December 20, 2011 - From the December, 2011 issue

Paramount Pictures to Modernize Studio while Embracing Its Past

Paramount Pictures on Melrose Boulevard is the only major film studio still located in Hollywood. Within its fabled walls lies 62 acres of stages, workshops, offices, infrastructure, architecture, and open space. The studio has developed a plan for site upgrades to provide for its thousands of employees in an ever evolving industry. TPR  spoke with Paramount COO Frederick Huntsberry, with Sharon Keyser, Senior VP, Real Estate, Government & Community Relations, Paramount, and with architects Bob Hale, Principal, Rios Clementi Hale, and Brenda Levin, President and Principal, Levin & Associates Architects.


Frederick Huntsberry

“This is about the efficient use of space; this is about making sure that we preserve the history.” -Frederick Huntsberry, Paramount Pictures

Tell us about your plan for Paramount Studios. 

Frederick Huntsberry (COO, Paramount Pictures): We represent one of the most important production lots left in Hollywood today. Paramount turns 100 years old next year. We have a rich history, and we have over the years done well in servicing the demand put on us by producers. Now we’ve run out of options for expansion. We are therefore looking at a development opportunity here to preserve the past while investing in a sustainable future here on this lot. 

It’s important because we see Paramount being in business here for another hundred years. It’s important because of what we represent in Hollywood itself. It is also important from a business perspective because this is a good business that employs thousands of people. At the peak, we have 5,000 to 6,000 people working on this lot. You hear and read a lot about the difficulties that this industry is going through because of changes in technology and because of piracy, but despite all of that, Paramount’s studio lot has grown stronger. I think one of the reasons for that has to do with this lot’s location and the great environment that it offers to the creative community. It’s still one of the best places to produce. The pressure that the industry suffers under is probably putting more pressure on the independents, and we’re starting to see more business move towards Paramount’s studio lot amidst all of that. This demand necessitated the need to look at this project. 

This started five years ago when Brad Gray became chairman and CEO of Paramount Pictures. I have to give him credit because he did see the opportunity on this lot. He saw that there was a lot of open space with surface parking lots, particularly the land that was acquired in the 80s including the Melrose frontage. 

Since then, we’ve been taking our time. We started by hiring Sharon Keyser as the project lead to run this for us. We went through a detailed process to select the architects for the plan. This was important to Brad, who was adamant about not destroying the past that has made us so famous here. We ended up hiring two architectural firms: Rios Clementi Hale to give us a design for the new space, and we teamed them up with Levin & Associates to make sure that preservation was being integrated into this design and vision.

And what do we have?

Frederick Huntsberry: We have 62 acres. We have 30 sounds stages. We have 1.8 million square feet. The issue, of course, is that you can’t take those 62 acres and make them 80 acres. We also can’t build up everywhere. Yes, the design calls for a 15-story headquarters building on the southwest corner of the lot, but we cannot do that everywhere. 

This is about the efficient use of space; this is about making sure that we preserve the history. We could argue that everything on this lot is historical, but in the design we’ve been very sensitive to preserving those pieces that we consider to be Paramount’s most important gems. The KCAL building on Melrose, for example, was significant as an early radio broadcast facility in Hollywood and is being integrated into the whole design. What we have then is a plan that calls for 1.4 million in net new square footage over what we have today. It calls for almost a doubling of the workforce on this lot over a 25-year horizon. 

Bob Hale (Principal, Rios Clementi Hale): To orient, we have Melrose towards the South, Gower on the western edge, Van Ness on the eastern edge, and we have the cemetery at the northern edge. 

Has that put any constraints on the program?

Bob Hale: It has because we don’t have any access to the North, and it becomes a solid edge. But fortunately, it’s an open edge. Due to the open space, there are great views of the mountains with Hollywood framed in front. 

Brenda Levin (President and Principal, Levin & Associates Architects): It’s also provides a very mature landscape as a green buffer. 

Bob Hale: There are some unique aspects to this. First, this lot was originally two different studios. RKO existed on the west side, and Paramount grew on the east side. They were separate businesses and separated studios until the 1960s. In the 70s and 80s, additional land was acquired, but these three pieces have never been integrated in any way. For instance, in the RKO lot they had their own mill, and the Paramount lot had their own mill. You have your own vaults over there; you have your own vaults over here. The different facilities had never been synergized into one overall studio. This is the first time a plan has been created to make this into one great place for the future. 

We aim to build around a series of open spaces that organize the campus. We were urged to bring better people spaces into the whole project as well as ideas about sustainability. 

We’ve tried to keep almost all of the soundstages that are here. We’ve plied through the studio to see where opportunities for expansion were that did not detract from the existing facilities. 

Brenda Levin: It’s important to note that there are no individually listed historic buildings on the lot. We are now proposing two historic districts as part of the plan, one from the original RKO and one from Paramount, all under Paramount now. But there’s nothing individually listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 

The buildings are described by use and type specific to the studio: stages, pre-production, post-production, utility buildings, and the gates. Maintaining representation of each type was critical in the determination of which buildings could be incorporated into the plan. Examples of each identified building type that contributes to the designation of the historic district are included throughout the lot. 

As with all historic sites and buildings, preservation depends on the ability to make a building viable for the evolving needs of the user community. In Paramount’s case it is to ensure the continuation of a creative working environment and active studio.

Bob Hale: Because there are a lot of giant, one-story buildings, the actual FAR of the lot today is under one. Even with the new additions it will remain under one and a half. In working with the character surrounding the lot and the community, we really looked at Melrose as being the area to determine scale. From that we determined we could build a bit taller along Melrose, and within the studio there are a couple of places where we’ve raised up the buildings but they sit back significantly from the frontage. Even though there are a few taller buildings, the setback results in minimal impact on the community. We really tried to make these edges tie into the adjacent scale of the community. Melrose is a distinctive linear street with different design areas. We saw the studio as creating its own sort of district, and we’re trying to bookend the block to provide one coherent identity. 

Frederick Huntsberry: Production requirements have changed over the decades. If you want to attract productions, you need to provide space for what we call basecamps for each production, which house dressing rooms, props, costumes and lighting all in large trailers. That’s been one of the challenges. Today, we’ve had to pick up some vehicles with a forklift to get them around a corner.

Are you changing the infrastructure? Talk about your electrical, water, and mechanical needs.

Frederick Huntsberry: That was something else that Brad endorsed: the need to upgrade the infrastructure. For years not much had been done in that area. When we started here, there were individual air conditioning units everywhere. Some were originally supposed to be temporary, and many were well, too old. The maintenance and utilities costs were at a premium. We then embarked on a plan to upgrade these utilities, and that took us a year to pinpoint exactly where we wanted to go. There were different options available. USC has a water-cooling tank in the ground, and at one point we had an idea to do something like that. We abandoned that idea since it was physically impossible here. 

We settled on the concept of an expandable system since we could not invest all this capital at once and service the entire 62 acres with a brand new system. Therefore, we designed a system featuring a chiller plant that sits in the back of the lot. Today, it services the center of the lot, mainly the post-production building as well as the adjacent stages around it. We have just signed the capital expansion plan for the second unit, and we will be rolling this out over the next ten years. 

In parallel to that, we’ve launched a plan to provide sustainable electricity here. Obviously, we’re facing an LADWP annual increase of at least 7 percent, if not more. We have a data center on this lot that requires a lot of power. This was not a great economic forecast, so we developed the concept of a micro turbine, which will provide 20 percent of our annual base load power needs. What’s important to realize is that these are all expandable systems. We are not trying to start off with everything on day one. 

We effectively have two businesses here. The film studio produces, markets, and distributes films, and then we have the actual business that manages and maintains the lot, the studio group business. The studio group business has a department dedicated towards maintaining the utilities here, so we had to invest in their expertise to advise us on what the best solutions are going forward.

Why here? I would say every place in the globe would want to have Hollywood. Some are trying to start from scratch outside of Denver, Albuquerque, Toronto, and Pittsburgh. Why stay? 

Frederick Huntsberry: You have a base in Los Angeles; this is where your talent resides. Your talent often doesn’t want to travel.

So if the sovereign leadership of Qatar offered to build you a whole island and underwrite a whole studio, you wouldn’t move?

Frederick Huntsberry: That’s not enough. It’s talent across the board. It’s not a case of ‘if you build it they will come.’ It doesn’t work that way in this business. They’ve decided to be here. 

So what are the new buildings that you are adding? Why? What are you doing with the existing buildings?

Bob Hale: We’re adding five new sound stages on the order of 20 to 25 thousand square feet each. Big productions need big spaces, and so that’s a significant piece of what we’re doing. We’re also appending office spaces to most of those production spaces. Today the productions come with a whole basecamp, and they also come with production companies that need places to work. 

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We’ve also planned a large new post-production building since that is a significant and growing part of the business. In the front lot we’ve got different kinds of office space, which will be for third parties Paramount makes deals with that need to be here. There’ll also continue to be office space for Paramount as a corporate entity. This one building we are calling the headquarters is 15 stories. It’s set back over 100 feet from Melrose, behind the existing KCAL building. 

At the same time we have a series of other office buildings lining Melrose. They are discrete buildings that will develop over time. The front part of the campus becomes the creative office part of campus, and then this studio continues to operate. We’ll have to move a few buildings to make this frontage happen. 

Brenda Levin: The new buildings are a little bit taller and a bit squarer, not quite as narrow and long. I think the important thing to realize is that this isn’t going to be done all at once—it’s a 25-year plan. The existing buildings will be renovated on an as-needed basis, and their historic district character is only the exteriors. As a result, there is flexibility to modify the interiors of the buildings for new and adaptable uses. 

There will be a series of design guidelines developed for the treatment of the existing buildings. When infrastructure is implemented, it will provide the opportunity to remove window air conditioning units and to install consistent windows. We will also incorporate disabled access where feasible. There’s a fine grain design attitude here as well as the large-scale master plan.

What else are you doing in respect to sustainability on campus?

Frederick Huntsberry: The new buildings will all be LEED certified. Already, the interior of a recently constructed post-production building is LEED certified. We recognize that we need to tailor ourselves to the next generation; the studios need to be attractive to this next generation that will be working here. We have a consciousness about the environment in mind as we look towards these plans. 

Brenda Levin: While sustainability is an obvious goal for this master plan, the most sustainably feature in the project is the preservation of the majority of existing buildings. 

Hollywood and traffic are both iconic in Los Angeles. You’ve spoken about Hollywood. Speak to me about the challenges of meeting everyone’s expectations on traffic. 

Sharon Keyser (Senior VP, Real Estate, Government & Community Relations, Paramount Pictures): First and foremost, we are not a developer that is going to flip the property. We live here, and our employees, talents, and production crews have to get in and out. That’s key to us, and traffic in LA in a challenge. 

We are looking at over 75 intersections as part of that analysis. It’s a nine square mile area, and we’re very early in that process. 

What we do know is that because we are in production a significant number of people arrive to this lot at off-peak hours. That means that we are not contributing as much to those peak traffic periods. 

We are adding two key ingress and egress access points – along Gower, closer to Melrose, and on Melrose, near the KCAL building. With internal circulation improved, we are hopefully not channeling people towards those intersections with the most burden today. 

I’d like to ask about the planning process here and the stakeholders. You’ve taken your time, and you’ve done this methodically. You have many needs, and you have many active voices in this community. Tell us about how you’ve approached that challenge. 

Sharon Keyser: What’s gratifying to us is that since we’ve been here for so long Paramount has had years to become engaged in the community. That’s why it’s been important for us to reach out to our neighbors, and we’ve had numerous meetings in the area. Paramount lies in two Neighborhood Council districts, and we’ve met with their land use committees. We’ve met with numerous homeowner presidents. It’s been gratifying to hear that they all appreciate the investment. Especially in this economy people are happy to see such a large landowner reinvesting and not leaving the city. 

Traffic is a concern, of course. Our edge along Melrose will change. In all cases, however, our neighbors are interested in sitting down and having a dialogue. It’s very early yet in the process. 

How long will this process go on?

Sharon Keyser: We announced this in late September. We had our EIR scoping meeting in October. We are now working on the environmental impact report. That hopefully will go for public circulation next spring. We would like to start the public review process about a year from now. 

When do you expect the first phase to begin? 

Frederick Huntsberry: Once the plan is approved we’ll be able to really see what exactly it will look like. That will be an internal planning process because it will involve substantial capital, and therefore it will involve VIACOM, our parent company. It would be within the first few years, but it’s still too early in the approval process to say.

Clearly, the tones of conversations taking place in the city government now are positive towards economic investment. How has that changed to your benefit from four years ago?

Sharon Keyser: Everyone is tuned into the need for jobs. This brings 7,000 construction jobs at full build-out and represents 12,000 permanent jobs, directly and indirectly. It represents $3.1 billion in economic output into the region at the end of the day. Those are big numbers, and local government realizes that. 

How have the buildings’ needs changed?

Frederick Huntsberry: The physical production process today is so different. We’ve moved from film to digital, and that involves the ability to deliver your product digitally. It involves the ability to edit much faster. Your production is closer to your editing facilities. Therefore you need high capacity cables between facilities, and as we tear up the internal streets to run new pipes, we will also place new fibers into the ground. 

It involves more computer animation and visual effects. You have the ability now to shoot movies in Los Angeles with backgrounds that represent other cities, meaning that the green screen process is done at very large scales. 

We’re seeing things more centralized because you can do more things in a smaller area. There is an opportunity to centralize production services, from the beginning to the archiving process.

Because your process is not an internal decision making process when you have to gain approval from a city, you have to ask the question, what does the community get out of this investment by Paramount?

Sharon Keyser: Our employees are very engaged in the community. We have mentors going to our nearby schools, and every two weeks we bring high school students here to have lunch and to mentor them. Money can’t buy that kind of a relationship and commitment. That will continue, and with the increased employees and investment here, that commitment to the community will increase two-fold. 

When we look at traffic we’ll be looking at ways to improve the existing conditions, things that would not otherwise be improved. There’s not a lot of development happening along this stretch of Melrose, so there’ll be opportunities for us to make those improvements that need to be made today. 

Bob Hale: A lot of employees also live in the neighborhood. Not all are in walking distance, but having a healthy business and employers in the middle of developed Los Angeles is a good thing.

Frederick Huntsberry: I would like to see Paramount’s commitment and investment in the studio and in the community enhance the ongoing efforts to improve the Melrose corridor. 

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© 2017 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.