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Margie Barron

Margie Barron

    As part of Universal Studios Hollywood's ambitious expansion plan, Universal CityWalk  recently launched its new high-tech performance "5 Towers" concert plaza. There was a party atmosphere for the inauguration, as it came at the start of Universal's summer series of free weekend outdoor concerts.  Cee Lo Green (The Voice) was the first performer to rock the center stage, and he had the honor of unveling the state-of-the-art concert set up. The interactive "5 Towers" area lets everyone see all the action going on, with a new giant screen over the stage, showing off the performers in great detail.
   For his performance, Green utilized the wild lighting features that electrified the crowd of thousands. Everyone was bathed in a colorful shower of lights. Lights and graphics are one of the coolest features of the new 31-foot-by-24-foot stage.
   In addition to the sophisticated visuals, the acoustic elements are also praise-worthy. It features custom-built acoustical panels that complement the venue's audio system. It controls the distribution of sound and targets sound waves directly into the arena while minimizing performance echo in surrounding areas.
   High-definition cameras have been positioned within the venue to further elevate the dynamic environment by capturing video of the audience and guests, and broadcasting them on the 26-foot-by14-foot high definition LED display monitor centrally mounted above the concert stage.
   The elaborate concert centerpiece is equipped with thousands of LED fixtures, motion capture sensory, five soaring 42-foot light tower sculptures, a massive video monitor and cutting-edge audio system-- all to enhance great performances. The NBC Universal location is often used by Jay Leno for The Tonight Show filming segments, as well as other local shoots.

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   There was wildlife all around at the recent National Wildlife Federation's 75th anniversary celebration. Real wildlife such as an eagle, cougar, porcupine, and a grey wolf, among the celebrities and other attendees at the NWF's "Voices for Wildlife" gala. I got up-close with six-foot-plus Spike the alligator, because I've had a strong affinity for the reptile since I was in the (1980) movie-thriller "Alligator."
   It was important to show the animals to the supporters of the organization, according to Larry J. Schweiger, president and CEO of the NWF, "to inspire a love of wildlife, and to reinvigorate our commitment to protect them." Every guest at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel event got a copy of Schweiger's powerful book "Last Chance, Preserving Life on Earth."
   The event was emceed by comedienne Annabelle Gurwitch who handed out awards to acclaimed nature photographer Howard Ruby, founder of Oakwood Worldwide. Chevy Chase presented to world-renowned animal expert Jack Hanna ("Into the Wild").
    The Wildlife Hero honor went to film producer Lawrence Bender, who exploded onto the Hollywood scene with the cult-classic "Reservoir Dogs." He has gone on to produce Quentin Tarantino's films, among many other productions. Bender was acknowledged by the NWF because he produced the documentary "An Inconvenient Truth," for which he won an Academy Award.
   Bender talked about the impact of turning Al Gore's environmental slideshow into a movie to spread awareness of climate change. Following the film's success, Bender noted, "I was able to see first hand with 'An Inconvenient Truth,' how much a movie can educate and start a movement." Kudos for making a movie that makes a difference.
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   When producer Mark Burnett talks about his projects, it's hard not to get caught up in the excitement. His enthusiasm is infectious.
   And so it was when we spoke at the recent Disney-ABC summer press day, Burnett was eager to tell everyone about his new show "Expedition Impossible" airing on ABC. He called it "an epic Indiana Jones-style experience. It is an epic showcase for ordinary people who embark on an extraordinary adventure."
   As an executive producer, Burnett has a lot of hits under his belt, including his ratings-grabbing "Survivor" and "The Aprentice" series. "Expedition Impossible" follows in their reality-contest footsteps, but Burnett promises much more adventure as the show follows 13 teams of three racing across vast deserts, over snow capped mountains, repelling down cliffs, and going through raging rivers. If one person quits, the entire team is eliminated. So Burnett said a key factor in the survival of the teams is camaraderie.
   "There's an ancient saying that goes, 'Choose your companions before you choose the road.' That's true in life, whether it's marriage, jobs, or projects you work on-- the people around you will either give you energy, or suck the energy out of you," explained Burnett philosophically.
   The setting for the show is the exotic kingdom of Morocco. Burnett chose Morocco for the production becasue of the country's film-friendly history, and said that the show is shot "like an Indiana Jones feature film."
   He also like that Morocco had locations that encompassed a wide variety of terrain for the teams to cover. Beautiful and romantic vistas, from the Sahara Desert, canyons, rivers, and the Atlas Mountains with the occasional snowstorm, all waiting to be captured by his cameramen following the teams on the ten week adventure. It's an endurance test for the contestants as well as the production team.
  It's also a stunning travelogue. The show goes back to Burnett's roots as producer of the "Eco-Challenge" (1995 on USA Network). "I've wanted to do this again for a long time," Burnett reported.

   It was a unique little newsletter that focused on location filming, when we first discovered Location Update 25 years ago, and started contributing stories. It was created by our publisher and friend James Thompson who had the vision to fill the need in the production community that was underserved.
 Thompson worked with productions and the location managers and scouts, and knew they needed up-to-date information about film commissions, crews, studios, and equipment. So the little newsletter was transformed into a slick magazine called Location Update.
  It had a fine editorial team and contributing writers, and my husband, Frank Barron (erstwhile editor of The Hollywood Reporter) and I were proud that the impressive magazine gained respect in Hollywood very quickly.
   Jim Thompson knew the entertainment industry and made sure the publication kept pace with the changes over the years in the world of production. Location Update, with most of the emphasis on location filming, evolved into Production Update, with more overall production coverage.
  And now it has become even more current with a grasp of the industry with P3 Update, unifying global preproduction, production and postproduction. The 3 "Ps" that run the business have become very high-tech, and that technology now gets its share of the spotlight on the pages of the magazine.
  Frank and I have enjoyed writing for Jim since the beginning, and now we work with his great editor Sally Kemper, who has been tremendous in P3's expansion.
  Our stories have included On Location features, and the monthly Production Notes. But our favorite stories have been the Industry Profiles we've done over the years with the giants in the business. We've talked to Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Ron Howard, Jerry Bruckheimer, Mark Burnett, Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Ken Burns, and the legendary Roger Corman, to name a few of more than 100 top mega-filmmakers and the heads of studios we have interviewed for 25 years.
  It's been a privilege, and it continues.
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 The Syfy channel's "Red Faction: Origins" is a TV movie that is literally out of this world. The action-adventure story is set on Mars, and based on the successful "Red Faction" video games. So where does the production team go to recreate the Red Planet?

 Director Michael Nankin says, "We shot it in Bulgaria in the winter, which is as close as you can get to Mars. It was very cold on the sound stages. We added a line in the film that explains 'the terraformers made the air breathable, but it didn't move Mars any closer to the sun.'" That was to explain all the cold fog coming out of the actors' mouths. The actors note that they had to cope with the cold and constantly chew on ice cubes before doing their scenes against the green screen, to keep their breath from being too visible.

 Although the Mars Rover sent back pictures of a rocky uninhabited Red Planet, that was not the location the production was looking for. Nankin explains, "Bulgaria gave us the Mars of the story, which has been developed as a mining colony for 200 years.  And the evil overlords have been kicked out 20 years before, which is exactly what happened in Bulgaria. We found a Soviet-era steel mill that had been rusting for 20 years. I think it was 25 miles long, and that become our Eos location. We found a series of caves, and that location gave us quite a bit. Then, of course, we used CGI for spaceships and those kinds of things."

 The movie will act as a pilot for a future Syfy series, anticipating strong ratings for its June 4 premiere, according to executive producer Andrew Kreisberg. It is an unusual production that is a first of its kind trans-media deal, debuting less than a week after the "Red Faction Armageddon" video game is released. The movie is produced by Universal Cable Productions and UFO Films, based on the video game franchise from THQ.
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   There was a celebration with the cast, crew and staff of ABC's hit show "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," which has helped create, design, build, and make dreams come true for many deserving and inspiring families. It was called the "Extreme Thank You Party" hosted by Nature's Own and Hollywood Branded Inc., a leader in global entertainment marketing. They really made you realize how important the partnership is with the show and its product brands to help the production with the home makeovers.

   The event took on a "construction site" theme at the Book Bindery in Culver City, and wonderful brands helped pamper all the happy helpers. Among the celebrities on hand were "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" designers Paige Hemmis, Jillian Harris, and Tracy Hutson. They were beaming about having been part of another great season of big surprises. And there were surprises at the party with wonderful brands being showcased: iComfort by Serta,  Gigaset Communications, Syneron giving guests the opportunity to relax with a VelaShape spa treatment, and Dearfoams, which allowed the ladies to kick off their sky-high heels and slip into their cozy slippers.

   Hemmis and Hutson told me they are longtime supporters of Habitat for Humanity which was on hand to take a bow for the good work they do. The home-building organization benefitted from event donations and a silent auction. They also talked about the amazing Habitat volunteers, and sponsors.

   "We are honored to have created such an interactive event allowing brands to directly engage and provide pampering and fun for the hard working individuals of 'Extreme Makevover: Home Edition' and their guests," said Stacy Jones, president of Hollywood Branded Inc. "The cast and crew of the show have spent over 30,000 hours building nearly 200 homes for families in need, and have touched the hearts of millions across the couuntry. This was a special way of saying 'thank you' for making a difference."
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   Nothing breeds success like success. That's the lesson to be learned from the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise, reports mega-producer Jerry Bruckheimer. The first three "Pirates" movies-- "The Curse of the Black Pearl" in 2003, "Dead Man's Chest" in 2005, and "At World's End" in 2007-- have racked up a staggering $2.6 billion worldwide. When that happens, Bruckheimer says, "You understand pretty quickly that a message is being sent to you by the audiences." And that message is...make more movies. So the fourth installment of the adventures of Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp),  "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides," is poised to add big bucks to the producer's and Disney Studios' coffers. And obviously more are planned.

   According to Bruckheimer the most difficult thing to do was getting the screenplay right, because that what lures everyone to the production. The producer doesn't think he would have gotten Johnny Depp to come back and do another sequel, or assemble the rest of the cast, unless there was a good story to tell. So Depp was working with the script process with screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, and the production team.

   Thanks to the script, Bruckheimer says it was a real coo to get Rob Marshall at the helm of "Pirates," calling the director (an Oscar-winner for "Chicago") an "ultimate master at what he does." He is a filmmaker unafraid to take real risks and tackle the biggest challenges. Marshall's background in film, musical theatre and choreography were very beneficial directing all the action. The fights and chase scenes show off the skills of someone who understands movement. The flow of the action is to be appreciated by fans and industry folks alike.

   The new "Pirates" movie is well-worth seeing for its storytelling with a flair. It has an enjoyable style that shows how far we've come since the days of Errol Flynn on the silver screen. Now we have Johnny Depp swashbuckling in 3D, with more to come.
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Product placement isn't a new phenomenon. In the 1800s, Jules Verne sold the naming rights to shipping companies in Around the World in 80 Days. And in the early days of film, Thomas Edison put ads for his own products in his movies. Television at its infancy had product names above the title of shows such as The Texaco Star Theater, The Colgate Comedy Hour, and Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre. And let's not forget that the beloved soap operas were created by companies for the sole purpose of selling soap.

Now Morgan Spurlock has come out with his latest documentary skewering the way product placements and blatant commercials have become the norm in productions nowadays. His new film POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is entertaining, but after seeing it, you will probably never look at another movie or television show the same way again. You will notice all the advertisements going on, even the most subtle ones.

Not only does Spurlock examine the co-promotions and partnerships the entertainment industry have forged with brands, he also had his entire movie paid for by product placements and ads in his production. That's pure genius, only if you don't consider him a "sell out."

 There was a recent episode of Fringe, and an intense scene where the special agent had to call for help. I couldn't help but notice that she was calling from a Sprint phone. And there was an escape in a Ford car.  Damn you, Spurlock.
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   A great new production company wants to make films about moments in history. But more importantly, The American Film Company wants to emphasis truth and accuracy. That noble ambition has been realized in The Conspirator, the debut film from The American Film Company, which is directed by Robert Redford.
   It is an unknown story about a military tribunal in the wake of Abraham Lincoln's assassination, focusing on the trial of Mary Surratt, who ran the boarding house where John Wilkes Booth met and conspired to kill the president. It is more than a courtroom drama. The story reflects how justice takes a backseat when there's a push for a political agenda. It's a very contemporary theme against the political backdrop of post-Civil War Washington.
   Producer Brian Falk with The American Film Company said he sent the original screenplay (by James D. Solomon) to Redford, who questioned if the story was true. He was amazed that such a fascinating piece of history had been overlooked all these years. Falk said, "This is one of those stories that everybody thinks they know, but it really is a story that nobody knows. Everybody understands that Lincoln was killed by an actor named John Wilkes Booth. What they don't know is that it's part of this much larger, more complex conspiracy."
   In order to get the accuracy for Washington D.C. in 1865, the production shot in Savannah, Georgia. Falk said, "We went up and down the east coast in 2009 looking for locations, and found that Savannah had all the atmosphere and architecturet to recreate that moment in history. The big tax break in Georgia was a tremendous help. So were the people from Savannah who embraced the film."
   The Conspirator is a great film to launch The American Film Company, which Falk said is dedicated to "producing entertaining and historically accurate films. That's a bit of a tall order, but we're proud of our efforts."
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   A networking conference that helps independent filmmakers is the great idea that Crystal Callahan has created with an event called Happy Independents Day, on April 17. "It serves as a celebration of indie producers, and I expect it to be the go-to affair of the season," says Callahan. She is offering a jam-packed eight-hour professional platform that serves to build a creative community and gather resources while networking. "It's a way to connect in an authentic personal way, meeting with comrades in the creative community." For ticket information you can go to the website www.happyindependentsday.com, for the event at Monk Space LA, Raw Underground Warehouse, 4414 West 2nd Street, Los Angeles. It's from 4 p.m. to midnight.

   So what should the Indie Producers expect? Callahan told me she has put together a program that addresses the real needs of indies. "We have four speakers who will talk about production insurance, equipment rentals, sales, and financing." The conference event starts at 4 p.m. Then on the schedule from 5 to 9 p.m., feature speakers will talk about raising money, showcasing work, and taking careers to the next level. From 9 until midnight it turns into a celebration that becomes a networking dance party. Callahan says the inaugural event will help "connect, entertain, educate, and inspire our production community." And she wants all indies to know, "We are stronger together. The value of the event can be summed up by saying, 'networking equals an increase in creativity, contacts, and ultimately cash flow.' That is a clear circle that has happened for so many." That sounds good.

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