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On Stage: Studios Cater to Various Market Needs

Studios can prosper or crash based on their state’s incentives.

By Mark R. Smith

Aerial view of EUE/Screen Gems studios, Wilmington, N.C.

Some studios have been in the film and television business for a long, long time. Some have faded away and returned, others that are newer to the game have hit the ground running and, in some cases, expanded in a relatively short time.

Just how busy they are can depend on various factors. However, if they normally host feature films and television shows, the current situation with a state’s film incentives — and access to an experienced crew and plentiful services — often has everything to do with keeping the facility booked and the amount of investment made, be it of the infrastructure or technical variety, though there are exceptions.

What are studios hearing from film and video producers? They want to determine the fit between their production and the soundstage and production facilities; on many occasions, back lots, locations and post-production capabilities are just as crucial.

EUE/Screen Gems Studio 10
Fox’s Sleepy Hollow set at EUE/Screen Gems.

Awaiting Word From ‘Wilmywood’

Hollywood and New York are still considered more traditional locales for movie and television productions, but incentives, crews, and services can make other locations just as appealing to producers.

Take EUE/Screen Gems Studios, a large and long-time presence in the Southeastern coastal town of Wilmington, N.C. Spokesperson Susan Dosier says the studio has been “very busy” of late and is booked until the end of this year, but it’s what may (or may not) happen next that has veterans of the North Carolina television and film production scene concerned.

At press time, the state legislature was still negotiating the passage of two bills: One that would keep the current program in place, which is a 25-percent refundable incentive for spend of up to $80 million per film; or another that would rely on a new grant program “that considerably scales the program back, affecting thousands of film workers in the state,” Dosier says.

In short, dealing with the whims of a state legislature is a peril of the industry.

“We are a Tier One film state,” Dosier says, “If we can’t keep that Tier One status, we won’t consistently fill all 10 stages on the Wilmington lot,” which notably includes the 37,500-square-foot Stage 10. All told, the complex offers 150,000 square feet of column-free shooting space, with ample support space for construction, screening, storage, etc.

The studio significantly upgraded the digital and wireless infrastructure “to allow clients to collaborate digitally with teams around the world,” said Dosier. Among EUE/Screen Gems Studios’ more recent clients was Iron Man 3. Current projects include the CBS series Under the Dome and Fox’s Sleepy Hollow. ABC’s Secrets & Lies is filming its first season and a couple of pilots are in the works.

Incentives? No Prob

However, one state where there hasn’t been any recent question about the reliability of the film incentives is Georgia, where EUE/Screen Gems launched operations in 2011 and “has been booked solid since the day we opened,” boasts Dosier.

The paint shop on the EUE/Screen Gems Studios.

Built on the former Lakewood Fairgrounds in Atlanta, the property’s original buildings, with Mission Revival architecture, have been rehabbed into studios “so they resemble structures built in Hollywood during the heyday of the big studios,” Dosier says. The facility, which offers 138,000 square feet of production space and 10 stages, includes Stage 7/8 which offers 37,500 square feet (and was built from the same plans used for Wilmington Stage 10).

Just how successful has the Atlanta facility been? A major motion picture franchise that booked all 10 stages for the past year just wrapped; other productions include made for TV series, such as Devious Maids for Lifetime, and USA Network’s Necessary Roughness; the first season of Resurrection for ABC, and multiple programs for BET Networks; the movie Flight, starring Denzel Washington, for Paramount; and others.

With a steady incentive program comes confidence; EUE/Screen Gems benefits from Georgia’s incentive package, which includes a 20-percent tax credit for companies that spend at least $500,000 on a production with an additional 10-percent if the Georgia peach promo logo is included in the production.

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Second Line Stages, New Orleans.

Productions, Big ’n’ Easy

Heading deeper south, another happy tale is being told at Second Line Stages of New Orleans. Opened in 2009 by owner Susan Brennan and her partner, director of operations Trey Burvant, production has been rolling ever since.

Working with a state legislature can be tricky even during the best of times, but Burvant and his colleagues in the industry see that as more of an opportunity. The Louisiana production community has worked with legislators “to create the strongest legislation possible,” he says: It consists of a 30-percent tax credit on a production’s in-state spend; plus an additional 5-percent on local labor hires.

Located on the edge of the French Quarter in the Lower Garden District and marketed as a full-service, state-of-the-art facility — “the first LEED Gold certified studio in the country,” Burvant adds — Second Line encourages sustainability. “We recycle many sets and offer what we can around our community,” he says. “It’s a high consumption industry, so we do our part to get them to realize a cleaner footprint.”

Interior of Second Line Stages studio.

A medium-sized facility with three stages, the largest at 18,000 square feet, Second Line aims to give clients all of the conveniences the crews in California and New York are used to, including power, catwalk and grid systems, silent air conditioning, and NC 25-rated sound. “For instance,” Burvant admits, “we get much more rain here in New Orleans than they do in California, so our roof system was designed as a true cover set. Not one of our clients has had to suspend filming at our studio.”

Such attention to detail has paid off, as movies such as Django Unchained and The Butler have lensed under roof, as have recent reshoots for Percy Jackson; Fox’s American Horror Story, Second Line’s maiden voyage into TV, just wrapped season three and is in pre-production for season four.

“We’re booked through the end of the year,” Burvant beams. Some recent technical updates include a new state-of-the-art ADR/mixing stage for post-production sound and an on-site equipment warehouse. Second Line is “always considering expanding,” he says. “It just depends on the right plan. We’d love to add two more big stages.”

Building the Chicago P.D. precinct set on Cinespace Chicago Film Studio’s Stage 10.
Cinespace’s Center Studio Building.

Ready for Growth

Another state that’s been a big player for several years in the incentive game is New Mexico. It offers a competitive package, including a 25-percent or 30-percent cut from the Refundable Film Production Tax Credit and the Film Crew Advancement Program. In addition, post-production services rendered in the state qualify for the 25-percent Refundable Tax Credit — even if the project is shot elsewhere.

Offering such a package encouraged studios to put down stakes in the state, with a recent entrant being Santa Fe Studios. Opened in 2012 on 65 acres, they’ve only built on eight so far.

President Jason Hool points to Phase 1: two 19,275-square-foot stages, with 24,000 square feet of production space with offices and support, including a 17,000-square-foot warehouse with mill space, etc. On-site vendors include MBS Equipment Co. for lighting and grip, Keslow Camera, and Absolut Video Assist.

Recent projects include A Million Ways to Die in the West, from Media Rights Capital, which hit the silver screen this year; and Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, which airs on Fox TV.

The state’s consistency with its film incentive program has made it feasible for facilities like Santa Fe Studios to make plans to accommodate anticipated growth. “Our need here is two more purpose-built sound stages of 26,000 square feet each,” said Hool. “We plan to break ground for Phase 2 later this year.”

When you have land and space, you can do that. In addition to what’s under roof, Santa Fe’s backlot is wide open for whatever construction is deemed necessary for a given production; and, since the studio is in a Designated Media District, filmmakers can film at night, blow things up, tear things down, etc., without the need for special permits or alerting the neighbors.

A Midwest Catalyst

Speaking of expanding, heading north we find Cinespace Chicago Film Studios. They not only take advantage of Illinois’ healthy incentive program, the facility is proceeding with plans to expand by 1.5 million square feet on 50 acres near City Center, where it has also opened a brewery!

During the past year, Cinespace has hosted “the regular mix of TV and spot production,” says managing member and CFO Mark Degnen. “The TV work has been 50/50 between Fox, with Mind Games and Crisis, both of which were cancelled after one season; and NBC, with Chicago P.D. and Chicago Fire, which are back this year for seasons two and three, respectively, with potential new series from Fox under consideration for the mix.

Exterior shoot for The Playboy Club at Cinespace. 
A location shoot during Season 1 of Chicago P.D. at Cinespace Chicago Film Studios.

On the feature side, most of Lionsgate’s Divergent, was shot at Cinespace, meaning the interiors and some location work on its campus, interspersed with exteriors from around the Windy City; ditto with Transformers 3 and Transformers 4.

Under its expansive roof are 18 stages that average 20,000 square feet each, including the 60,000-square-foot North Stage 1 & 2, which offers a corresponding construction mill space, offices and parking. “We’ve had six projects going on here at once, which is about our max to provide the appropriate level of service,” says Degnen, adding that 250,000 more square feet within the existing facility may become the site of two more stages.

But that remains to be seen, given the feast-or-famine nature of the production business. “Though the hiatus can allow us time for upgrades for when it gets busy again,” Degnen admits. He also notes the contributions of in-house support businesses like Keslow Camera, a tenant/partner; Cinelease and NBC Universal, for lighting and grip; and the on-site Periscope Post & Audio.

Noting that Cinespace can “go from totally empty to hosting 1,000 people in two days,” Degnen says that there are “enough busy days to make plans,” while hailing the state’s politicians for making them possible.

“We’ve had great support from Gov. Pat Quinn and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. When we opened three years ago, the state was generating about $75 million in general revenue; now, that figure has reached about $360 million, with about 4,000 new jobs,” says Degnen. “It’s not all due to our facility, but we like to think we were a catalyst.”

History and More

Back east, Kaufman Astoria Studios is an iconic name in one of the industry’s iconic locales. Management employs a forward-thinking approach as it markets not only the industry, but seemingly everything surrounding it.

“We’re trying to create the best production facility in the business,” said CEO Hal Rosenbluth. The studio has its roots in the Paramount family tree reaching back to the silent film-era and the Marx Brothers. Almost a century later, Kaufman Astoria is home to Orange is the New Black, which just started shooting season three for Netflix, as well as season seven for Showtime’s Nurse Jackie. Also in production is season one of Flesh & Bone for Starz and season two of Amazon’s Alpha House.

Of course, what’s generating all of the action at the Long Island City studio is producer-attracting incentives, in this case called the Empire State Film Tax Credit. “It’s the single greatest marketing tool that the state has ever been given,” Rosenbluth said. Its rebate of 30-percent of below-the-line costs creates demand for the market’s strong labor force and use of its ample infrastructure.

Kaufman Astoria’s larger than 300,000-square-foot main building features its 26,000-square-foot Stage K. Recently, the studio closed adjacent 36th Street to create its backlot; also in the works are plans for the 18,000-square-foot Stage N, which is planned to rise in unison with adjacent residential and office space — demand for which will be created by the studio.

That nod toward economic development in what’s known as the Kaufman Arts District is part of what separates the studio, which has been the home of Sesame Street for more than 20 years, from The Big Apple’s other facilities.

“What we do is create an environment that people want to be in,” Rosenbluth said. “We’re not isolated. We’re even dog-friendly.”

Another Dimension

Let’s say that you wanted to set up a VFX studio in Southern California many years ago, and your client base ranged from La Jolla to North Hollywood. To meet them in the middle, you set up in Carlsbad, between L.A. and San Diego. That was what Legend3D did.

Legend3D recruits and trains talent from San Diego county, giving them their first jobs on major Hollywood films. The company’s Carlsbad facility is where Legend3D worked on producing the 3D elements for The Amazing Spiderman 2, Man of Steel, Maleficent and films from Michael Bay’s blockbuster Transformers franchise.

Today, L.A. is a prime 3D hub for filmmakers, and the studio can “give directors real-time control over the 3D look of their films,” says Matt Akey, Legend3D’s executive producer, of its new 3,800 square foot Hollywood-based 3D Hub and review facility.

The new Hollywood location boasts an 18-foot screen and a large 20–seat screening room, with both 2D and -3D projection capabilities, and 5.1 Surround, plus a 3D DI solution, utilizing SGO’s Mistika, for real-time depth grading and reviewing 2K or 4K conversion work in continuity.

“There are not many 3D-capable facilities in L.A.,” says Akey. “They are set up from scratch many times, since productions are chasing the tax credits … we’re offering a solution that keeps all of the 3D hubbed in L.A., near the studios and filmmakers, and in a comfortable, state-of-the-art workspace.”

The work is already flowing at the Hollywood facility, as Legend3D is working with MGM on its first major 3D movie, and has already booked a full feature conversion for the fall to be hubbed there as well. “The need for a centralized 3D facility for our studio partners has been here for some time. With filmmakers now deciding to save time and money by shooting in 2D and then converting, we are expecting more stereoscopic conversions in 2015 than any year prior.”

July 22, 2014