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A Collection Gets Shelved

Cost-cutting closed the Universal Studios Research Library. But where does that leave filmmakers searching for an added touch of realism?

March 05, 2000|AMY WALLACE | Amy Wallace is a Times staff writer

It's the place where Gregory Peck got the idea for his ordinary-Joe hairdo in "To Kill a Mockingbird," where Alfred Hitchcock got the lowdown on flight patterns for "The Birds," where George Roy Hill first glimpsed the bookie joints he wanted to depict in "The Sting" and where Steven Spielberg learned about shark behavior for "Jaws."

For 84 years, its voluminous clipping files--organized by topic and crammed with photographs of everything from baby carriages to fire hydrants--were used to design the look and feel of thousands of movies and television shows, from the cop shop in the 1950s TV series "Dragnet" to the rocket control panels in 1995's "Apollo 13" to the restaurants in this year's Jacqueline Susann bio-pic, "Isn't She Great."

Until five weeks ago, the Universal Studios Research Library was the oldest and largest remaining such collection in town--a vital visual resource for screenwriters, producers, art directors and set designers who relied on its books, magazines and indexed images to give their projects factual and atmospheric credibility. Want to see the purses Tiffany's made in 1970? San Quentin's gas chamber in 1930? Or American railroad station interiors before 1900? The library's files contained all that and more.

Then suddenly, to save money, Universal shut its library down. The abrupt closure--which came as a surprise to many on the Universal lot--has prompted an outcry from Hollywood's creative community, many of whom worry about the fate of the library's more than 50,000 books and magazines and 5 million clippings.

"Boy, they're shortsighted. I'm sure it cost money [to run], but not that much money," said Henry Bumstead, a veteran art director and production designer who twice won Oscars for films ("The Sting" and "Mockingbird") he researched at Universal's library, a resource he's used for 50 years. "But that's the way [studio executives] are now. They're all lawyers running it. They have no idea what it takes to do a film."

The shuttering of the collection has also inflamed existing concerns about Universal's film division, which has grown steadily more frugal since the studio was bought by Seagram Co. in 1995. Producers, directors and writers complain that Universal's movie operation--which many in town suspect may be spun off by Seagram chief Edgar Bronfman Jr., who has expressed more interest in his music division--is spending less money developing projects and marketing completed films.

"They only care about the things that tangibly translate to profits. The intangible things that go to creating a good company that ultimately is profitable are not something that show up on the bottom line," said one producer, voicing the concerns of many on the lot. "They're completely gutting everything that makes them a studio."

Mike Lobell, another longtime producer, called the library closure "a shame. For anyone who wants to be in the movie business for a long period of time, these things are invaluable. But when corporate America takes over these companies, these [libraries] are the easiest things to close up because they have huge overhead."

Universal officials say the library was closed because it was no longer cost-effective. All studio research libraries charge hourly fees to those who use them, but they can lose up to $300,000 a year--not a huge amount in a town where the average cost of producing a movie is $53 million. More important, studio libraries gobble up space--Universal's occupied 4,000 square feet in the basement of a former motel on Lankershim Boulevard. And on increasingly crowded studio lots, real estate itself has become valuable.

"It's unfair to expect any company big or small, corporate or creative, to not be fiscally conscious or aware," said Universal spokeswoman Terry Curtin, who said the library was closed after "a long analysis. It was determined that while it was a valuable historical element, the usage was not enough to justify keeping it open."

Universal Pictures Chairman Stacey Snider said that after the library was shut, "I didn't get one phone call [of protest]. Not even one. I had meetings last week with five filmmakers who are in pre-production, and it didn't come up. Whatever sturm und drang people were feeling, it didn't get to my desk."

But Michael Baugh, a production designer who is leading an effort to persuade Universal to donate its library collection to a new nonprofit foundation called the Library of Film and Television Design, said Snider is "talking to the wrong people."

"She's not talking to designers," said Baugh, who lamented that the Universal closure is part of a trend. "The Universal library is the story this week. Next week, it'll be another. These libraries will never be secure until they belong to us, the people who use them. As long as the forces of Wall Street are in play and people are looking only at the bottom line, they're always going to be in danger."

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