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Unscripted Twist Adds Film Studio to Playa Vista Project : Westside: Hangars and warehouses are boon to crews displaced by quake. Builder hopes for permanent facility.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They are just three little placards, three small signs on a chain-link fence by the side of rumbling Lincoln Boulevard in Playa del Rey. On them are the cryptic hand-painted words “Independence Day,” “Lava” and “Nixon.”

Graphically, the signs are about as impressive as a panhandler’s “Will Work For Food” plea. But symbolically, the ragtag roadside display represents the arrival of a significant new production center for the film industry in Los Angeles.

Here at the foot of the Westchester bluffs, a quiet explosion of television, motion picture and commercial filming is under way. Dozens of film crews have made a faded collection of old aerospace hangars and warehouses their temporary home, with little more than the roadside signs to mark their arrival and departure.

Now, developer Maguire Thomas Partners wants to make the so-called “Playa Vista Studios” a permanent arrangement, re-creating the first phase of its immense Playa Vista project from a traditional office park with apartments and condominiums into a studio, with an adjacent residential tract. Planners in the midst of redrawing the development say they want to create a 3.2-million-square-foot “campus” of offices, sound stages and post-production facilities that will become a creative hub, refocusing the entertainment industry on its historic Westside roots.

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Maguire Thomas also is fighting to land the industry’s most glamorous anchor tenant: DreamWorks SKG. To lure the fledgling multimedia partnership of Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg to Playa Vista, city officials are weighing an unprecedented series of taxes and other concessions.

The Los Angeles City Council and Mayor Richard Riordan would have to approve any special breaks. And homeowners groups, which have helped postpone the Maguire Thomas project for more than five years, have yet to weigh in.

But early indications are that even neighbors of the vast lands once owned by billionaire Howard Hughes get a little breathless when they think of the studio’s arrival--the jobs, the glamour and, oh yes, the rush-hour traffic reductions that are expected to follow the switch from office park to studio development.

“I think it’s a great idea,” says City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter. “This is our signature industry, not only for the city, but all of Southern California. We want to let the world know as emphatically as possible that we are still the leader.”

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Reversal of Fortune

The ambitious plan could mark a film renaissance for the Westside, where the industry blossomed nearly 90 years ago. In the first decade of this century, so many film companies clustered in Santa Monica, for example, that on-street productions became a nuisance to local residents. When many of the studios migrated to the new suburb of Hollywood, silent film pioneer Thomas Ince set up shop in what is now Culver City. Ince used the Ballona Wetlands and the Westchester bluffs that loom over the Playa Vista site as locations for Westerns. And Hughes reportedly filmed there for parts of the movie “Hell’s Angels,” the story of World War I flying aces.

Later, Hughes would turn the property into a center for aircraft design and manufacturing, most memorably for the gigantic “flying boat” known as the Spruce Goose.

The plant was scheduled to go vacant last year with the departure of a McDonnell Douglas helicopter unit, but, instead, the disastrous Northridge earthquake became a fortuitous moment for Playa Vista. Several companies were forced out of damaged studios in the San Fernando Valley and found space available at the Westside property.

“We started getting frantic calls from production companies that had been working in the Valley, asking about our space,” said Doug Gardner, the Maguire Thomas executive overseeing the Playa Vista project. The Christian Slater-Kevin Bacon movie “Murder in the First” soon had gutted one Playa Vista hangar to create a courtroom stage.

Filming inside the property’s wood and aluminum buildings has boomed since then. From zero production in 1993, the facility recorded 75 days of filming in 1994 and 240 “filming days” in less than two-thirds of this year--with some days counted twice, when two productions have been filmed at once.

This summer’s two biggest blockbusters, “Batman Forever” and “Apollo 13,” were filmed there, in part. The signs on the front gate list the latest tenants--the science-fiction epic “Independence Day,” the company producing “Baywatch” star Pamela Anderson Lee’s first feature and the latest historical rendering by director Oliver Stone.

Models of the Lincoln Memorial and other Washington landmarks for Stone’s “Nixon” were built at Playa Vista. The magnitude of such non-filming endeavors is substantial but difficult to measure because it is not tracked by the county’s film permit office.

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Now occupying the vast Spruce Goose production facility--with cavernous filming space six stories high and nearly 2 1/2 football fields long--are sets for “Independence Day.”

Producer and co-writer Dean Devlin says that, in all of Southern California, Playa Vista was the only facility that could house what he called “the biggest model shoot in history.” The lot also allowed the film’s many diverse units to occupy adjacent buildings, so Devlin says he can keep close tabs on schedules and costs.

“Most of the time people do it all over--models in the Valley, digital effects in Hollywood, production somewhere else,” Devlin said. “But we wanted to put every department of our movie in one place so we could keep a handle on things. This is the only place in town we could do it.”

He credited the facility with helping keep “Independence Day"--whose ensemble cast includes Judd Hirsch, Bill Pullman, Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum--on time and on a budget that is expected to total just over $50 million.

Earlier this week in one sprawling hangar, about a dozen craftsmen bent over miniature models of the Capitol, helicopters and airplanes that will be put under attack by alien spacecraft. Next door in the Spruce Goose building, dozens more workers scrambled over a gigantic, saucer-shaped invader spaceship.

While national defense cutbacks have left other plants empty hulks, the bustling scene at Playa Vista seems to represent a conversion to alternative industry that has left all sides happy.

Hitting Home

In recent weeks, Maguire Thomas has been quietly sounding out community groups and Los Angeles officials about a plan to expand and make permanent the studio arrangement. Under the developer’s tentative proposal, the roughly 100-acre facility would be built along Jefferson Boulevard near its intersection with Centinela Avenue.

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The facilities would eventually be nearly three times the size of those on 20th Century Fox’s Pico Boulevard lot, several miles to the north. Ten historic buildings, including the Spruce Goose building, would be designated a historic district and preserved for future filming. But more than 85% of the sound stages, offices and other facilities would be new two- to four-story structures, grouped around a 7 1/2-acre lake.

Gardner, the Maguire Thomas executive, said the company hopes to build “a creative campus setting that allows a marriage of a lot of different ideas and disciplines here in one location.”

The 3,246 housing units that were a central component of the first phase of the development remain in the plan. The studio development would effectively link that first phase area with the adjacent McDonnell Douglas property, expanding the area of initial development from 280 acres to 336 acres.

The builder will be able to accomplish its new plan under existing zoning by converting what was once square footage devoted to aerospace manufacturing into the new studios and offices. The total square footage for the entire property would not increase from the plan approved by the City Council in 1993 and no additional Planning Commission or council votes would be required on the land-use matters, city officials said.

The 1,087-acre tract of grass and marshlands that makes up the larger Playa Vista property has been the object of development feuds for more than a decade. Hughes’ Summa Corp. backed out of the project after the environmental group Friends of Ballona Wetlands filed suit in 1985 in an effort to save the last substantial wetlands on the Westside.

Maguire Thomas took over the project and eventually agreed to several environmental concessions--scaling back construction, preserving 270 acres of wetlands, designing a stream to run along the base of the bluffs and pledging to construct a water reclamation plant. Environmentalists agreed to drop the lawsuit, although some activists continue to complain that the total project--creating a residential community the size of Hermosa Beach and office space double that of Century City--will gridlock the coast.

Because of the contentiousness surrounding the site, Galanter pledges to conduct full public hearings on the studio proposal even if none are legally required.

Supporters of the studio say they hope that any criticism will be mollified by an initial finding by transportation engineers: that an entertainment industry hub will create less rush-hour traffic than the office park that had been proposed. Office employees tend to come and go at the same hours, they say, while entertainment workers often work beyond the margins.

“It’s light industry, it would hardly create any traffic,” Les Sholty, a member of the Del Rey Homeowners and Neighbors Assn., said of the studio plan. “This is going to change the project materially for the better.”

Maguire Thomas executives say their plan is not reliant on DreamWorks SKG as a tenant, but they make no secret of their desire to get the company to anchor the project. A DreamWorks source says the firm is studying Playa Vista, Burbank, Universal City and other locations, including some out of state. The three moguls even could opt for several homes for their diverse operations--one for animation, another for film and a third for interactive media, for instance.

One source familiar with the site selection process said that the current home bases of the company’s employees could weigh heavily--with animators tending to live and work in the San Fernando Valley, while digital technicians and production talent centering mostly on the Westside.

Besides its Westside location, Maguire Thomas is touting Playa Vista’s ocean breezes and proximity to the airport. But unlike some of the other contenders, the facility has the potential liability of requiring the installation of streets, sewers, storm drains and an electrical grid. The costs of such infrastructure, which have not been tallied, are potentially exorbitant.

The city also charges about 0.1% gross receipts tax on businesses, more than most cities in the area. That could take a $200,000 bite, for instance, out of video games that grossed $200 million. (In a bow to the industry, business taxes on movie production are already capped at a paltry $12,400 annually per company.)

Los Angeles officials are trying to decide how much all of these improvements and taxes total so they can devise a plan to either waive the costs altogether, forgive them temporarily or amortize them over a longer period. How the costs would be divided among the city, the developer and DreamWorks also remains subject to negotiation.

Former Disney Studios Chairman Katzenberg came to Riordan’s home not long ago, as did Galanter, for a breakfast discussion of the possibilities. Over fruit salad and bagels, the mayor, the mogul and Galanter agreed they hoped to do business. “The mayor and I essentially said we want to work something out, but we’re not going to give away the store,” Galanter recalled. “And Katzenberg said he’d like to work something out but he wasn’t in this for charity.”

Package Deal

Tax holidays and fee waivers have been doled out only rarely outside the city’s redevelopment zones. Last year, for instance, the City Council agreed to forgive more than $1 million in fees and interest payments in order to persuade the Metropolitan Water District to locate its headquarters Downtown, instead of in the suburbs outside Los Angeles.

Maguire Thomas will have to make the case to the council that similar or greater concessions should be granted to some of the wealthiest men in Hollywood. (Unlike planning approval, the cost adjustments remain subject to council and mayoral approval.)

One official in the mayor’s office worried that the proposal might get bogged down in the City Council. “Some people might argue, ‘Why is this not coming to my area?’ ” said the official, who asked not to be named. “Or ‘What are the benefits going to be from the city side and why should we help make a lot of rich guys even richer?’ ”

To counter any such sentiments, two accounting firms are creating an economic study to show the spinoff benefits the studio would generate in economic development, jobs and taxes for the entire region. “That’s what the mayor and City Council will have to measure against when they decide what concessions to grant,” said Keith Comrie, city administrative officer.

The city hopes to present a package to the entertainment triumvirate by late this fall, which, in turn, hopes to pick a home by early 1996.

The cachet of the Spielberg, Geffen and Katzenberg names hardly needs to be repeated, but DreamWorks representatives are not above reminding others of the magnitude of their endeavor.

“This is one of the only growing industries in this region. This studio has a great potential for the future of the city. It’s the first real start-up of a new studio in 70 years,” said the DreamWorks source. “That is not an inauspicious event to consider.”

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Playa Vista Conversion

The developer of the immense Playa Vista project intends to convert the first phase of the project from a traditional office park into a studio that would include sound stages, post-production facilities and offices. Maguire Thomas Partners hopes to build the approximately 100-acre “creative campus” at the eastern end of its 1,087-acre project. Future phases will include housing, a marina, hotels and offices.


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