BE­HIND SCENES

Warner Bros. ex­pands its stu­dio tour to bring in more tourists

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS - By Richard Verrier

Warner Bros. is about to pre­miere a ma­jor ex­pan­sion of its back­lot tour in a bid to grab a larger share of Los An­ge­les’ lu­cra­tive tourism busi­ness.

Inspired by the pop­u­lar­ity of its Harry Pot­ter stu­dio tour near Lon­don, Warner Bros. has in­vested $ 13 mil­lion to build a new set of in­ter­ac­tive at­trac­tions and ex­hibits on its Bur­bank back­lot, cul­mi­nat­ing a pro­ject that be­gan two years ago.

The newly named Warner Bros. Stu­dio Tour Hol­ly­wood, which de­buts July 16, takes con­sumers be- hind the scenes of how movies and TV shows are made — from script to screen.

“Since 1923, Warner Bros. has built a legacy of cre­at­ing the world’s best en­ter­tain­ment, and the Stu­dio Tour gives our guests an au­then­tic, be­hind- the- scenes look at how we do it,” said Warner Bros. Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Kevin Tsu­ji­hara.

Once an af­ter­thought, the twohour stu­dio tour has be­come a sig­nif­i­cant and in­creas­ingly fast­grow­ing busi­ness for Warner Bros. The tour em­ploys about 200 tour guides and sup­port staff, up from a hand­ful a decade ago.

“The tour started out many years ago as just sort of a mo­mand- pop” op­er­a­tion, said Jon Gil­bert, pres­i­dent of world­wide stu­dio fa­cil­i­ties. “It’s been do­ing so well that it’s come to the at­ten­tion of se­nior man­age­ment and they’ve asked us to ex­pand it. They said, ‘ You guys have been do­ing re­ally well, you make money at it, let’s put some in­vest­ment in it and make it big­ger.’ ”

More than 300,000 peo­ple vis­ited the tour in 2014, dou­ble the level from three years ago, and gen­er­at­ing nearly $ 30 mil­lion in gross rev­enue for the stu­dio. The tour drew just 6,000 peo­ple a year when it be­gan in 1973.

With the new at­trac­tions, Warner Bros. ex­ec­u­tives ex­pect at­ten­dance to dou­ble again in the next three years.

That’s a rel­a­tive drop in the bucket com­pared with the mil­lions that an­nu­ally f lock to Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios Hol­ly­wood, which also has a pop­u­lar back­lot tour along with theme park rides. ( Para­mount Pic­tures also op­er­ates a back­lot tour).

But Warner Bros. is hop­ing to cap­i­tal­ize on the grow­ing inf lux of for­eign visi­tors to South­ern Cal­i­for­nia and their de­sire to learn more about how Hol­ly­wood works — with­out hav­ing to go to a theme

park.

A stronger econ­omy and ris­ing con­sumer con­fi­dence pushed tourism to record lev­els in L.A. last year. Los An­ge­les at­tracted 44.2 mil­lion visi­tors last year, up nearly 5% from 2013, ac­cord­ing to Visit Cal­i­for­nia, the state’s non­profit tourism agency.

The growth has been a boon to lo­cal at­trac­tions, in­clud­ing the Warner Bros. stu­dio tour. Roughly half of visi­tors to the tour are in­ter­na­tional tourists, from such coun­tries as China, Bri­tain, France, Ger­many and Brazil, where shows like “Friends” have been es­pe­cially pop­u­lar.

“L.A. has re­ally seen a huge in­flux of in­ter­na­tional tourism— it’s been great for us,” Gil­bert said. “There’s Dis­ney­land and Uni­ver­sal, of course, but [tourists] want to see Hol­ly­wood. That’s an op­por­tu­nity for us.”

In­dus­try an­a­lysts ex­pect the tour will con­tinue to grow.

“They’ve carved out a niche for them­selves,” said Bob Rogers, chair­man of BRC Imag­i­na­tion Arts, an at­trac­tions de­sign and pro­duc­tion agency in Bur­bank. “It’s based on the fact that they are the real deal.”

Warner’s suc­cess at its Lon­don stu­dio tour, which is of­ten sold out, helped pave the way for the ex­pan­sion of the lo­cal tour, said Kevin Klowden, a man­ag­ing economist at the Milken In­sti­tute.

“Itwas con­sid­ered a bit of a risk but it’s paid off hand­somely for them,” he said. “They’re very aware from that ex­pe­ri­ence of howa stu­dio tour can be in­cred­i­bly pop­u­lar with tourists with­out be­ing a ride.”

Warner Bros. is one of the busiest stu­dio lots in Hol­ly­wood with10 back­lots and 30 sound­stages. Though most big fea­tures are shot out­side Cal­i­for­nia, the stu­dio is of­ten run­ning at full ca­pac­ity be­cause of an ex­plo­sion in TV pro­gram­ming.

Some 14 TV shows are film­ing or pre­par­ing to film at the stu­dio, in­clud­ing “The Big Bang The­ory,” “Mike and Molly,” “Pretty Lit­tle Liars” and “The Fos­ters.”

Dur­ing the two-hour tour, guides driv­ing golf carts take cus­tomers through var­i­ous ex­te­rior sets and sound­stages fea­tured in clas­sic TV shows and movies such as “Casablanca,” “Bat­man,” “Gil­more Girls” and “Friends.”

At the end of the tour, guests en­ter a 25,000square-foot stu­dio called Stu­dio 48 that in­cludes new at­trac­tions and dis­plays. The fa­cil­ity was de­signed by Bur­bank-based Thinkwell, which also was be­hind the Harry Pot­ter tour in Leaves­den out­side Lon­don.

Talk show host Ellen DeGeneres (whose show is based on the lot) greets visi­tors in an in­tro­duc­tory video. Guests walk through a se­ries of dis­plays that show all stages of pro­duc­tion, from screen­writ­ing and cast­ing to vis­ual ef­fects and sound mix­ing.

Us­ing video pro­jected onto a draft­ing board, award-win­ning cos­tume and pro­duc­tion de­sign­ers from “Sweeney Todd” and “Harry Pot­ter” demon­strate how sets and cos­tumes are de­signed from rough sketches to fi­nal scenes in the­movies.

An in­ter­ac­tive de­sign sta­tion al­lows fans of “Bat­man” to build their own Bat­mo­biles.

In the post­pro­duc­tion sec­tion, guests can “ride” a broom­stick or a Bat­pod in front of a green screen, giv­ing them the sen­sa­tion of ap­pear­ing in­side “Bat­man” or “Harry Pot­ter.”

“This is about as close as you’re go­ing to get to the mak­ing of movies and TV shows,” said Danny Kahn, the tour’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor. “We feel this re­ally brings a whole new el­e­ment to the tour.”

Also new is an ex­panded re-cre­ation of the Cen­tral Perk Cafe set from “Friends.” The for­mer NBC hit se­ries has been one of the big­gest draws for visi­tors, some of whom learned English watch­ing the show.

In the ex­hibit, visi­tors can sit on the sofa used by their fa­vorite char­ac­ters and get be­hind the cam­era, reen­act­ing lines from an episode. There’s also a cof­fee shop at the en­trance mod­eled on Cen­tral Perk Cafe.

The goal isn’t only to at­tract more visi­tors, but have them spend more time — and money— on the lot. The tour ends next a large store selling T-shirts, caps, mugs, and other mer­chan­dise. Cus­tomers can also or­der photos and videos for an ex­tra $15 and $35. The ad­mis­sion price will in­crease to $62, up from$54.

“Ev­ery­body fan­ta­sizes about com­ing to Hol­ly­wood,” Gil­bert said. “We give that to peo­ple.”

Pho­tog r aphs by Jay L. Clen­denin Los An­ge­les Times

GREEN SCREENS in the post­pro­duc­tion sec­tion of the Warner Bros. tour let visi­tors ride a Bat­pod from “The Dark Knight” f ilms.

THE COF­FEE SHOP set from the NBC se­ries “Friends” is part of the black­lot tour at Warner Bros. Stu­dio in Bur­bank.

ONE OF THE CAP­SULES used in “Grav­ity” is on dis­play next to a space­suit worn by Ge­orge Clooney in the f ilm.

Pho­to­graphs by Jay L. Clen­denin Los An­ge­les Times

THE CEN­TRAL PERK CAFE set used on “Friends” is part of Stage 48, a new in­ter­ac­tive sec­tion of the back­lot tour atWarner Bros. The for­mer NBC hit se­ries has been one of the big­gest draws for visi­tors.

A SE­LEC­TION OF COS­TUMES used dur­ing the pro­duc­tion of “Man of Steel” are part of a dis­play fo­cused pri­mar­ily on cos­tume and set de­sign.

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