When movie producer Jerry Bruckheimer was searching for a place to shoot an ocean battle scene between two ships for the next installment of “Pirates of the Caribbean,” he chose an unlikely location: the Mojave Desert.
Unable to find a soundstage big enough to accommodate the 120- and 140-foot-long ships, he used a former Boeing Co. hangar. The massive shell in Palmdale had previously housed a three-story airport terminal, built for Steven Spielberg’s “The Terminal.”
“It’s all about size,” Bruckheimer said. “We just needed a huge space.”
Hollywood’s quest for cavernous spaces to bring big-budget movies to life has turned a handful of former aircraft hangars in Playa Vista, Downey and Palmdale into thriving centers for movie production.
In the last decade, a growing number of feature films have been shot in hangars that once housed the Spruce Goose aircraft, Apollo rockets and B-1 bombers, underscoring just how far Los Angeles’ economy has evolved from its dependence on the aerospace industry.
Over the last three decades, the aerospace sector has shuttered scores of manufacturing plants and put thousands of people out of work. Last month, Boeing announced plans to begin shutting down its C-17 assembly plant in Long Beach.
The number of full-time aerospace jobs in Los Angeles County plummeted 70% from 1990 to 2005, to 38,400, while entertainment employment in the county jumped 37% during the period, to 130,900 jobs.
Yet the wrenching retrenchment has left something valuable in its wake. Film promoters consider these aircraft hangars -- as much as eight times the size of the largest Hollywood soundstages -- as key selling points for Los Angeles at a time when the region has struggled to keep film productions from leaving for other states and countries such as Canada, the Czech Republic and Australia that offer generous tax incentives to filmmakers.
“These types of facilities are very helpful and offer an advantage to us because they provide a unique space that allows filmmakers to be creative,” said Steve MacDonald, president of FilmL.A. Inc., which coordinates film permits in Los Angeles. “They keep projects here that might otherwise go elsewhere.”
Los Angeles faces stiff competition even when it comes to monster production facilities. There are mammoth soundstages in such locales as Vancouver, Canada, and London, where filmmakers can reap tax breaks that aren’t available in California.
But the steep decline in the U.S. dollar against foreign currencies has made filming abroad more expensive than two years ago, giving producers more incentive to consider locations closer to home.
At the same time, investors have poured millions into converting some former landmark aerospace centers into viable film production centers. Since buying Downey Studios in 2004, Los Angeles-based Industry Realty Group, a major owner of commercial property nationwide, has invested more than $20 million to transform the former NASA/Boeing testing and engineering facility into a sprawling filmmaking center.
Once the hub of America’s space race, the 80-acre site southeast of Los Angeles boasts one of the largest soundstages in North America, with more than 300,000 square feet of shooting space, ceilings as high as 62 feet -- even a water tank the size of a football field.
The massive complex has hosted nearly a dozen productions in recent years, including “Spider-Man,” “The Island” and “Catch Me If You Can,” where filmmakers built a giant FBI headquarters.
Although the first two “Santa Clause” movies were shot in Canada, “Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause,” the Tim Allen comedy that premieres in November, was shot entirely in Downey. The facility was big enough to house all the sets, including an elf village, as well as classrooms and other support services to accommodate hundreds of child performers, said Bill Wilson, the film’s executive producer.
“I don’t think we could have afforded to do this in California if it wasn’t for Downey Studios,” Wilson said. “These facilities have what we need.”
How much of a movie is shot on a soundstage versus on location is largely dictated by the requirements of the film and a director’s preference. “Star Wars” director George Lucas, for example, is known for his heavy use of soundstages.
Large soundstages have grown more popular in recent years as filmmakers stretch the boundaries of visual effects and computer imagery. Former aircraft hangars -- including Palmdale Regional Airport Site 9 in northern Los Angeles County and the historic blimp hangars at the former Marine Corps helicopter base in Tustin -- are especially attractive to filmmakers because they offer wide-open spaces, with plenty of room to build all kinds of odd-shaped sets. They’re often cheaper to rent than Hollywood soundstages, sometimes by as much as 30%, with rates ranging from 30 cents to $1.25 per square foot.
That’s not to say there aren’t drawbacks. Hangars often are near airports and aren’t always soundproof. They typically lack the support services and amenities of a studio setting. And older buildings require more maintenance and may have environmental issues.
At Downey several workers on “The Island” complained of health problems, allegedly from exposure to mold and other toxic substances. Downey dismissed the claims as spurious, citing outside tests that gave the facility a clean bill of health. It sued the workers’ union, alleging that it spread false information. The union has been negotiating to settle the case.
Bruckheimer used Downey to shoot some scenes for his movie “Deja Vu” but selected the Palmdale hangar for a pivotal nighttime storm scene in “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.” The hangar -- one of two built in 1983 by Rockwell International Corp. to manufacture B-1 bombers -- has a slight edge on height: The ceiling reaches a staggering 72 feet.
The extra height was needed to get the right camera angles to shoot a storm scene involving two ships pivoting on giant gimbals, Bruckheimer said. The second and third “Pirates” were shot together mostly on location in the Caribbean, where the cast and crew experienced numerous logistical setbacks, including a forced evacuation because of Hurricane Wilma last year.
No such weather problems have hampered production crews in arid Palmdale, where more than 100 carpenters, electricians and other crafts workers have been preparing the set since May for shooting that began this month.
For technicians accustomed to spending months at a time away from their families on out-of-state film shoots, being within an hour’s drive from Los Angeles is another bonus.
“It’s great for the crews,” said Bruckheimer, whose first two “Pirates” movies have delivered huge profits for Walt Disney Co. “We much prefer to film here unless there are financial considerations that force us to leave. This is where the equipment is. This is where the talent is.”
Said Bruce Hendricks, president of motion picture production at Walt Disney Pictures, “I’m glad we have these facilities. It’s a good option.”
Keeping entertainment jobs in Los Angeles is a key priority for the city, which owns the two hangars that are part of the Palmdale Regional Airport. Although they prefer a long-term aviation tenant, airport managers are happy about Hollywood’s interest.
The “Pirates” production alone will generate more than $500,000 in rental income for the city, with a potentially bigger economic benefit to the local economy.
“It brings a lot of revenue to the hotel and the community as a whole. We love it,” said Kimberly Zilobaf, director of sales at the Holiday Inn in Palmdale.
She said the hotel already had booked 50 rooms for six weeks to handle film crews from the “Pirates” sequel. The 149-room hotel was sold out for eight weeks during the filming of “The Terminal,” for which many locals were hired as extras, including Zilobaf’s twin 8-year-old boys.
Fittingly, another aerospace-turned-entertainment hub is the former headquarters of aerospace pioneer and movie mogul Howard Hughes in Playa Vista.
There, film producers are breathing new life into the former hangars where Hughes built the H-4 Hercules, nicknamed the Spruce Goose, the famous flying boat made during World War II.
The site once envisioned as the future headquarters of DreamWorks SKG is owned by developers of the surrounding Playa Vista residential and commercial community.
Helped by its proximity to Hollywood, more than a dozen films (though, notably, not the Howard Hughes biography “The Aviator”) have been shot there, including “Titanic,” “Van Helsing” and Oliver Stone’s recent release “World Trade Center,” where crews built a firehouse and a replica of the downed buildings. Currently the hangars are housing a village created for the alien movie “Transformers.”
“The last couple of years have been back-to-back,” said Steven Dettmann, vice president of Playa Vista, referring to the steady flow of film projects.
The presence of the eccentric billionaire, famous for his obsessive-compulsive behavior, can still be felt. On the stairwell to Hughes’ former office is a white sign with red letters that admonishes visitors to “Wipe off your feet.”
“The history of Howard Hughes is a wonderful story,” said Playa Vista President Steve Soboroff. “It’s being perpetuated by the movies that are being made here.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Hangars host Hollywood
Old airplane hangars around the Southland are being turned into soundstages.
1. Palmdale Regional Airport
Owner: City of Los Angeles
Address: 39516 N. 25th St., Palmdale
Hangar size: 378,400 sq. ft.
Maximum ceiling height: 72 feet
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End
Mission: Impossible III
2. The Stages at Playa Vista
Owner: Playa Capital Co.
Address: 6775 Centinela Ave., Los Angeles
Hangar size: 359,179 sq. ft.
Maximum ceiling height: 72 feet
World Trade Center
Little Miss Sunshine
XXX: State of the Union
George of the Jungle
What Lies Beneath
End of Days
3. Downey Studios
Owner: Industry Realty Group
Address: 12214 Lakewood Blvd., Downey
Hangar size: 300,000 sq. ft.
Maximum ceiling height: 62 feet
Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause
Catch Me If You Can
Austin Powers in Goldmember
The Italian Job
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events
Christmas With the Kranks