Company Town : Studios Are Out to Drum Up Some Work : As Long-Term Film Projects Shrink, Sunset-Gower and Other Independents Go After the Short-Term Stuff


Sunset-Gower Studios, the Hollywood establishment that was once home to legendary director Frank Capra and Columbia Pictures founder Harry Cohn, is branching out.

The largest of Hollywood’s three independent studios was once the exclusive domain of television and movie producers, who came to Sunset-Gower to film projects ranging from cinema classics (“It Happened One Night”) to prime-time sitcoms (“Blossom”).

But subtle changes in the television industry are making these types of long-term projects harder and harder to come by.


Networks used to order TV series 22 episodes at a time; now they are filmed in groups of six or 12, leaders of the studios say. One-time-only pilot episodes are more frequently ordered and more rarely picked up, they add. And the popularity of magazine-style shows such as “Dateline NBC” means there are fewer prime-time hours to fill with studio-made TV productions.

Plus, the movement of productions to regions outside of Hollywood has created available space at many corporate studios such as Sony Pictures. Consequently, they are starting to call their offspring production companies back to their own lots.

As a result, Sunset-Gower and Hollywood’s two other independent studios are changing course--pursuing shorter-term tenants who make everything from infomercials to music videos to multimedia productions to corporate training films.

That was part of the motivation for a $12-million renovation of Sunset-Gower’s facilities--the bulk of which has just been completed--that expanded stages, upgraded lighting equipment and readied each stage to handle high-tech multimedia and interactive productions, said Mark Pick, a partner in Pick-Vanoff Co., which owns the Sunset-Gower lot. That investment has already lured a few big-name tenants, like cable operator and program producer Tele-Communications Inc.


“There was a gradual understanding that we needed to be diversified,” said Pick, whose studio is the largest of the three substantial independents that remain in Hollywood. “The industry is changing in ways that we don’t understand, but the goal is to have the capacity to move left and right.”

As an example of one of those industry changes, Columbia Pictures Television--historically Sunset-Gower’s largest tenant, accounting for 40% of the lot’s business last year--is in the process of moving to the Sony Pictures lot in Culver City. Columbia and Sony Pictures are both owned by Japan’s Sony Corp., so when studio space and production personnel became available at the Sony lot, the decision was made to move the Columbia group there, a Sony Pictures Studio spokeswoman said.



So, after eight seasons at Sunset-Gower, the popular Columbia-produced Fox series “Married With Children” moved to the Sony lot last year, and Columbia’s remaining productions should be pulled out by the end of April, said Steve Auer, Sunset-Gower’s general manager.

Replacing long-term tenants such as Columbia with producers of short-term projects creates more administrative scheduling headaches and paperwork. But the studios say they see no other choice.

“We’re more oriented now to a turnkey kind of business,” Auer said. “We’re looking at this to fill our stages.”

At the independent Raleigh Film & Television Studios in Hollywood, makers of commercials, multimedia producers and other quick-turnaround companies now make up 50% of the clientele, said studio President Norman Barnett. The proportion is also growing at independent Hollywood Center Studios, said Vice President Harvey Bookbinder.

At Sunset-Gower, 90% of production tenants last year were making TV shows, Pick said. This year that proportion will drop to 60%, he said.

In place of the TV shows will be tenants like Sams Communications Corp., the Beverly Hills-based infomercial producer. The company used Sunset-Gower’s newly renovated Aquarius Theater (former home of Chevy Chase’s short-lived late-night talk show) for the new “Barbara DeAngelis Making Love Work” infomercial, which will air in April.


“The Aquarius Theater is a gem,” said Renee Kenneth Sams, co-chair of Sams Communications, which will use the facility for at least one more infomercial this year.

Infomercials require two or three days in the studio. Music videos can take four or five days to complete. Even the three weeks it takes to produce a pilot for a TV series is a mere blip on the calendar compared to the months of production involved for regular series and feature films.

Still, the two-day nibbles infomercials can provide are tasty enough for studios to fight aggressively for them. “We’re getting an average of five calls a week from different facilities all over town,” Sams said.

The Sunset-Gower renovation was “certainly a factor” in Tele-Communications Inc.’s decision to consolidate its multimedia productions at the lot, along with the rest of its Los Angeles activities, said David Beddow, senior vice president of the Englewood, Colo.-based company.


The multimedia projects TCI has in mind are “a blending of traditional television production techniques with computer technology to wind up creating a new kind of program,” Beddow said. Over the next five or six years, multimedia could grow to comprise half of TCI’s programming ventures, up from just 5% today, he said.

If that comes to pass, it will will validate Sunset-Gower Studios’ new strategy.

“Our real focus right now is to expand beyond network prime time,” Pick said, “so we’re trying to make (the studio) as versatile as possible to meet the needs of the expanding market.”