Orlando, Fla.--Will It Become Hollywood East? : Universal and Disney have committed a combined $1 billion for production facilities and studio tours

Rock 'n' roll blares and nearly a dozen Mouseketeers skip onto a Disney sound stage, past the neon diner counter, past a pink refrigerator labeled "Eisner." Twenty years ago, this would have been Circus Day at the Mickey Mouse Club. But times have changed, so: "It's Thursday, Party Day," exclaims 13-year-old Damon Pampolina, "and it's going to be a hot, hot, hot party!" No somber uniforms and Mickey Mouse ears for these hot partygoers; they're decked out in jeans and high-tops and colorful barrettes.

Ten miles up the highway, at Universal Studios, times also have changed at June Cleaver's household. The Beaver is divorced, with two children, and lives at home with his widowed mom. On "The New Leave It to Beaver" June still wears pearls, but she uses a Cuisinart, dates men and attends classes at the local college.

More than style and story line separate these two TV series from the classic originals they imitate: Both shows are in production a continent away from their Hollywood roots--in a town known more for souvenir shops than sound stages.

Orlando Mayor Bill Frederick predicts that will change. He has told his constituents that someday their city will become the Hollywood of the East. (In one speech, he even joked--or was it a joke?--that in 50 years, people will be referring to Hollywood as Orlando West.)

The local press has dutifully followed suit. Steve Martin's recent arrival on the set of Ron Howard's "Parenthood" prompted Orlando magazine to breathlessly boast that the city's "Hollywood East hopes have reached new heights. The future is upon us." Orlando's ambitions have also drawn attention from national news organizations such as NBC and Newsweek.

Others aren't so sanguine about Orlando's show-biz prospects. But Frederick's remarks are more than flights of fancy: His vision for Orlando is based on the very real $1-billion combined commitments that Disney and Universal Studios have made to building production facilities and studio tours in Orlando. There are also persistent rumors that Paramount is shopping for land in the area, but a Paramount spokeswoman declined to comment.

Alongside "The New Mickey Mouse Club," which will debut April 24 on the Disney Channel, the syndicated "Superboy" series is being produced at the Disney-MGM Studios (the company is leasing the rights to the MGM name) just a stone's throw from Disney World and Epcot Center. The feature film "Ernest Saves Christmas" and the TV movie "Splash, Too" were filmed at Disney's Orlando facilities, as well as TV shows such as "Win, Lose or Draw," "Siskel & Ebert" and a Carol Burnett special.

In February, the children's cable TV network Nickelodeon agreed to bring at least 450 hours of original programming annually to Universal's Orlando facility. Universal will begin production on the movie "Psycho IV" in Orlando this spring. And "Parenthood," an Imagine Ent. film to be released by Universal, is already shooting in town. "I probably will be back here," says "Parenthood" director Ron Howard, who chose Orlando as a stand-in for the story's setting, St. Louis, Mo. "The local talent pool will only improve."

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That's all great news for the locals, but can Orlando really ever rival Hollywood? "Not in my lifetime," is the common response from studio executives and public officials there. In his more serious moments, Frederick confesses, "I don't think anyone is expecting Hollywood to surrender its crown." Short-term, the mayor expects film and TV production to become one of his city's four largest industries, alongside agriculture, tourism and high technology.

The level of production in Orlando at this point is so tiny that it probably equals the volume flowing through just four or five blocks of Sunset Boulevard. Cathy Savino, who coordinates film production in three counties for the privately funded Economic Development Commission, predicts that the Orlando area will play host to $30 million in TV and film production this year.

In 1987, Florida captured $224 million worth of productions, compared to California's $4.7 billion, the bulk of which landed in Southern California. Ben Harris, chief of Florida's Motion Picture and Television Bureau, says his state will be doing well if, within the next five years, its share of production rises to $1 billion annually--that's still only one-quarter of California's current total.

Here's another telling fact: Universal, home to "The New Leave It to Beaver," now has four state-of-the-art sound stages. Sometime in the 1990s, that will grow to 11--still only one-third the number that Universal now has on its Southern California property. Disney has built three sound stages on its property and has plans for more (how many, executives are not saying).

Both studios lease their sound stages and backlots to outsiders. "The intent was to make them available to anyone," says Dan Slusser, general manager of Universal Studios. Disney offers producers in-house costumers, technicians and post-production facilities run by Hollywood's The Post Group. Universal has brought in outside production support, so companies such as Panavision, Lee Lighting and Polyeffects have set up shop on the property.

But just as it would be an exaggeration to call Orlando the next Hollywood, it would be shortsighted to underestimate Orlando's threat to film and TV business in Hollywood and elsewhere. The reason is this: Both Disney and Universal are committed to ambitious studio tours in the area.

Disney's tour, which opens May 1, is built on 135 acres and features a backlot with recreations of Hollywood Boulevard in the '30s and '40s, New York City's brownstones and a residential neighborhood. The tour also includes "The Great Movie Ride" and "Star Tours," a copy of the Disneyland ride. Universal's 444-acre attraction, opening next year, will make its L.A. tour look quaint by comparison. Like Disney, Universal has a backlot with Hollywood and New York landmarks. It also includes settings from San Francisco, Italy and a recreation of the town of Amity--the fictional beach community made infamous in "Jaws"--all set around a huge lagoon. The studio is building the two largest sound stages in the world to house its "King Kong" and "E.T." rides. There will also be a "Jaws" ride.

Because of their huge investments in these tourist attractions, both studios have an interest in hyping Orlando as a next-generation Hollywood. It also means that they will be scrambling to attract production to Orlando in the future--enough to give their tourists a behind-the-scenes peek at TV and the movies seven days a week.

"The biggest money maker, no question, will be the tourist side," says Norman R. Rice, vice president and studio manager at Universal's Orlando facility. "The only way it makes sense to build more sound stages is because of the tour. But, then, the Universal Studios tour only works because there is actual production."

Ditto for Disney. Drawing production to Orlando is so important that even Disney's most senior executives are soliciting business for the area. "One of the key people who makes calls is a guy by the name of Michael Eisner," says Disney's Ted Kaye, vice president for Orlando studio operations, referring to the company's chief executive officer.

In addition to leasing its sound stage and production facilities, Disney is promoting its 28,000 acres of land--a parcel twice the size of Manhattan that includes a nature preserve and a network of roads, as well as Disney World and Epcot Center--as a prime location for shooting.

Both Disney and Universal courted Nickelodeon when it began looking south to consolidate its production. Universal wanted the business so badly that it agreed to build Nickelodeon two custom-designed sound stages at no charge. Nickelodeon doesn't even have to pay rent, just agree to film on the property seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, during all hours of the tour's operation--not a bad deal. "It's a dream come true, " said Geoffrey Darby, the channel's senior vice president for production.

Nickelodeon's move underscores the role that Orlando is most likely to assume over the next decade: What's good news for Orlando is bad news for Hollywood, New York and other cities that have hosted Nickelodeon shows.

Rather than topple Hollywood, the more realistic scenario for Orlando is this: It will increase the threat of production running away from California, whose share of the feature film business has dropped from 80% to 70% in recent years; it will grab much of the burgeoning cable TV business that might have gone to L.A. or New York; it will lure away some of New York's lucrative TV commercial business; and it will become a warm-weather alternative to Canada, where producers have flocked in recent years to take advantage of cheaper labor costs and a weak Canadian dollar.

"A lot of the industry will stay in Hollywood because of inertia," says Rice. "But there will be a lot that don't want to put up with the traffic and the (location) permit situation there. I think you will see a new production center emerging in Orlando. There's a certain snobbishness among the people who say that the only place to make a film is Hollywood."

Says Disney's Kaye: "For the foreseeable future, Orlando will develop into a regional production center. It's not Hollywood East, it's Toronto South."

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Norm Rice looks out the window at the pouring rain, and then down at his watch. "It was supposed to stop raining by 11," he says, a little dejected.

Locals like to think that weather is one of Orlando's biggest selling points. But, in fact, the area is hot and muggy in the summer and subject to torrential rains in the winter. (Disney even constructed its backlot to withstand hurricanes.) One recent week, in March, was not a good advertisement for the city--wind, cold and ceaseless downpours repeatedly interrupted "Parenthood's" outdoor scenes (which are supposed to take place on hot summer days).

Savino advertises Orlando to producers as a town that "can look like Anywhere USA." But, in fact, the terrain is relentlessly flat, without California's mountains and deserts and beaches. And the city itself has the pristine lifelessness of an industrial park.

A better advertisement for Orlando is hanging in the area's film commission office. A take-off of the famous Hollywood sign that instead reads "Florida." Underneath it says simply, "HOLLYWOOD WEATHER WITHOUT THE HOLLYWOOD OVERHEAD."

The Hollywood overhead to which the poster refers is the high cost of labor and the headaches of permitting in California. Florida is a right-to-work state, which means that unions cannot require individuals to join their ranks. For producers, that policy is an invitation to hire non-union crews.

The downside, though, is that Florida crews generally are less experienced than crews in unionized New York or California. "There's not that large of a talent pool for crews--it's just getting started, " says Doug Claybourne, who produced "Ernest Saves Christmas" in Orlando.

Florida's right-to-work status is a sensitive topic, and both public officials and studio executives downplay the savings of using Florida labor. "It's a factor," Savino says. "But I don't think it's one of the main factors" attracting production to Orlando.

"There are differences in labor rates," says Disney's Kaye. But he attributes this to what he called staffing patterns. "In a union state there is this rigidity of function. When you're in the sort of environment we're in, there's this tremendous ability for interchange (among job assignments)."

But pay scales clearly are lower in the state, even among union workers. Frank Ladeira, a union electrician working on the "Parenthood" set, said he makes about one-third the New York rate. "Let's say in New York you make $30 an hour, you come down here and it's $11 or $12," Ladeira said. Michael W. Proscia, international vice president for the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employers and Moving Picture Machine Operators (IATSE), agrees that even union scales are "considerably lower" in Florida than in New York or California. In addition, he noted that the Florida IATSE local 477 in Miami is more willing to "make adjustments in working conditions."

"I believe (the environment for unions) is vastly improved," Proscia added. "Employers realize that the unions are cooperative." Since the IATSE local in Miami was founded in 1986, he said, "we've attempted to bring (scales) in line with Hollywood agreements. "

State and union officials say they do not have figures on what percentage of production in Florida uses non-union crews. But the Screen Actors Guild, which boasts 4,000 Florida members--the third-largest contingent behind California and New York--estimates that 90% of Florida productions work under a SAG contract. And SAG rates are standardized nationwide, a guild spokesman said.

But for extras, the situation is bleaker. The Screen Extras Guild branch in Miami has not been successful in making inroads, according to labor sources in the state. "We have to pull teeth to get money for these people," says Cassandra Carrigan, who runs one of Orlando's most successful talent agencies.

Moreover, Florida's child labor laws are weak, leaving few protections for youngsters recruited as extras. During the recent filming of "Ernest Saves Christmas," children were forced to wait on the set 10 to 12 hours before being called for their parts, claims Carrigan, who represented many of the children on that film. (Claybourne, the film's producer, said he wasn't aware of any abuses and added that the film makers fully complied with local labor laws. "Any time you have kids on a set, you take extra measures (to protect them)," he added. )

Rather than focus on the labor climate, Orlando's boosters prefer to cite other advantages to filming there: the cheap price of land in the area; a one-stop permitting system for film producers; and the absence of a state income tax in Florida. Moreover, locations are cheaper to rent, and they are not as overused as they are in Southern California.

There's another reason the film industry likes Orlando: Its politicians are nice, real nice.

When asked about his relationship to executives at the two Orlando studios, Mayor Frederick walks over to his desk and pulls out a photo of himself with Disney chief Michael Eisner. The two men recently marched in a parade together, and Frederick always makes a point of seeing Eisner and most of the company's senior management on his visits to L.A. (Disney is Florida's largest employer, though Martin Marietta boasts the largest payroll.)

Frederick is also very friendly with top executives at Universal's parent company, MCA, including chairman Lew Wasserman and his family. It's a delicate matter, given the fiercely competitive atmosphere that has marred relations between top management at Disney and Universal. "I try to be very discreet," Frederick says.

Recently, when Universal wanted to obtain a $3-million state grant for road improvement on its property, "we helped out," says the mayor. When the producers of "Leave It to Beaver" made a last-minute decision to shoot a scene on a local road, they needed signatures from three county commissioners--but all of them were out of town. So a staffer in the commissioners' office drove the permit 90 miles to where the officials were attending a meeting and got their signatures.

Don't think for a minute that Universal isn't grateful for all this effort. When Steven Spielberg, creative consultant to the Universal tour in Orlando, was interviewed on national TV, he specifically mentioned Frederick. Not bad exposure for any local official with political ambitions.

The warm feelings toward Hollywood studios extend up into the ranks of the governor's office, where former Gov. Robert Graham eliminated sales tax for film producers in the state and current Gov. Bob Martinez has maintained a similarly friendly atmosphere. "The state of Florida, and the political leaders of Florida, have always been very, very aggressive about courting the film industry," says Universal's Slusser.

Disney doesn't have to worry about trivial matters like obtaining filming permits. When Walt Disney decided to bring his amusement park east in the 1960s, he convinced state officials to give his company its own fiefdom, called the Reedy Creek Improvement District. The district, which is exempted from local land-use regulations, runs its own fire and police departments.

Disney uses that as a selling point with producers: When "Ernest Saves Christmas" needed a road for a chase scene, for example, Disney simply shut down its own roads. Didn't have to call a single bureaucrat.

Orlando's residents generally have approved of the welcome mat thrown out for the studios. A anti-growth county commissioner who raised objections to favored treatment for the studios, as well as to introducing new construction in the area, was soundly defeated by the voters last fall. "Basically, it's hard to oppose the movie industry; it's a good, clean industry," says Jane Healy, associate editor of the Orlando Sentinel.

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It is fitting that "Beaver" and "The New Mickey Mouse Club" are among the first regular productions on Orlando. Just as they are imitations of the real thing, Orlando is fast becoming a clean, safe--and artificial--reproduction of Hollywood, a town that invented itself, with all its elements of grunge and glamour taking nourishment from show biz.

On their Orlando backlots, both Disney and Universal have painstakingly recreated Hollywood's Brown Derby (with an accurate re-creation of the famous restaurant's Cobb Salad, Disney boasts), Disney has built a Grauman's Chinese Theater, and instead of the famed Thalberg Building in Culver City, Universal is building a look-alike Spielberg Building in Orlando.

Florida almost became a movie production center. In 1916, Jacksonville played host to more than 100 film companies, before they packed up and left for the West Coast--in part because local voters overwhelmingly elected anti-show business candidates in the city's 1917 election. Later, in 1935, studio moguls Louis B. Mayer of MGM and Joseph M. Schenck of 20th Century Fox publicly threatened to move their studios to Florida after California's governor proposed new taxes on their industry. Mayer said at the time that Florida had agreed to exempt the movie industry from taxes for 15 years.

But instead of becoming home to the movie business, northern and central Florida grew up to play host to the space program, New York retirees and Walt Disney World. Despite its other industries, Orlando in central Florida is most obviously a tourist town, a place where highway exit signs list first and foremost the relevant amusement park--an exit for Wet 'n Wild, for Disney World, for Sea World, and on and on.

It's the sort of place where the locals view Steve Martin--on location for his starring role in "Parenthood"--as one of the rides. "Because it's a tourist town, people are used to having access to everything," says Martin, whose every move seems to get reported in the local media. "It's not like New York or L.A. . . . There's no etiquette. And you're expected to be friendly all the time."

But tourism is why the studios are bringing production to Orlando in the first place. Not only do their tours help defray the costs of film production, they also provide ready audiences for game shows and live programming. By going to Orlando, Nickelodeon gets a ready supply of children from all over the country to fill in audiences or appear on its shows, as well as the opportunity to raise its profile with the millions of families flowing through the Universal tour each year.

And tourism makes Orlando a forgiving town for an intrusive industry. True, one family living in the neighborhood where "Parenthood" was filming planted a sign of protest over Universal's presence--a relic of the fundamentalist protests against the studio's "The Last Temptation of Christ." But most of those neighbors gladly suffered through the rerouting of traffic and mobile homes parked in their lawns and driveways.

"Everyone is pretty excited about it," says Sally McArthur, who lives across the street from the house where "Parenthood" is filming. "Even people who were hesitant at first. I have to walk down the street to get to my car. But that's a small price to pay for a chance to rub elbows with major motion picture stars."

"There's still a level of genuineness here, contrasted with some of the cynicism you find in L.A.," says Disney's Kaye. "There is this enthusiasm and excitement about a growing industry here. I'm too young to have been in the golden age of television. But maybe something comparable is happening here."

Whether Orlando's enthusiasm for show business will survive the inconveniences the industry inevitably brings remains to be seen. But for now the town is welcoming Hollywood with open arms. A new AMC theater complex is equipped with a circular driveway so limousines can arrive for movie premieres. And a local producer is even trying to syndicate a TV show, called "Movie Lot Magazine," to report on the stars who come to town.

Ancillary businesses--such as equipment renters, prop houses and animal trainers--are springing up. Orlando is even experiencing the sleaze that show-business necessarily seems to attract: In this case, fly-by-night talent agencies that soak unsuspecting want-to-be's for several hundred dollars before disappearing. "They're always just this side of the law, so we can't catch them," says Savino.

The flatlands outside Jay Stein's office in Universal City, Calif., are jammed with sound stages; to the right a steep hill flows up to the studio's tourist attractions. Stein, now president of MCA's recreation services, started his career in the company's mail room in 1959, when most of that land was undeveloped and the fire department would bring in sheep every year to keep the hillside brush from becoming a fire hazards.

The similarities between the San Fernando Valley then and Orlando now "are frightening," Stein says, gazing into the distance. "I think Orlando will look exactly like this someday, without the hill."

Orlando could very well grow up to look like parts of L.A., with film and TV production facilities rivaling those in New York or Hollywood. But it's less likely that Orlando will ever rob Hollywood of its glamour: In a business that is built on status, Orlando does not rank high on the lists of preferred locations. "We still have the significant volume here, and we have the infrastructure," says Lisa Rawlins, director of California's film commission. "It will take a long time to build that elsewhere.

"Is a producer or director or star going to want to go to Orlando to make a movie? I don't know. . . . There's a difference between putting 'The Mickey Mouse Club' or 'Leave It to Beaver' on a sound stage, and trying to get (director) Larry Kasdan to make a movie down there."

But, for now at least, Orlando is going to try.

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