one of the last unencumbered areas in the city" that is close to the river and easily accessible to the airport and the city's amenities. "That's important," he says, "because when people come to shoot a movie, you need hotels, support services and quality restaurants and entertainment. You need the ancillary support services to tie up the whole package. That's where our tourism comes in. This is really another big convention."