Tech’s Hollywood Takeover: Amazon Reboots ‘Citizen Kane’ and ‘E.T.’ Studio

04/19/2018
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By Brooks Barnes, The New York Times, April 19, 2018

CULVER CITY, Calif. — It was as if they were stepping into 1940, the heart of Hollywood's golden age.

The stucco bungalow where Orson Welles puffed on his pipe between "Citizen Kane" scenes shimmered in the sun. White roses bloomed along a path leading to the cottage where Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh changed into their "Gone With the Wind" costumes. You half expected Cecil B. DeMille to come bounding out of the nearby studio administration building, a mansion modeled after Mount Vernon, to bawl out an underling.

Yet a gathering here last week was not about Hollywood's past as much as itsnfuture. The official purpose was to commemorate the $12 million restoration of four studio buildings. But the visitors may as well have come to cut the ribbon on a new era in the entertainment industry — one marked by the ascent of streaming giantslike Amazon Studios, the compound's new tenant.

"This historic place has become newly relevant," a beaming Jeffrey Cooper,Culver City's mayor, told the crowd as Jennifer Salke, the Amazon Studios chief, sliced a green-and-white sash with gargantuan scissors.

 "So exciting!" Ms. Salke said, shaking Mr. Cooper's hand. Two of her Amazon Studios lieutenants, Albert Cheng and Jason Ropell, clapped nearby.

Amazon is only renting Culver Studios, as the 14-acre lot is called. Hackman Capital Partners, a real estate investment company, has owned the rectangular property since 2014 and lured Amazon with a plan to spend $600 million on seven new studio buildings and other upgrades by 2021.

But Amazon's decision to move its entertainment division to the compound under a 15-year lease — the company had been using nondescript offices in Santa Monica —demonstrates the degree to which the tech giants have woven themselves into the fabric of Hollywood. You can no longer separate one from the other.

"This is mixing old media and new media in a completely harmonious way," Michael Hackman, chief executive of Hackman Capital Partners, said by phone on Wednesday.

The majestic administration building, for instance, looks much as it did in the 1930s and '40s, when DeMille and David O. Selznick, who produced "Gone With the Wind," had their offices inside. Only now, the movies in the framed posters hanging inside "the mansion," as the building is known in film circles, are owned by Amazon, including "Manchester by the Sea," "The Handmaiden" and "The Big Sick."

"I like the sense of history because it holds us to a standard," Jeff Bezos, Amazon's founder and chief executive, said when a reporter asked him about the Culver Studios move at an Oscar-season cocktail party.

Culver Studios may have a grand past — "Raging Bull" and "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" were made here, along with the pilot for the original "Star Trek" television series — but the complex also epitomizes the troubles the movie business has encountered over the decades.

As a string of owners struggled to adapt to changing audience tastes, new technology and rising costs, vast sections of the campus were sold. (Condominiums now occupy part of the area where Selznick ignited monumental outdoor sets to simulate the burning of Atlanta.) As waves of consolidation buffeted the movie business and fewer films were made, idling some of Culver Studios' stages, the facility turned to television production to pay its bills, much like Hollywood as a whole.

By 2004, when a struggling Sony sold the property, years of underinvestment had taken a toll. The old star bungalows were in poor repair. Soundstages were outdated. The mansion smelled like Grandma's house. "It needed a lot of work, to say the least," Mr. Hackman said. (Contrary to popular belief, the mansion was not Tara in "Gone With the Wind.")

Amazon, which has roughly 700 entertainment employees, began moving staff here late last year. More will follow as buildings are completed.

"It's about recognizing the traditions and legacy of Hollywood, while also recognizing that we have the ability to reshape it," Mr. Cheng, chief operating officer of Amazon Studios, said of the decision to make Culver Studios the unit's headquarters.

Last month, Amazon said it would also lease a four-story building that is going up across the street, giving its Hollywood division a total of 355,000 square feet of office space in Culver City. (Apple recently leased a building three blocks away for its own original content group.)

Amazon revealed Wednesday that more than 100 million people globally had a Prime membership, which includes access to its streaming service, and the company is expected to spend $5 billion on movies and television programming this year, according to the J.P. Morgan analyst Doug Anmuth. Its 44 original series include "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" and "The Man in the High Castle." Amazon has at least 10 movies in various stages of production, including "Life Itself," a highly anticipated romance set for release on Sept. 21.

The streaming-service boom has given other old, independently owned soundstage facilities a new lease on life. Bookings have spiked at the Lot, a 1920s-era compound that once belonged to United Artists; Amazon has rented it for shows like "The Last Tycoon" and "Goliath." Hulu is using Sunset Gower Studios, vacated by Columbia Pictures in 1972, to tape "I Love You, America," starring Sarah Silverman.

A few years ago, there was no sadder movie property in Los Angeles than Sunset Bronson Studios, a dilapidated 10-stage facility that Warner Bros. occupied until decamping for Burbank in 1930. Last year, Netflix moved onto that lot, attracted by $200 million in upgrades and a new, 14-story office tower. Another five-story building for Netflix is under construction at Sunset Bronson, which is owned by Hudson Pacific.

But nothing quite matches the restoration of Culver Studios, in part because Hackman Capital has paid lavish attention to detail.

"They even took pains to recreate the same texture and color of the cement," said Margarita Jerabek, director of historic resources at ESA, a planning firmninvolved in the project. She pointed to steps leading into the bungalow once used by Gable and Leigh as a dressing room.

 That white structure, notable for its green shutters and bordered by a tightly clipped lawn, sits just outside the 99-year-old mansion, which was built by Thomas Ince, a silent-film innovator whose 1924 death was suspicious. According to "Movie Studios of Culver City," a 2011 book by the historians Julie Lugo Cerra and Marc Wanamaker, people have long reported sightings of Ince's ghost on the property.

"I personally have not seen him yet," Mr. Cheng said. "But I'm sure he's happy. We plan to take very good care of our new home."

A version of this article appears in print on April 19, 2018, on Page B1 of the New York edition with the headline: Rebooting a Hollywood Classic. Or it is available online at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/18/business/media/amazon-reboots-the-studio-where-citizen-kane-and-et-were-made.html?rref=collection%2Fissuecollection%2Ftodays-new-york

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