Now Playing: Avant-Garde Movie ‘Boutiques’


Searching for an architecture to express the style of his small but rapidly expanding independent film and TV production company, Propaganda Films president Joni Sighvatsson told designer Frank Israel that “we need to project a young and funky image.”

Sighvatsson wanted at all costs to avoid what he described as the stuffy corporate look of established movie studios. “Our business is selling images,” he said, “and we needed to show in our architecture that we are different from the old-style Hollywood-Burbank operation.”

Propaganda Films’ new headquarters is distinctly young and funky. The raw and airy space of an old prop storage warehouse hidden away in a Hollywood back street has been transformed by Israel into a free-form stage set filled with miniature scenarios.


The free-standing conference room, painted a deep rust, resembles a tiny round fort out of Antonioni’s “Red Desert.” A boat-shaped core of offices floating under the old warehouse’s bare timber bow trusses has the air of a beached hull left over from a World War II sea battle epic. The espresso bar that replaces the reception area found in more conventional commercial layouts seems like a prop from a New Wave “La Dolce Vita.”

“Propaganda’s design promotes the myth of Hollywood,” Israel explained. “And making myths is what Hollywood is all about.”

Inside Propaganda, the Hollywood New Wave image-projection is everywhere.

Hip-punk directors such as David Lynch and John Landis presided over noisy and casual casting sessions recently in Propaganda’s espresso-bar entry. A constant stream of young men and women in outre Melrose Avenue outfits scurry among the architecture as if their every action were being taped by invisible cameras.

Said Propaganda Films co-founder Steve Golin: “In our space we want to create a scene where people feel alive and energized, and--if you’ll pardon the cliche--on the cutting edge.”

The company’s lively design is typical of a host of independent film and television “production boutiques” that have sprung up in the past five years. As the motion-picture industry’s major studios come under the control of conglomerates, a legion of lean and hungry young producers has spun off to set up their own companies in spaces designed to express an active avant-garde image.

Golin said that the secret of the success of the independents is “low overheads and high energy, low profiles and high style.” He claims his company can make feature films for $5 million that the studios could not match for double the budget.


Three-Year Growth

Since its start in 1986, Propaganda has become the largest producer of music videos in the United States. In three years, the company has sprung from nothing to an annual gross of around $40 million.

Sighvatsson and Golin find their new Hollywood location convenient as well as mythical. The area is stocked with prop-rental houses, post-production studios and film-supply outlets. Commercial rentals, at around $1 per square foot per month, are still cheap compared to elsewhere on the Westside.

In the last few years, Venice and Santa Monica have also become popular locations for new production boutiques. Drawn by the area’s adventurous upscale ambience, these young companies have transformed a variety of spaces, from old warehouses to conventional office buildings, into New Wave fantasias.

The Venice commercial production house known simply as Pytka, one of the first of the new breed to create its own space in 1985, commissioned architect Bill Adams to convert an old Main Street streetcar repair barn into a “mini-village.”

“Joe Pytka wanted to develop a space where a series of separate small production outfits, including his own, could share a communal feeling,” Adams explained. “The village idea, in which we laid out an interior ‘Main Street’ complete with trees linking the separate areas, came out of our discussions. The style retains the ruggedness of the old trolley barn played off against the sleeker finishes of the new partitions and furnishings.”

The notion that independent film producers and small production companies can band together to share a building is catching on. The Lantana Center, a development under way on Olympic Boulevard in Santa Monica designed by Arthur Pereira, is recycling an old office structure into a studio “garden complex.”


Privacy for Redford

Heavyweight independents such as Robert Redford are also creating their own architectural enclaves. Redford’s secretive new Sundance office suite on Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica is rumored to feature bullet-proof glass partitions and pass-key elevators as protection against eager sightseers and unsolicited scripts.

The four-story Santa Monica Studios building on Arizona Avenue, built by architect-developer Vito Cetta for rental as standard office space, was snapped up by two production houses, Media Design West and Visual Eyes.

Visual Eyes executive Alan Kozlowski told Bret Thoeny of Boto Design Inc. that he wanted something “very Venice, yet suave and muted” to characterize his company’s style.

Like Propaganda Films, the design of Visual Eyes sacrifices status and executive privacy for the noisy rough-and-tumble of open-plan spaces where everyone in the company may meet to argue out issues, hold rowdy casting sessions or simply hang out. Obscured patterned glass mutes the sunlight that pours in from the studio’s central atrium. The subdued tones in the bleached oak finishes and the gray and pastel colors create an open atmosphere that expresses an informal, non-hierarchical style where everyone is free to suggest, challenge and collaborate on equal footing.

Rush of Juices

“Studio execs love to leave their plush Century City or Universal City suites and come slumming here,” Propaganda’s Golin said. “Our scene’s a real rush for them, it juices them up and sends them back to work lit up.”

A prominent Universal Studios executive, who wished to remain anonymous, confirmed that a visit to one of the young independents “leaves me so juiced I’m tempted to jump ship and lead the wild life.”


Distinctive architecture for offices and production facilities is a surprisingly new idea in the movie industry.

In the old days the studios, mostly vast sheds linked to strings of offices, were seldom distinguished in design. Classic Hollywood’s reputation for style comes from the flair expressed in the movie sets rather than the architecture that housed them. Famed 1920s and ‘30s designers such as Erte and Norman Bel Geddes created Art Deco and Streamline Moderne settings that were masterpieces of opulence and grace.

“The wonderful thing about the myth of Hollywood is its constant re-creation,” Propaganda architect Israel said.

“The reality may grow stale, as the major studios show, but the idea continues to inspire new energies and new styles that renew the story.”