IT'S been decades since movie studios had movie stars on contract. And you're as likely to stumble across movie filming on a downtown L.A. street as on the Universal Studios back lot these days. But the studios still have that special feel of a gated village of the privileged, sprinkled with producers' personal parking spaces, dotted with streets named for directors and stars and charged with a frisson of excitement.
No one was more drawn to that electricity than the teenage Steven Spielberg, who took a bus tour of the Universal lot one summer after his junior or senior year in high school in the '60s (he can't remember which), ditched his fellow tourists during the bathroom break, and -- in a scene that could be from one of his movies -- set off to explore. "It was one of the best days of my life," he recalls.
When he stumbled into an office to use a phone, a film librarian named Chuck Silvers asked him what he was doing there. Spielberg confessed. At Silvers' invitation, Spielberg came back the next day with two of his own short films. After that, Silvers gave him passes for three more days on the lot.
Banking that the guard would recognize him after the fourth day, Spielberg, dressed in "my bar mitzvah suit," simply walked back onto the lot, smiling and waving to the guard. For two months, he continued. "I met film editors and sound mixers and TV directors, and I met a lot of actors," he recalls. "I was befriended by John Cassavetes."
Eventually, one of his short films made it into the hands of former studio honcho Sid Sheinberg, who gave him his first professional directing job -- an episode of the TV show "Night Gallery," which guest-starred Joan Crawford.
Universal gave him "Jaws" to direct in the '70s, which became the blockbuster that began his rise to the stratosphere of Hollywood. In the early '80s, following hit after hit, the studio built him his own offices -- a smart move on the part of bosses Lew Wasserman and Sheinberg, laughs Spielberg, "because they betrothed me to the lot forever."
He installed his Amblin Entertainment production unit in the Santa Fe-style building -- where any future Spielberg would have to sneak by Amblin's own attentive guard. Indeed, he's been in residence on the lot ever since -- even after co-creating his DreamWorks studio and selling most of it recently to crosstown rival Paramount.
"I'm a traditionalist, and I owe a lot to this place," he says. "This is my ancestral homeland.... I was the barbarian at the gate, at least as far as my ambition goes."
People speak of Hollywood as an industry or a state of mind. But there still are rambling, fascinating physical places where thousands go to make movies -- to shoot them, edit them, perfect their sound, hone their look and market them. In a city notorious for tearing itself down, the historic studio lots here are nearing their century mark, changed but still vital.
The Universal lot in the Hollywood Hills is an amalgam of television and film production plus postproduction services. The main entrance is tucked off busy Lankershim Boulevard. Beyond a less-than-grand gatehouse, Main Street winds its way past office buildings and soundstages. On one side rises the fabled Black Tower, once the perch of the shrewd, irascible Wasserman, who reigned over Universal for several decades, and now the aerie of Ron Meyer, the disarmingly casual chieftain who rode around the lot on his bicycle, introducing himself when he first got his position.
It's been 92 years since Carl Laemmle, a German Jewish emigre, decided to move all his operations here. His West Coast manager selected 230 acres of land in the San Fernando Valley and paid $165,000. The Universal that Laemmle founded is now part of NBC Universal, which is 80% owned by General Electric and 20% by the French company Vivendi. Officials roughly estimate the number of employees at 2,000. The lot, now 390 acres, is a pastiche of all its eras -- Stage 28, which dates to 1924 (when it wasn't actually a soundstage, because movies were silent then), the quaintly drab office bungalows from the '40s, the stucco building where Rock Hudson held court in the '50s, the eerily preserved disaster scene complete with a crashed jet from last year's "War of the Worlds" (directed by Spielberg).
In recent decades, the company has coped with a $20-million fire in 1990 that destroyed 4 acres of sets -- even with a county fire station located on the lot -- and a couple of shooting incidents, one in which a guard was killed.
Through it all, though, the lot offers a sense of place. When producer Marc Platt needs to clear his head, he leaves his bungalow, passes the sign that bears the name of his eponymous production company and hops on his golf cart. He motors around, pausing at the house where Anthony Perkins went "Psycho," then moving on to the courthouse square where lightning struck and Michael J. Fox went "Back to the Future."