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Investors are buying a vast, empty Boeing complex in Long Beach

September 19, 2008|Roger Vincent | Times Staff Writer

Plans for a massive indoor movie studio are underway in Long Beach, where the buyers of a former aerospace plant say they will build a $500-million soundstage facility that would rival the largest established Hollywood studios in scope.

A group of investors led by character actor Jack O'Halloran has already secured financing to convert a closed former Boeing site next to the Long Beach Airport into an elaborate self-contained production facility with 40 soundstages, a water tank stage, offices, commissary, bungalows, a private hotel and an indoor set of a New York street.

The group is already in escrow to buy the facility, a 1.1-million-square-foot behemoth created in the 1950s to build jetliners.

The proposal has won the enthusiastic approval of Long Beach officials, who had fretted that in the troubled economy they would be unable to put anything other than a parking lot on the site.

The builders hope to attract producers who need big stages but don't want to have to shoot out of state. Such a massive investment might be a gamble, considering that a number of new studios have come on line in recent years, but production executives have long complained that Southern California needs more large, indoor soundstages.

Successful new studios have been built in the last decade or so in Manhattan Beach, Santa Clarita and downtown Los Angeles, but they are smaller than the ambitious spread envisioned in Long Beach, which would be more on the scale of Warner Bros. or Universal Studios.

"You can walk on the lot and never leave it," said O'Halloran, who has been entranced with the idea for such a studio for years, since a trip to England to play the villain Non in "Superman II."

Superman's Fortress of Solitude was created on a huge indoor stage, and O'Halloran concluded that there was a need for something similar in Southern California. A few years ago he set out to see if he could get one built. He joined forces with Jay Samit, a former executive at Sony Corp. of America and EMI, and a local real estate developer to hatch a plan.

Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster remembers when O'Halloran, a former heavyweight boxer who played thuggish Moose Malloy in the 1975 film "Farewell, My Lovely," walked into City Hall more than a year ago and pitched the idea for a full-scale movie studio in Long Beach.

Boeing, long one of the pillars of the city's economy, in 2006 stopped making its 717 airliner, and closed operations at the sprawling Long Beach complex.

"We were very enthusiastic" about the studio plan, Foster said, and he led the would-be studio moguls to Boeing officials who were trying to figure out what do with their gigantic empty plant.

There was so little demand, recalled City Manager Patrick West, that perhaps the city's best option at the time was to see the 78-acre site turned into parking for owners of recreational vehicles who weren't allowed to keep them in their own neighborhoods.

In hope that a more glamorous and lucrative deal could come together, Long Beach rezoned the site this year for a movie studio and, just in case, recreational vehicle parking. Now the property is in escrow to O'Halloran's group, which calls itself Long Beach Studios. It is expected to change hands by early next year. "We're excited about it," said Boeing spokesman Glen Golightly. "How often does a new studio go up?"

Although industry experts have complained for years about a shortage of soundstages in L.A. County and runaway film production to other states, not all studio-building gambits end on high notes.

Dreamworks SKG dropped widely heralded plans to build a $250-million studio in Playa Vista in the late 1990s amid financing problems and local opposition. Business at a former Boeing plant in Downey converted to a mammoth soundstage in 2004 hasn't been as robust as expected.

The hangars in Playa Vista south of Marina del Rey where aviator Howard Hughes built his Spruce Goose transport plane are a popular film location, however, and the owners hope to sell them to someone who will upgrade them into a modern soundproof facility.

If Long Beach Studios can make a similar but grander leap, there could well be demand for it, said Hollywood veteran Jonathan Sanger, who has produced such films as "Vanilla Sky" and "The Elephant Man."

"It's becoming more and more expensive to shoot on location," said Sanger, who knows about the Long Beach plan but isn't involved. "But quality space under one roof is hard to find," especially for movies.

Oddly, the former plant was built in such a way that is ideal for film work: The floor can support almost 1 million pounds per square foot, and the 50-foot ceilings have enough steel to hang lights and other heavy objects -- and strong enough to support a 22-acre outdoor back lot on the roof if demand arises. Rolling cranes that can lift 30 tons are in place.

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