Film production studios serve as the foundation upon which the physical production of cinematic narrative is built. It is a where the real meets the imagined, and where the nuances of urban landscapes and technological innovations create a vivid boundary between the gritty reality of city streets and the iconically forbidden world that lies “behind the curtain.”
While sound stages are without a doubt the ultimate “black box” building typology, the campus within which they sit is much more than the leftover spaces between them. A dynamic choreography of talent, vehicles, equipment, and sets crisscrosses a studio’s base camp much like a small town and requires just as much care and consideration in its planning and design as a small town might. Besides elemental circulation and safety concerns, base camp establishes the common vibe for the shared experiences of multiple tenants and all manner of talent – some local, some visitors – living together on a daily basis for an intense period of creative production. A studio's design must strike a balance between performance and aesthetic appeal to address their diverse needs. By considering base camp within the classical planning and commercial real estate cannons of privately held “common space amenities” and public “open space,” the architectural design of a production campus can encourage collaboration and foster a sense of community, both within the site and also in conjunction with its surrounding urban context.
Designing studios in the urban core comes with its own set of challenges. The influence of real people in the surrounding community (neighbors, unions, city officials, etc.) and the pernicious reality of geographical factors – such as Hollywood’s Thirty-Mile Zone or TMZ determining the cost of film crews and labor – all conspire to apply pressures and parameters to the scale and quality of new soundstages, from the cost of the land itself to the cost of the labor and materials required to make it real. At the same time, building in developed film markets such as Los Angeles, New York, and London, cities awash to a stunning degree in global film talent, means that sound stages have become a bona fide “real estate asset” type. The race to provide high quality workplace and luxurious amenities has been going on for some time, adding cost and risk to the equation but also a higher potential upside.
In our projects for production studios located in urban areas such as Los Angeles and Melbourne, great care was taken to recognize each project first and foremost as a real estate development, meaning that site planning and overall development yield in terms of net rentable square feet were carefully analyzed using parametric tools, hand sketches and vigorous debate between and among the design and development teams to optimize the site’s limited resources. Amenities were thoughtfully considered and dialed in as a factor determining the architectural quality of the production, post-production, filming, and base camp spaces. Understanding the level of quality that could be achieved and the future tenants our clients wished to attract was key in determining the potential yield. It’s one thing to build out 16 sound stages over 300,000 SF with another 300,000 SF of office space. However, it’s another thing entirely to create a desirable product in a crowded market that attracts stable, long- and medium-term tenants, many of whom are highly creative and astute consumers of architecture and interior design.
Research has shown that A-list talent would rather work at a less technologically advanced studio close to their homes and in a “cool” neighborhood than in a technologically advanced studio outside the TMZ. How then can we assist studio developers and film companies with both scenarios, when building in the urban core presents its own challenges, but so does building on the outskirts of an urban area where long commutes degrade the work experience and increase labor rates? These are some of the questions we are exploring with our current studio clients.
As technology advances, so does the potential for immersive filming experiences within the studio setting. Many production spaces are located in long-span buildings, easily allowing for the integration of AR/VR screens and equipment to provide immersive environments that elevate the acting experience. In an ironic twist, some of the largest immersive screens (i.e. those that allow actors to actually see the film they are acting in projected on the screen behind them) are occurring in sunny SoCal, where the film industry initially located in order to exploit the many days of sunshine—outdoors.
As times and technologies change, so too must studio design to accommodate new technologies. An unfortunate side effect is an ever-larger carbon footprint with rising electrical demand at a difficult moment in our collective climate change journey. This will require the absolute cutting edge in terms of regenerative power design and carbon neutral strategies. For our project in Los Angeles, the bottom line is an electrical vault twice the size of a typical real estate development of this scale, new requirements around making the production office and studio roofs solar PV-ready, and a robust working relationship with the local utility provider. Our largest stages will accommodate the new technology without being overly prescriptive in their design, since this technology too will evolve over time.
The meteoric rise of streaming platforms has led to an unprecedented demand for content. Even with ambitious plans in the pipeline, there remains a pressing question: will there be enough physical production space to meet this increased appetite for content creation? With 6.2 million SF of production space currently serving approximately 650 shows, and an additional 3-4 million SF in the pipeline, Los Angeles will likely keep pace with demand. However, an interesting statistic relates to the budget of shows filming in and around Los Angeles, namely that while Atlanta, GA, is heading towards 7 million SF of production space, it only hosts 200 shows. This indicates that the higher-budget, better quality productions are heading to locations with newer stages. In order to attract the type of longer-term, high production value shows that enhance investment returns and stability, Los Angeles and other talent hubs will need to provide more purpose-built, new production space to remain the premier locations for filming in the United States and elsewhere.
While many diverse urban and suburban settings remain viable options for new stages around the world, one thing is clear: achieving the large-scale mix of high-quality workplace and technologically advanced stages, supporting buildings, and open spaces will require top-flight architectural design and engineering. Sound stage campuses have entered the mixed-use cannon and as such, will benefit from the experience and multi-disciplinarity of internationally recognized architecture and design firms. At Grimshaw, our international network of developers, property owners, consultants, and owner-advisors means we are a willing and able partner for those wishing to get behind the curtain and explore!