Illustration by Rae Scarfó
Demand for streaming content has soared during the COVID-19 pandemic as housebound consumers across the world binge watch their favourite television shows and films.
And as streaming companies scramble to keep up with demand, it has helped fuel a boom in sound stage construction – and not just in Los Angeles, home to most Hollywood film studios, but in markets across the United States and even Canada.
While L.A. has seen an explosion in sound stage development, so have several secondary markets not traditionally considered entertainment hubs, with Atlanta among those leading the way, along with New Orleans and Toronto, where there are plans for a new, 46,500-square-metre film studio on the waterfront, according to the Hollywood Reporter.
What’s more, up-and-coming film production centers are also taking shape in places like Buffalo, New York, and Missoula, Montana.
‘Being the Hollywood of the South is truly what we are trying to accomplish here’, said David Bernd, executive director of the Newton County, Georgia Industrial Development Authority, located about 25 miles from Atlanta.
Increasing geographic diversity
COVID-19 has led to a dramatic increase in the amount of time US consumers spend watching everything from comedies to documentaries on various streaming services.
During the week of 20 July 2020, Americans logged 12 billion minutes on various streaming platforms, a 33% increase from the year-earlier period, according to Nielsen.
Netflix, Amazon, Apple and the other big players in the fast-growing sector are scrambling to produce content to keep up, triggering a surge in demand for sound stages.
In L.A., an outpouring in demand by streaming services for all types of space, including sound stages, has buoyed the city’s commercial real estate market, which outperformed its peers in 2020 in the aftermath of the pandemic, according to the VTS Office Demand Index. In New York, several new sound stage projects are under construction or in the planning stages.
Sound stage construction is also booming elsewhere.
Atlanta now has 167,225 square metres in sound stage production space, edging out New York, which boasts 139,354 square metres, according to commercial real estate firm CBRE.
That’s second only to L.A., and as in New York, the amount is poised to take another big step forward as new projects get underway.
One of the newest projects in the Atlanta area is Three Ring Studios, a 23225-square-metre sound stage campus that opened last fall.
The local developers of the project teamed up with Cinelease, a major national lighting and equipment rental firm for the film sector. Now a major expansion is in the works that will boost the size to 52,955 square metres, making it the second-largest complex in the East, according to Bernd.
County officials and the developers have also worked on nailing down a site large enough for future expansion, with 160 acres at their disposal.
Bernd said he and other members of his economic development team studied some of the successes and struggles other major sound stage complexes around the country have experienced.
In California, studios made a major mistake in not thinking big enough initially and failing to lock in the land needed to accommodate that expansion.
‘You try and go and understand what they did well in other places and what they didn’t do’, Bernd said. ‘In California, they built small and they are all landlocked now.’
Spreading the work
Sound stages require some level of specialised construction, but even so, there has been more than enough work to go around for local contractors, according to Bernd.
Sound stages must meet stringent acoustical standards – otherwise extraneous noise, from cars to jets, will be heard in the background. There are also some additional capabilities contractors need to work on these projects, including hefty insurance coverage for work that takes place in the upper tiers of these cavernous structures, with ceilings that can be 9 metres or higher.
That can include both telecommunications work – installing fibre-optic cables – as well as catwalks and lighting trusses.
However, all the electrical, plumbing and sewer hookups on the Three Ring Studios project, and a range of other construction work as well, was done by local subcontractors – from the concrete contractors who poured the foundation slabs to the subcontractors who built the structures and operated the cranes used to lift heavy materials.
A local contractor, Pattillo Construction, oversaw the project as the general contractor, while Charter Communications handled the fiber-optic work in the rafters, Bernd said.
The studio construction generated several hundred construction jobs with anywhere from 20 to 100 workers on site at any one time, he said.
And that’s not counting a surge in hotel construction aimed at servicing TV and movie productions that book sound stages at Three Ring Studios.
‘All our campsites are full – we have contractors coming from four to five states’, Bernd said.
There are four hotels under construction in the area, and another four in the works. ‘The number of room nights needed for productions is quite astonishing’, he said.
Other cities jump in
Contractors in many other cities, however, are also putting their skills to work – and helping meet payroll – amid the big increase in sound stage projects across the country.
More than 600 kilometres away, in Upstate New York, not one but two major sound stage projects are underway.
Hollywood producer Matt Fleckenstein, a native of the Buffalo area, is pushing ahead with plans to kick off construction this spring on a AU$96 million sound stage on a 27-acre site across from a Tesla plant in the old industrial city, according to Buffalo Business First.
Great Point Media has unveiled plans for a AU$64 million sound stage complex on an abandoned factory lot on Niagara Street in Buffalo.
Contractors in Missoula, Montana, may soon get a chance to jump on the sound stage construction boom as well, with a media company exploring plans for a AU$26 million sound stage complex near the city’s airport.
Meanwhile, Louisiana – New Orleans in particular – has established itself as a significant player in the sound stage sector, with 65,000 square metres of space. That’s right up there with another unexpected name, Ontario, Canada, which now has 74,000 square metres of studio space, according to CBRE.
‘If you had told me 20-odd years ago that the next big “space race” in the commercial real estate scene would be centered around sound stages, I would have thought you were crazy’, Jeff Pion, a vice chairman at CBRE, wrote in a report on the sound stage boom.