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COULD THIS BE THE NEXT HOLLYWOOD?; STUDIO PROJECTS POP UP STATEWIDE : STATE LOOKS GOLDEN.

Byline: Dave McNary Daily News Staff Writer

Amid the manzanita bushes, oak trees and rolling foothills east of the state capital, developers are plotting a high-risk run at the movie business.

The project has emerged as part of a speculative boom sparked by Hollywood's surge in entertainment production, coupled with a lack of available shooting space in Los Angeles.

Despite the perils, entrepreneurs are scrambling for financing to build new production facilities throughout California, dreaming of becoming the next George Lucas with a Skywalker Ranch of their own.

``We are getting an amazing amount of interest in new production facilities,'' said Patti Stolkin Archuletta, the Los Angeles-based director of the California Film Commission. ``It's gone well beyond what we're capable of handling to the point that I could be spending all my time meeting with prospective developers of projects.''

Archuletta says that besides the Sacramento project, dubbed Declaration Studios, other viable projects are being worked on near Oakland, San Luis Obispo and San Diego. She declined to provide details.

Richard Thompson, who provides consulting services to potential studio projects through his Van Nuys-based Thompson Associates, said he is ``amazed'' by the level of interest in building studios in California.

``We're finding projects coming out of the woodwork,'' he said. ``Everyone wants to get on the bandwagon.''

Hollywood's success has come from a surge in theater construction worldwide, the explosion of new markets overseas for movies, TV and commercials and growth of new formats such as satellite TV and cable. Space on studio lots is often booked months in advance, leading to increasing production in warehouses and military bases and new soundstages being built by studios and by independent operators.

For example, an investor group called LuxCore announced last week plans to build a $150 million studio with a dozen soundstages in Culver City. It hopes to be open in 2000.

Most of the production boom has occurred in Los Angeles County, which saw a gain of 27 percent in production activity in 1995 and 29 percent last year. So far this year, a fall-off in photo shoots and a flattening out in movies has kept overall production's gain to 2 percent, but that should rise.

``We're very busy, and you'll see the number of feature films move up in the third and fourth quarters,'' said Michael Walbrecht, director of studio and production affairs for Burbank-based Warner Bros.

The rest of the state has also seen significantly more business since the early 1990s. California film starts soared from 219 in 1991 to 570 last year. San Luis Obispo County saw the number of productions more than double in the 12 months ended June 30 to 44 from 19 in the previous period.

``There was a big increase in commercials, and we also got some independent features,'' said Robin Smith, who works for the county's film commission as part of her duties as sales manager of the San Luis Obispo County Visitors & Conference Bureau. ``And right now, Paramount is here shooting a segment of `The Odd Couple' sequel.''

In San Francisco, immortalized as a film locale in ``Vertigo'' and ``Dirty Harry,'' 450 permits were issued last year for exterior shooting. ``We stay pretty busy although a lot of it is people coming in to do their `beauty shots' to establish that the movie's in San Francisco,'' said Robin Eichmann, head of the San Francisco film commission. ``Then they film the rest in Los Angeles.''

The Bay Area has also seen extensive use of the closed military bases in the last few years at Treasure Island, Mare Island and Alameda. It recently received a boost when TV series ``Nash Bridges'' committed to being based in San Francisco for the upcoming season.

A few miles to the north, Lucas has created the world's first digital studio at Industrial Light & Magic on the 4,700-acre Skywalker Ranch. Lucas, who is working on a ``Star Wars'' prequel, operates the state's only significant production facilities outside Los Angeles County, although San Diego has two soundstages in converted warehouses that have started regular TV production.

Warner's Walbrecht said the main reason why no one has built soundstages outside Los Angeles is fairly simple - such a facility would have a hard time getting enough continuous production to operate profitably.

``If they can get something open in a place like Sacramento, it would be great for things like local productions, independent films, TV and commercials,'' Walbrecht. ``But that's not consistent work. They will get some activity, but it's not going to be steady.''

Hollywood `leakage'

Currently, more than 300 domestic and foreign film commissions try to lure producers and directors outside Los Angeles County. During the early 1990s, ``leakage'' of local production turned into a flood, but that trend eased as Los Angeles regulations and permitting were simplified and the novelty of leaving town wore off.

``Producers and directors go out of town mostly due to script requirements and not to save money,'' Walbrecht said. ``If we're going to film in California, it's best to do it in Los Angeles. So if we're considering Fresno, Stockton or Sacramento for a location and there's a studio near Sacramento, that would be a competitive advantage, but that's not going to happen very often.''

The Sacramento scenario emerged last month when AKT Development and Palisades Properties filed applications with El Dorado and Sacramento counties to rezone part of a development near Rancho Murieta to include a 140-acre studio. The developers said they planned to build eight soundstages with a combined 943,000 square feet of space, a 100,000-square-foot executive center and a 100,000-square-foot structure with two screening theaters.

If constructed, it would be one of the world's largest studios.

AKT and Palisades had been negotiating with Declaration Studios, a Sacramento-based start-up company that helped the developers design the sample studio that was included in the application. Since then, according to spokesmen for Declaration, AKT and Palisades have dropped out, but Declaration is moving toward a deal with another unnamed developer for a studio in the same general area, about 25 miles east of downtown Sacramento.

The land is mostly used now for cattle ranching.

``It's still exploratory,'' the spokesman said, adding that a final decision should come by the end of August.

Sacramento's highest-profile recent production was TNT's ``George Wallace,'' shifted to California after plans to film in Alabama fell through. Like most areas outside Hollywood, Sacramento's biggest draw is for filming commercials rather than features or TV and the fact that residents are usually excited to see production crews and the occasional celebrity.

``People feel very comfortable about coming up here,'' said Lucy Steffens, who coordinates filming in Sacramento County while working for the local visitors and convention bureau. ``We have a good crew base, and producers find they can shoot with a lot less hassle.''

Shampoo to studio

The stakes are massive already. California accounted for about three-quarters of the $32 billion spent last year on production, followed by New York at $2 billion, Florida at $600 million and North Carolina at $430 million.

``The drive to build production facilities is worldwide,'' development consultant Thompson says. ``People like film commissioners started to realize three and four years ago there was a tremendous amount of money that would go into the local economy.''

Thompson reports that many developers are tempted to revamp abandoned industrial buildings, as has been done with the former Redken shampoo factory in Canoga Park. The property, developed by Robert Selan, has been leased to Fox Television and renamed Variel Studios.

Thompson says a similar project to Variel was under consideration in San Diego but was ditched on closer examination. ``To retrofit, it would have cost almost as much to build a brand new building,'' he said. ``You'll have a better chance of getting financing for a new building, plus you can get redevelopment money.''

Despite the long odds, Thompson still expects to see someone succeed in California in the next few years because of the industry's need for more programming.

``A typical half-hour sitcom needs a week on a soundstage for one episode,'' he said. ``You're going to have 100 channels domestically and satellite networks are going to expand to 500 channels. Those are awesome numbers.''

CAPTION(S):

3 Boxes, Photo

Photo: (Color) Sacramento developers hope to create one of the world's largest studios on 140 acres of grazing land near the capital.

Dave McNary/Daily News

Box: (1-3--Color) HOLLYWOOD EXPANDS

(1) LOS ANGELES COUNTY ENTERTAINMENT PRODUCTION

(2) TOP SOUNDSTAGES IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA

(3) HOLLYWOOD EXPANDS ACROSS THE STATE
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Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jul 21, 1997
Words:1423
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