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From Making Dreams to Concocting Reality

In building theme parks, movie studios are now in the 'place' business. To succeed, they will have to start acknowledging their neighbors.

June 22, 1997|William Fulton | William Fulton, editor of California Planning & Development Report and a senior research fellow at Claremont Graduate School, is author of "The Reluctant Metropolis: The Politics of Urban Growth in Los Angeles" (Solano Press Books)

VENTURA — For most of the last 80 years, Hollywood--the most famous place-name in the world--has been such a powerful symbol that it has transcended all geographical meaning. Meanwhile, real-life Los Angeles has played the more mundane role of serving as Hollywood's dream-factory town--the place the industry could rely upon for skilled labor, sound stages, post-production facilities and the rest of the infrastructure needed to support it.

But things are changing. Los Angeles and Hollywood have grown up. L.A. is less important than ever to Hollywood as a factory town, and more important than ever to Hollywood as a theme park. This is turning their traditional relationship upside-down. Perception and reality are becoming intertwined in a way that neither the city nor the industry is accustomed to.

The best current example of this shifting relationship is the gradual, but undeniable, metamorphosis of the Universal Studios property from dream factory to theme park. Having cashed in on the studio tour and the fabricated CityWalk shopping experience, Universal's parent company, MCA Inc., now plans to go headlong into the theme-destination business by expanding CityWalk and studio facilities, and by building a full-scale theme park and convention center. The plan on the table doubles Universal's size over a 20-year period, from 5 million to 11 million square feet of building space, and calls for expansion of the Jurassic Park water ride.

Universal, in short, is going into the "place" business. But as all studios are discovering, building a place is different from running a factory. Homeowner associations in Universal's neighborhood are up in arms. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and City Councilman John Ferraro have proposed a compromise plan that would allow the studio to expand but eliminate the theme park and convention facilities.

Universal is thus quickly learning what it is like to be a developer. It's a good lesson, too. As Los Angeles becomes more theme park than factory town, the studios will play a formative role in creating the urban landscape of the 21st century. For this emerging Los Angeles to "work" as a city, the studios will have to make a stronger commitment to improving its built environment in a way that benefits the entire community, not just the studios' bottom line.

For decades, Universal--like MGM, Paramount, Warners Bros. and other studios--was one of Los Angeles' original "gated communities." It was a self-contained compound housing everything needed to contrive the fantasies that entertained America. The idea of such a factory, perhaps best conveyed in F. Scott Fitzgerald's fictionalized account of Irving Thalberg and MGM in "The Last Tycoon," was to provide the producers and the moguls with total control over manufacturing.

To operate effectively, the dream factories had to have space: broad swathes of land on which to build the back lot, the big sound stages, the warehouses for the props and for the many other raw materials they required. Los Angeles provided space in abundance. Indeed, the urban geography of the city was shaped largely by the location of studios that became successful. But, today, space at Universal's 400-acre hilltop site, as at almost every other studio town, is at a premium. Surrounded by millions of people, the studios are landlocked.

So manufacturing is, increasingly, divorced from the physical location of the studios. The moguls shoot TV shows in Vancouver or Toronto or Orlando; they rent each other's sound stages; they farm out the post-production work to editing labs on the nondescript sidestreets of Hollywood. You don't even have to have a back lot to have a mogul. MGM/UA Chairman Frank Mancuso, heir to the legacy of Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer, reigns over the empire not from the Irving Thalberg Building on the famous MGM lot--that belongs to Sony these days--but from a suite of offices in a formerly unfashionable industrial district in Santa Monica.

At the same time, the entertainment industry has become an exercise in "synergy." The industry strives to create a merchandising connection between the ephemeral products the studios manufacture--TV shows and movies--and the theme experiences they can provide at specific "destinations"--Disneyland, Disney World. As the endless theme parks and entertainment-oriented downtown revivals in other cities have shown, "place" sells.

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