The license plate on the 10-year-old Mercedes owned by Robert Thompson, founder and president of Valencia Studios, reads "BBY MOGL." He might just become a baby mogul. The 35-year-old Thompson has developed a remote version of Hollywood in the Santa Clarita Valley by offering film and TV producers big, cheap, no-frills studios that have been fashioned out of industrial buildings.
At a time when independent production companies are under increasing pressure to contain costs, Valencia Studios offers production space for 30% to 50% less than the established studios in Hollywood and Burbank. A sound stage at Valencia Studios rents for $9,000 to $30,000 a month, and production office space runs about $1.25 per square foot.
Producers can also cut corners even more by bringing in non-union crews to Valencia Studios, whereas the major studios such as Paramount, Universal and Disney usually require producers to hire unionized production help.
"We're the Target stores of the industry," said Thompson, referring to the discount retailer.
Valencia Studios has caught on in part because its four buildings and 125,000 square feet of production space, about 25 miles north of Hollywood, not far from the Magic Mountain amusement park, are basically low-cost, converted warehouses. Budget-minded producers are increasingly using warehouses as an alternative to high-priced Hollywood studios.
"What they are doing out in Valencia is industrializing the warehouse concept," said TV producer Leonard ("Rags to Riches") Hill. "The concept is a terrific one."
TV shows such as "Tour of Duty," a CBS drama about the Vietnam war, and the daytime soap "Divorce Court" shoot at Valencia Studios. Horror films such as "The Blob" and "Nightmare on Elm Street, Part 4" were shot at Valencia, and the sequel to the Oscar-winning film "Chinatown,"--"The Two Jakes," directed by Jack Nicholson--recently completed some filming there as well.
"I love those studios," said Deborah Moore, executive vice president in charge of production for New Line Cinema, which produced the "Nightmare on Elm Street" films. "The rate was very good for what we need, which is massive amounts of warehouse space."
Bob Jaffe, co-executive producer of "Divorce Court," also finds Valencia's cheap stages a big draw. "In Hollywood, if you can find the space, they want an arm and a leg," he said. "It's either controlled by unions or they have ridiculous rules and regulations that hamstring you." The show, which started filming at Valencia Studios in September, previously was shot at Sunset-Gower Studios in Hollywood, and Jaffe estimated savings of about $10,000 a week by filming at Valencia.
Demand for studio space has been enough for Thompson's three-year-old company to be profitable since its first year of operation, he said. Valencia Studios is consistently at near-full capacity and does about $3 million to $5 million a year in sales, he said.
Despite the lower cost, there are some drawbacks to filming in Valencia. It still doesn't have many of the support services that Hollywood offers, such as costuming companies and specialized lighting and video shops. And even though Valencia Studios falls within the 30-mile radius from Hollywood in which union employees--if they are used on a production--don't have to be paid for their driving time, many people doubt that a small town on the outskirts of Los Angeles County can become a legitimate alternative to Hollywood-Burbank.
"I don't seriously consider them a competitor to a real studio," said Dan Slusser, senior vice president and general manager of Universal City Studios, who said his business hasn't been hurt by Valencia Studios. "Why would someone want to drive out to Valencia and drive back here to use a wardrobe department and then drive back to Valencia? If you work at Universal, you're basically at a one-stop shopping service. Time is money."
But Thompson said much of his business comes from servicing the boom in entertainment production due to the growth of cable TV and non-network syndication, rather than taking business away from the big, established studios. Also, producers who have been filming shows in Canada to save money are now coming back to the United States now because of the strengthening dollar and growth of Canadian unions, and so low-cost studios such as Valencia stand to benefit.
Thompson, a former film student, worked at the Christian Broadcasting Network in Virginia Beach, Va., for three years as a fund-raiser before leaving to raise money for a motion picture. The film deal never materialized, and Thompson and his wife, a professional dancer, landed in Los Angeles in 1983 "with about $20 in our pockets."