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Film Studios Getting Their Acts Together to Provide Day Care : Children: Warner Bros. is constructing what it says will be a state-of-the-art center for 100 employee offspring.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The major movie studios are slowly moving toward providing their employees with child care.

Warner Bros. broke ground in October on what it says will be a state-of-the-art child-care facility in Burbank. The center, due to open next summer, will accommodate 100 children and will have a gym, separate playrooms for each age group and a theater/media room.

The new center will make Warner the second studio--behind Paramount Pictures Corp.--to provide on-site child care for its employees. Paramount’s day-care facility was opened in 1986 in a renovated office building on the studio’s Hollywood lot and cares for 42 children, aged 6 weeks to 5 years.

MCA Inc. also recently pledged to open a day-care center and says it is looking for an appropriate location on its Universal Studios lot in Universal City. Walt Disney Co., Sony Pictures Entertainment, the parent of Columbia Pictures Entertainment, and Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp. all say they are considering providing on-site child care for their employees, and Disney says it might reach a decision within the next few months.

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Financially troubled MGM/UA Communications and Orion Pictures--the latter filed for bankruptcy court protection last week--don’t have on-site day-care facilities and have announced no plans to start any.

Child-care experts say that the movie studios’ batting average overall is better than that of most industries. According to a recently published study by the Families and Work Institute, a nonprofit research group in New York, only 13% of the Fortune 1000 companies provide on-site day care.

“The entertainment industry is very active in child care relative to other industries,” said Sandra Burud, president of Burud & Associates Inc., a Pasadena dependent-care benefits consulting firm. However, Marcy Whitebook, director of the Child Care Employee Project, an Oakland-based resource and advocacy organization, complained that it’s easy for the film studios to look good because the record for businesses nationwide is dismal when it comes to child care.

Whitebook also finds it troubling that Disney--with its wholesome, family-oriented image--still hasn’t committed itself to on-site child care for its 5,000 Burbank employees. Preliminary plans for a proposed $600-million, 1.8-million-square-foot expansion of Disney facilities in Burbank don’t include a day-care center--although they do call for up to six sound stages, office buildings and a new employee center.

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“Disney is about entertaining families but not necessarily about supporting families,” Whitebook said.

Many studios, however, including Disney, Sony and Paramount, offer other types of child-care benefits such as baby-sitting referral services and programs that allow workers to deduct child-care expenses from their paychecks on a pretax basis. And in the 1980s, Disney, Warner and Columbia Pictures were part of a consortium of local businesses that funded a Burbank child-care center. That facility is now under the auspices of the Burbank Unified School District.

Why have some studios become so keen about on-site day care? After all, construction costs for a new building can run into the millions of dollars. And after a facility is up and running, Burud estimated, employers spend about $1,500 annually for each child, after taxes, to help parents pay for operating costs.

Part of the reason is that the studios can reap benefits through improved employee morale, reduced absenteeism and lower turnover, Burud said. But there’s another reason, she said. “The reality is they’re very competitive,” and willing to spend money on such benefits to attract key personnel.

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David Mannix, senior vice president of operations at Paramount, put it another way: “If you can hold on to your talent and they come up with that $100-million movie, it has more than paid for itself.”

Carol Davis-Perkins, director of Disney’s training and special events programs, said Disney already has two child-care facilities at the Disney World complex in Florida, but hasn’t yet committed itself to starting one in Burbank “because of who we are, if we do something, we want to do it well.” Also, finding a site that is large enough, provides easy access for parents and won’t disrupt studio business has proved a difficult task, she said.

Putting a child-care center together “is not so easy,” said Sharon Feldman, vice president of employee relations at Warner. Feldman said the company started planning for its child-care facility several years ago but ran into many snags along the way.

At one point, Warner and Columbia Pictures agreed to invest in a joint child-care center, but those plans fell through when Columbia moved most of its operations from Burbank to Culver City. It also took time to survey Warner’s 3,000 studio employees and determine exactly what their needs were and how large a facility would be required, Feldman said.

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After the decision was made to put up a new building, finding a site posed another problem, Feldman said. Warner finally settled on a corner lot on the Warner Ranch--next to some sound stages and down the street from the main studio lot.

Feldman wouldn’t disclose how much Warner is spending on the center and she said it hasn’t yet been decided how much employees will pay to use it.

When completed, Warner’s new facility will greatly surpass in size Paramount’s child-care center, which was started upon the urging of producer Gary David Goldberg (“Family Ties”) and actress Rhea Perlman (“Cheers”).

Children of all Paramount employees in Hollywood--which range from 1,600 to more than 3,000 depending on the production schedule--are eligible on a first-come, first-served basis, said Mannix. Employees pay based on a sliding scale pegged to their family income. Mannix said Paramount subsidizes part of the cost, but he declined to say how much Paramount pays.

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For Teri Freas, whose two daughters, aged 4 and 3 months, attend Paramount’s child-care center, the money is well spent. Before enrolling her children in the program, Freas, an assistant to Paramount’s vice president of feature productions, and her husband had to pay two baby-sitters to cover their long work days.

Not only is Freas now paying about half as much as she did then, but because her children are nearby she said she’s “much better at work, much more focused and productive.”

But with 165 children on the waiting list, Mannix admitted that Paramount still isn’t answering all of its employee child-care needs. Yet there are currently no plans to expand the center. “Sometimes you can’t solve all the problems,” he said.


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