How Tinseltown has influenced the Californian business landscape
As the entertainment industry evolves, Tinseltown is in a state of transformation. We look behind the scenes of the USA’s creative powerhouse
The prop house at Warner Bros Studios has four floors, each the size of an American football field. It’s said to be the largest prop house in the world... though there’s one under construction in China, by Wanda Studios, that may soon surpass it. From Tiffany lamps and presidential desks to oil paintings and telephones from every era, there are almost half a million items available for rental. It’s like walking through an antiques shop on an industrial scale, with all manner of curiosities to catch the eye along the way. Here’s a gold ladder signed by Lady Gaga, an Iron Throne from Game of Thrones, a cobwebbed skeleton from Pirates of the Caribbean, the piano from Casablanca. Outside, huge trucks are loaded up with eclectic hauls of cargo to be delivered to the many sets and studios located across the city of Los Angeles and beyond.
According to Film LA (the official film office for LA), California spent US$30 billion on film and TV production in 2016, with the average movie budget being just over US$75 million. Along with Paramount, Universal, 20th Century Fox, Disney and MGM, Warner Bros has been at the heart of filmmaking in Hollywood for decades. Today it has 35 cavernous sound stages and 14 exterior sets, including a New York street complete with fake subway entrances, shops, a hotel, theatre, diner and residential façades ready for dressing. “If you have the dime, we have the time,” says my guide, explaining that movies and shows don’t have to be Warner Bros productions to shoot here. Long-standing TV shows that have been filmed in this location include Ellen and The Big Bang Theory.
Employing more than 141,000 people, entertainment is the most important pillar of LA’s “creative economy”. Last year it generated US$190 billion and employed one in eight people. Consequently, Los Angeles has been dubbed the most creative city in the US. But, disruption is afoot. The industry is changing, with online streaming shaking up Hollywood in a way it’s never experienced before. Even social media companies such as Facebook, with a new campus in LA’s Playa Vista, are investing heavily in bespoke video content (Facebook’s Watch video-ondemand platform launched in the US in summer 2017).
In 2017, Netflix spent US$6 billion on original programming, and is reportedly planning
to plough another US$7-8 billion into dramas and documentaries in 2018. You only have to drive down Sunset Boulevard to see the literal rise of extended format programming, with huge billboards advertising The Crown (Netflix), Big Little Lies (HBO), The Problem with Apu (TruTV) and The Marvelous Mrs Maisel (Amazon).
“There aren’t enough sound stages in LA to cope with demand,” says Chris Rico, director of innovation at the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation. Competing with Hollywood’s traditional studios, Netflix has now signed a ten-year lease for 52,000 sqm of space from Hollywood’s Sunset Bronson Studios (the original Warner Bros location and where 1927’s
The Jazz Singer was filmed), including sound stages, production studios and a shiny new 14-floor Genslerdesigned office. Amy Dee, Netflix’s director of global real estate, workplace and procurement told the Los Angeles
Times: “We wanted to be where Hollywood came to life. Even though we’re a cutting-edge tech company, we take very seriously the history of the entertainment industry and its roots in Hollywood.”
Meanwhile, Amazon is moving from Santa Monica to Culver Studios (near Sony Pictures in Culver City) where films such as Citizen Kane were once made. Apple, too, is keen to muscle its way into Hollywood production and is apparently on the lookout for a permanent studio base to create original content (it plans to spend US$4.2 billion on programming by 2022). Over the next year, Google’s You Tube is funding more than 40 movies and shows for its site, which is a state-of-the-art production facility in Playa Vista. It occupies a former aircraft hangar once used by legendary film director and aviator Howard Hughes, but now refurbished with giant green screens. Buzzfeed Motion Pictures has been entrenched in Hollywood’s Siren Studios for the last couple of years as it looks for somewhere bigger, while, conversely, famed director James Cameron is renting studio space 25 miles away in Manhattan Beach, where he is filming his Avatar sequels.
BILLION DOLLAR BABIES
There have been all manner of bankruptcies, mergers and takeovers in Tinseltown, and new deals are being forged all the time. The most headline-grabbing deal in recent times was the announcement in December 2017 of a planned US$52.4 billion sale of the majority of Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox empire (including the movie and TV studio) to the Disney Company. If it happens, by 2019 Disney will have added two new streaming platforms – one for sports and one for entertainment. Disney will also be gaining control of homegrown LA streaming (VOD) company Hulu (Fox, Comcast and Time Warner also have stakes in it), which spent an estimated US$2.5 billion on original content last year.
A report from the Otis College of Art and Design predicts that, over the next four years, employment in LA’s creative economy will grow by more than 5 per cent across sectors including entertainment, fashion, printing and publishing, architecture, interior design and digital media. It’s easy to believe when people speak of the flood of New Yorkers, for example, moving here for more opportunities, cheaper rents and sunnier climes.
Rico says: “I find that if you asked New Yorkers ten years ago if they’d ever live in Los Angeles, they would have said ‘No way, New York is the place to be, I would never live in LA, it’s too big, there’s too much traffic’. But relative to Manhattan it’s a bargain. Whereas they’ll have been living in a 300 sq ft [28 sqm] apartment there, for a comparable amount of money, here they can have 1,000 sq ft [93 sqm]. I think for artistic people, being in a place that’s conducive to being in a good mood can be beneficial for their work. After getting used to a frenetic pace of life, they come to LA and it’s as if they have excess bandwidth. It’s infused new energy into the city.”
TINSELTOWN TURNS CEREBRAL... AND COOL
Many people have dismissed Los Angeles as a vapid place to live, but its growing status as a cultural capital is gaining respect. It’s much deserved, when you consider it has some of the best museums and galleries in the country, including the Getty, The Broad and LACMA, which will be expanded by 2023 thanks to a US$600 million investment that will see its campus extended over Wilshire Boulevard with the addition of the LACMA Building for the Permanent Collection. (The new nearby Wilshire/ Fairfax subway station will open at around the same time.) Running from September 2017 to January 2018, “Pacific Standard Time LA/LA” was an ambitious fourmonth exhibition of Latin American and Latino culture with works by 1,100 artists from 45 countries displayed across more than 70 venues in LA and the wider state. It’s endeavours like these that are inspiring an influx of talent.
With a growing community of creatives comes innovation, which means LA is also leading the way when it comes to everything from health food trends to the experience economy (Airbnb Experiences lists dozens of activities you can book with a local, such as vinyl record shopping with a Grammy award-winning artist).
There are lots of trendy hotspots such as Abbot Kinney, Echo Park, Silver Lake and Los Feliz emerging across LA these days, but one area that has seen significant change in terms of the creative economy is Downtown. It’s impossible to miss, being the only cluster of high-rise buildings in an otherwise low-rise city. Essentially the central business district, its make-up has been changing. It’s become more residential and, over the past five years or so, the old warehouses and lofts have been taken over by artists. Gentrification has swiftly followed and, now, beyond the apocalyptic border of Skid Row, where
desperate drug addicts and homeless people live in tents on the pavement (outrageous to see in a state as wealthy as California), you’ll find the fully fledged Arts District and some of the most expensive real estate in LA.
The Arts District has the familiar feel of New York’s Brooklyn or London’s Shoreditch with murals on the sides of buildings, hipster boutiques, neon sign workshops, cold-brew coffeehouses, ice cream parlours, breweries, distilleries, concept stores, co-working spaces and galleries such as Hauser & Wirth, which also has a chic bistro called Manuela next door and a mini urban farm with chickens. As artists are evicted or forced to move on because of inflated rents, corporates are taking the opportunity to reap the benefits of this new walkable neighbourhood. The Hyperloop World Headquarters has moved to the Arts District; there’s the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator; and Warner Music will be relocating from its headquarters in Burbank. Designer Phillip Lim and Dover Street Market will be opening stores later this year.
Chris Rico says: “I left LA for San Francisco between 2010 to 2014 because I got tired of the fact that the only thing anybody ever talked about was ‘The Business’. It was always what sucked the oxygen out of the room – even in the LA Times, the whole business section was about Hollywood.
“So I went to San Francisco seeking a place where there was a diversity of thought and ideas, and in the time I was there, LA and San Francisco switched places. With the arrival of Dotcom 2.0, San Francisco became a oneconversation town – all anyone talks about is what app they are building. LA, meanwhile, has this complement of new technology, aerospace, autonomous vehicles, fashion, digital media and art. Movies are not the only thing that people talk about now.”
He continues: “If you think about Charlie Chaplin, Howard Hughes and Walt Disney, people like that were what defined Los Angeles as this place for dreamers. Today, you have new dreamers such as Elon Musk and Evan Spiegel, who created Snapchat and decided to keep it in LA because of the creative economy and how integral that was to its offering, even though many of its venture capitalists were trying to get him to move to Silicon Valley.
“I think what is happening in LA right now is you are seeing that convergence, where you have all of these artists and new technology. When you get into designing rockets and imagining future modes of transportation, for example, it’s very creative.”
By the time of LA’s Olympic Games in 2028, Rico predicts the city will look very different. There will be a new light rail and metro system (public transport is severely lacking right now). Meanwhile, Musk’s Boring Company has already started digging tunnels beneath the city for a new kind of transport system in which cars are shuttled beneath the roads on drive-on, drive-off “skates”. There will probably be selfdriving cars too, so instead of getting angry at being stuck in traffic, you can sit back and enjoy watching Avatar 4.
ABOVE: Sunset Boulevard LEFT: LA street art
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: The Paul Smith store on Melrose Avenue; LA’s iconic palms; the subway