MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. — Over the din of buzz saws and beeping forklifts, producer Jon Landau can barely contain his excitement as he strides into a 45-foot-tall soundstage that is barren except for workers building sets for a commercial shoot.
“We’re taking over these two buildings here. We’ll have 200-plus people working down here. This is going to be the heart of the next two ‘Avatars,’” he says, referring to the planned sequels to the highest-grossing film of all time.
MBS Media Campus, formerly known as Manhattan Beach Studios, has just landed A-list tenant Lightstorm Entertainment, the production company led by “Avatar” director James Cameron and his longtime business partner Landau.
The duo had considered building their own facility or even moving to Vancouver, Canada, or New Zealand to take advantage of lucrative tax breaks. Instead, they opted to remain in Los Angeles — a boost for a region that has lost many major film productions to other locales — because of the range of services at the sprawling Manhattan Beach complex near Los Angeles International Airport.
“We had a choice,” Landau said. “We could have been anywhere. When it came down to it, we looked at what they had to offer and it was almost the perfect production paradigm, with big soundstages, adjacent office space and dressing rooms and state-of-the-art infrastructure.”
Lightstorm signed a five-year lease to occupy 115,000 square feet of soundstage and production office space at the studio, owned by private global investment firm Carlyle Group and operated by Hollywood-based Raleigh Studios, which also manages studios in Michigan, Louisiana, Georgia and Hungary.
Cameron produced the 2009 3-D blockbuster “Avatar” in Los Angeles at a studio half the size. But the former aircraft hangar, which dates back to the days of Howard Hughes, was too small and too old to accommodate additional demands by Hollywood’s most famous futurist, who took performance-capture technology to a new level in the sci-fi movie.
Lightstorm will keep its corporate office in Santa Monica but in November will move its production operation to the Manhattan Beach studio. The studio is already home to Marvel Studios, which filmed much of “Thor” and “Iron Man 2” at the facility. Other tenants are TV shows “CSI: Miami,” teen drama “90210” and “America’s Funniest Home Videos” and will soon include the new ABC drama “Revenge.”
Built in 1998, the sprawling complex spans 22 acres and 15 stages, making it one of the largest independently operated studio facilities in the Los Angeles area. The facility, which has been fully occupied most of the last three years, has had various owners since then.
Carlyle Group acquired the studio, on Rosecrans Avenue, from Oaktree Capital Management in 2007 for $150 million and has invested $20 million more in upgrades, including adding a New York streetscape, 3-D screening room and post-production company. The studio also has an array of vendors and equipment suppliers, making it a kind of one-stop shop that made it appealing to Lightstorm.
“We have all these different companies that come together and feed off each other,” said Raleigh Studios President Michael Moore. “It’s a fun atmosphere.”
Moore is no stranger to Landau and Cameron. His company also manages the L.A. studio where “Avatar” was produced.
Carlyle and Lightstorm will invest more than $5 million in improvements, including adding two gyms, one for employees and a private one for Cameron; a commissary adjacent to the soundstages; and a private screening room for Cameron. Solar panels will be installed to provide electricity needed for the “Avatar” films, which are expected to begin production next summer.
Two of the stages will be used to create a virtual stage where dozens of small cameras capture the movements of actors wearing special bodysuits as they run through their scenes with mock-up props that simulate actual objects. The data are stored on computers and manipulated by a team of visual effects artists, who will be able to observe the action through windows installed between the soundstages and offices.
“For the last film, our art department was in Santa Monica, our editors were in Malibu, our production team was in (Los Angeles),” Landau said. “Here, everything is going to be in one area, and we’re all going to be together.”