When movie producer Jerry Bruckheimer was searching for a place to shoot an ocean battle scene between two ships for the next installment of "Pirates of the Caribbean," he chose an unlikely location: the Mojave Desert.
Unable to find a soundstage big enough to accommodate the 120- and 140-foot-long ships, he used a former Boeing Co. hangar. The massive shell in Palmdale had previously housed a three-story airport terminal, built for Steven Spielberg's "The Terminal."
"It's all about size," Bruckheimer said. "We just needed a huge space."
Hollywood's quest for cavernous spaces to bring big-budget movies to life has turned a handful of former aircraft hangars in Playa Vista, Downey and Palmdale into thriving centers for movie production.
In the last decade, a growing number of feature films have been shot in hangars that once housed the Spruce Goose aircraft, Apollo rockets and B-1 bombers, underscoring just how far Los Angeles' economy has evolved from its dependence on the aerospace industry.
Over the last three decades, the aerospace sector has shuttered scores of manufacturing plants and put thousands of people out of work. Last month, Boeing announced plans to begin shutting down its C-17 assembly plant in Long Beach.
The number of full-time aerospace jobs in Los Angeles County plummeted 70% from 1990 to 2005, to 38,400, while entertainment employment in the county jumped 37% during the period, to 130,900 jobs.
Yet the wrenching retrenchment has left something valuable in its wake. Film promoters consider these aircraft hangars -- as much as eight times the size of the largest Hollywood soundstages -- as key selling points for Los Angeles at a time when the region has struggled to keep film productions from leaving for other states and countries such as Canada, the Czech Republic and Australia that offer generous tax incentives to filmmakers.
"These types of facilities are very helpful and offer an advantage to us because they provide a unique space that allows filmmakers to be creative," said Steve MacDonald, president of FilmL.A. Inc., which coordinates film permits in Los Angeles. "They keep projects here that might otherwise go elsewhere."
Los Angeles faces stiff competition even when it comes to monster production facilities. There are mammoth soundstages in such locales as Vancouver, Canada, and London, where filmmakers can reap tax breaks that aren't available in California.
But the steep decline in the U.S. dollar against foreign currencies has made filming abroad more expensive than two years ago, giving producers more incentive to consider locations closer to home.
At the same time, investors have poured millions into converting some former landmark aerospace centers into viable film production centers. Since buying Downey Studios in 2004, Los Angeles-based Industry Realty Group, a major owner of commercial property nationwide, has invested more than $20 million to transform the former NASA/Boeing testing and engineering facility into a sprawling filmmaking center.
Once the hub of America's space race, the 80-acre site southeast of Los Angeles boasts one of the largest soundstages in North America, with more than 300,000 square feet of shooting space, ceilings as high as 62 feet -- even a water tank the size of a football field.
The massive complex has hosted nearly a dozen productions in recent years, including "Spider-Man," "The Island" and "Catch Me If You Can," where filmmakers built a giant FBI headquarters.
Although the first two "Santa Clause" movies were shot in Canada, "Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause," the Tim Allen comedy that premieres in November, was shot entirely in Downey. The facility was big enough to house all the sets, including an elf village, as well as classrooms and other support services to accommodate hundreds of child performers, said Bill Wilson, the film's executive producer.
"I don't think we could have afforded to do this in California if it wasn't for Downey Studios," Wilson said. "These facilities have what we need."
How much of a movie is shot on a soundstage versus on location is largely dictated by the requirements of the film and a director's preference. "Star Wars" director George Lucas, for example, is known for his heavy use of soundstages.
Large soundstages have grown more popular in recent years as filmmakers stretch the boundaries of visual effects and computer imagery. Former aircraft hangars -- including Palmdale Regional Airport Site 9 in northern Los Angeles County and the historic blimp hangars at the former Marine Corps helicopter base in Tustin -- are especially attractive to filmmakers because they offer wide-open spaces, with plenty of room to build all kinds of odd-shaped sets. They're often cheaper to rent than Hollywood soundstages, sometimes by as much as 30%, with rates ranging from 30 cents to $1.25 per square foot.