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Thursday, 01 July 2010 00:00

Universal Studios' New York Street Reopens

Written by  Frank Barron
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Events_Universal_compUniversal Studios' backlot was always the largest in Hollywood, until a devastating fire in 2008 destroyed a major portion, mostly the heavily used New York Street area.

But now, two years later, those iconic streets have emerged from the ashes with a reported rebuilding cost of $200 million. And at a formal dedication ceremony for the reopening of the backlot, VIPs and the media observed that the locations are even more spectacular than before. Thanks to a couple of years of constant construction, the backlot is open for location shooting on a grand scale. It even offers a new King Kong attraction.

Filmmaker Steven Spielberg, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Universal President and COO Ron Meyer were all on hand for the reopening ceremony. “The opening of New York Street shows the company’s commitment to film and television production in Los Angeles, and to supporting filmmakers worldwide,” said Meyer. Jim Watters, president and general manager of NBC Universal Operations Group, noted “There is nothing like it in the entertainment industry. We incorporated some new aspects that include European locations and a new, modern section that didn’t exist in the previous New York Street area.”

While all the Universal brass rushed to the studio on the day of the fire, Spielberg was also there around 6 a.m., offering to assist in any way. Spielberg’s Amblin Productions is headquartered on the lot, and he has a 40-year history with the studio. As the flames damaged the film vault, Spielberg said he witnessed firefighters trying to save as many film negatives as they could. “They carried them out, and I looked at all the titles,” Spielberg said at the ceremony. “Of course, several of the titles should have burned. But the majority of the titles, I thought, were awesome titles,” he joked. The Academy Award-winning director profusely praised the firefighters for their efforts.

On that fateful morning, Spielberg immediately started to put together a stellar team to rebuild and he enlisted the best design and graphics crews. Much work was done by Production Designer Rick Carter, an Oscar winner for his work on Avatar, and Art Director Beala Neel, heading up the 25 members of the design team. All combined their talents to create new designs and make improvements on some older ones, such as the much-filmed Courthouse Square, famous for the Back to the Future films. The new backlot area now consists of 13 city blocks of buildings on the four acres of the lot, all rebuilt with fire prevention technology with assistance from the L.A. county and L.A. city fire departments. Fire Chief Deputy Daryl Osby and Retired Fire Chief Doug Barry attended the dedication.

Paris and London Squares were added to the New York area, in addition to a row of English row houses that look as authentic as the real structures in England. “What you see around you is the result of a new New York, and not just New York but London and anywhere else your imagination takes you,” Spielberg said. “Because the backlot can be anything an art department and a director and a writer put in our imagination. This backlot is a fertile basis for everyone’s use, everyone’s imagination. And I think this will be around forever, especially with the new fire sprinkler system that has just been installed here. It was an honor to be part of this.”

In order to facilitate filming, the area’s main streets were actually narrowed, so camera crews could get both sides of the road in the same shot. Various structures were designed to hold equipment and crews, while archways and columns were designed to help tighten frames and lengthen perspectives, thus giving productions more options.

At the ceremony, Gov. Schwarzenegger was happy that with his new tax credit for filmmakers and the newest, larger backlot, more productions should stay in Hollywood and the state. As an actor, Schwarzenegger made five films at Universal, and he acknowledged that the studio made him a star with Conan the Barbarian. “For me, this is kind of a homecoming,” said Schwarzenegger. “They were the ones that launched my career. I have all kinds of really great, great memories of this studio. And, of course, we wanted to make sure they reopen this backlot quickly.”

Emphasizing what the backlot means to the economy, Schwarzenegger added, “I am so proud that the heart of the entertainment industry is right here in California. And I am committed to making sure it remains here. The film industry is a crucial economic driver for our state, because it creates jobs and draws tourism, and that’s exactly why I created an incentive program last year that is playing an important role in keeping television and film production here in our state.” The new locations have already become part of Universal’s backlot tram tour, and Director Peter Jackson helped to create the new 360-3D King Kong attraction that will open this summer.

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