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EA Makes a Play for L.A.

Game maker is trading geek for chic with its Playa Vista studio

August 06, 2003|Roger Vincent and Alex Pham | Times Staff Writers

Hollywood's newest studio is coming to Playa Vista, complete with palm trees, valet parking, a beach volleyball court -- and plenty of joysticks.

Electronic Arts Inc., the world's largest independent maker of video games, will unveil plans today to open a state-of-the-art production studio in long-vacant Water's Edge and create a campus there with luxuries not seen since the heady days of the dot-coms.

Based in the heart of Silicon Valley, EA said it chose the two-building office complex on Lincoln Boulevard, about a mile from the Pacific Ocean, to strengthen its ties with traditional Hollywood. As video games increasingly resemble cinematic productions, EA needs to work more closely with talent such as actors, directors, musicians, writers and lighting specialists.

When it moves in at the end of the year, Redwood City, Calif.-based EA will have a permanent home for 300 employees who work in Irvine, Bel-Air and Las Vegas, said John Batter, who heads EA's Los Angeles operations. It will embark on an aggressive hiring campaign to double that number in two years and eventually fill the facility's capacity for 1,000 employees, he said, as EA tries to reduce its reliance on contract developers whose schedules are more difficult to control. EA has 4,000 workers spread among eight studios worldwide.

"We hope to be a major employer of creative talent in Southern California, because we believe in the talent base here," Batter said.

With 1,000 workers, EA's new Los Angeles studio -- to be dubbed "EA LA" -- would rival those of visual effects houses Sony Pictures Imageworks, Rhythm & Hues Studios Inc. and Digital Domain, which are courting the animators, artists, modelers, digital texture artists and graphics engineers EA seeks.

With such cutthroat competition, EA is hoping its perk-laden campus will help it lure workers. In addition to the beach volleyball court, there will be a basketball court, soccer field, gym, jogging trails to the beach and wireless Internet access so employees can surf the Internet while soaking up the sun.

The company declined to specify how much the amenities would cost. People who know about the deal valued the lease for the 245,000 square feet and the cost of improvements at about $100 million over several years.

Once seen as a boy's hobby, electronic games have grown into a $25-billion global business that many see as a cultural force on a par with movies and books. For some Hollywood moguls, an entertainment empire isn't complete without a collection of game titles.

"Right now, video games is as much a part of entertainment as movies and music are," said John Mass, senior vice president at William Morris Consulting, the media and technology arm of the famed Beverly Hills talent agency. "This is a creative community, and games is another medium where it will be able to express its ideas."

With $2.5 billion in annual revenue, EA has amassed $1.6 billion in cash and short-term investments, which it could invest in expanding the company. Several of its most successful franchises will be produced at EA LA, including "Command & Conquer," which has sold 21 million copies, and "Medal of Honor," which has sold 12 million copies. The studio also will make games based on its licenses for the James Bond and "Lord of the Rings" franchises.

The lease agreement with EA is a relief for the owners of Water's Edge, who have been searching for a tenant since before the offices were completed in 2002. They were built by Los Angeles developer Robert F. Maguire, who retains part ownership in a joint venture with Chicago real estate investor Equity Office.

Once the driving force behind Playa Vista, Maguire is now a minority owner in the 1,087-acre property, which is in the Ballona Wetlands. Playa Vista has long faced resistance from environmentalists who object to development in an ecologically sensitive area.

The development is controlled by a group of investment bankers and lenders led by former mayoral candidate and real estate developer Steve Soboroff, who stepped in a few years after entertainment studio DreamWorks SKG withdrew its plans to move to Playa Vista.

"This is our DreamWorks," said Soboroff, president of Playa Vista.

He said he was in discussions with other potential entertainment tenants that film frequently in the former Spruce Goose aircraft hanger built at Playa Vista by Howard Hughes. "Our vision in creating this dynamic place where people can live and work is now validated in a huge way," Soboroff said.

Drawn by rumors of EA's plans, company employees have visited the Playa Vista sales office, he said.

Of the development's 470 residential units released for sale, Soboroff said, 262 have been sold, 129 have been reserved and 79 are on the market.

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