Warner Bros. expands backlot tour to get bigger share of tourism business

Warner Bros. is about to premiere a major expansion of its backlot tour in a bid to grab a larger share of Los Angeles' lucrative tourism business.

Inspired by the popularity of its Harry Potter studio tour near London, Warner Bros. has invested $13 million to build a new set of interactive attractions and exhibits on its Burbank backlot, culminating a project that began two years ago.

The newly named Warner Bros. Studio Tour Hollywood, which debuts July 16, takes consumers behind the scenes of how movies and TV shows are made — from script to screen.

"Since 1923, Warner Bros. has built a legacy of creating the world's best entertainment, and the Studio Tour gives our guests an authentic, behind-the-scenes look at how we do it," said Warner Bros. Chief Executive Kevin Tsujihara.

Once an afterthought, the two-hour studio tour has become a significant and increasingly fast-growing business for Warner Bros. The tour employs about 200 tour guides and support staff, up from a handful a decade ago.

"The tour started out many years ago as just sort of a mom-and-pop" operation, said Jon Gilbert, president of worldwide studio facilities. "It's been doing so well that it's come to the attention of senior management and they've asked us to expand it. They said, 'You guys have been doing really well, you make money at it, let's put some investment in it and make it bigger.'"

More than 300,000 people visited the tour in 2014, double the level from three years ago, and generating nearly $30 million in gross revenue for the studio. The tour drew just 6,000 people a year when it began in 1973.

With the new attractions, Warner Bros. executives expect attendance to double again in the next three years.

That's a relative drop in the bucket compared with the millions that annually flock to Universal Studios Hollywood, which also has a popular backlot tour along with theme park rides. (Paramount Pictures also operates a backlot tour).

But Warner Bros. is hoping to capitalize on the growing influx of foreign visitors to Southern California and their desire to learn more about how Hollywood works — without having to go to a theme park.

A stronger economy and rising consumer confidence pushed tourism to record levels in L.A. last year. Los Angeles attracted 44.2 million visitors last year, up nearly 5% from 2013, according to Visit California, the state's nonprofit tourism agency.

The growth has been a boon to local attractions, including the Warner Bros. studio tour. Roughly half of visitors to the tour are international tourists, from such countries as China, Britain, France, Germany and Brazil, where shows like "Friends" have been especially popular.

"L.A. has really seen a huge influx of international tourism — it's been great for us," Gilbert said. "There's Disneyland and Universal, of course, but [tourists] want to see Hollywood. That's an opportunity for us."

Industry analysts expect the tour will continue to grow.

"They've carved out a niche for themselves," said Bob Rogers, chairman of BRC Imagination Arts, an attractions design and production agency in Burbank. "It's based on the fact that they are the real deal."

Warner's success at its London studio tour, which is often sold out, helped pave the way for the expansion of the local tour, said Kevin Klowden, a managing economist at the Milken Institute.

"It was considered a bit of a risk but it's paid off handsomely for them," he said. "They're very aware from that experience of how a studio tour can be incredibly popular with tourists without being a ride."

Warner Bros. is one of the busiest studio lots in Hollywood with 10 backlots and 30 soundstages. Though most big features are shot outside California, the studio is often running at full capacity because of an explosion in TV programming.

Some 14 TV shows are filming or preparing to film at the studio, including "The Big Bang Theory," "Mike and Molly," "Pretty Little Liars" and "The Fosters."

During the two-hour tour, guides driving golf carts take customers through various exterior sets and soundstages featured in classic TV shows and movies such as "Casablanca," "Batman," "Gilmore Girls" and "Friends."

At the end of the tour, guests enter a 25,000-square-foot studio called Stage 48 that includes new attractions and displays. The facility was designed by Burbank-based Thinkwell, which also was behind the Harry Potter tour in Leavesden outside London.

Talk show host Ellen DeGeneres (whose show is based on the lot) greets visitors in an introductory video. Guests walk through a series of displays that show all stages of production, from screenwriting and casting to visual effects and sound mixing.

Using video projected onto a drafting board, award-winning costume and production designers from "Sweeney Todd" and the "Dark Knight" series demonstrate how sets and costumes are designed from rough sketches to final scenes in the movies.

An interactive design station allows fans of "Batman" to build their own Batmobiles.

In the postproduction section, guests can "ride" a broomstick or a Batpod in front of a green screen, giving them the sensation of appearing inside "Batman" or "Harry Potter."

"This is about as close as you're going to get to the making of movies and TV shows," said Danny Kahn, the tour's executive director. "We feel this really brings a whole new element to the tour."

Also new is an expanded re-creation of the Central Perk Cafe set from "Friends." The former NBC hit series has been one of the biggest draws for visitors, some of whom learned English watching the show.

In the exhibit, visitors can sit on the sofa used by their favorite characters and get behind the camera, reenacting lines from an episode. There's also a coffee shop at the entrance modeled on Central Perk Cafe.

The goal isn't only to attract more visitors, but have them spend more time — and money — on the lot. The tour ends next a large store selling T-shirts, caps, mugs, and other merchandise. Customers can also order photos and videos for an extra $15 and $35. The admission price will increase to $62, up from $54.

"Everybody fantasizes about coming to Hollywood," Gilbert said. "We give that to people."

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