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June 1, 2010 > Universal Studios reopens backlot after fire

Universal Studios reopens backlot after fire

By Christy Lemire, AP Movie Writer

UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif. (AP), May 27 _ Hollywood loves a sequel, especially during the summer. It's familiar, it's comforting, and most of all, it's bankable.

Universal Studios got a new chapter of its own Thursday with the reopening of its backlot, which an accidental fire decimated two years ago. The $200 million project will once again allow filmmakers to shoot on the streets of New York without having to leave Los Angeles, and it'll give visitors on the studio tour a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the moviemaking process.

Among the films that had been shot there prior to the June 2008 blaze _ which also damaged the ``King Kong'' theme park attraction _ were ``Back to the Future,'' ``To Kill a Mockingbird,'' ``The Sting,'' ``Bruce Almighty'' and ``The Blues Brothers.''

The new lot features 13 city blocks and 15 shooting areas over four acres. It includes sections that resemble Central Park, Wall Street, a Broadway theater district, brownstones and a courthouse square. The backlot can also stand in for London. And with a pub, cafe, bank, jewelry shop and many other storefronts, it can function as any city anywhere.

The heights of buildings were increased while, at the same time, the streets were narrowed to allow shooting on both sides simultaneously. The revamp also includes improved fire warning and prevention systems.

Steven Spielberg, who has a 40-year history with Universal, was one of the first people who arrived after the fire. He helped reconstruct the lot with a team that included veteran production designer Rick Carter, who won an Oscar this year for ``Avatar'' and has worked with Spielberg on such films as ``Amistad,'' ``War of the Worlds'' and the first two ``Jurassic Park'' movies.

The director said when he got to the backlot at 6:30 a.m. the day of the fire, ``it was truly an inferno.''

``The flames were hundreds of feet into the air and everything was coming down quickly,'' he said. ``The smells, the sounds _ it was very much like, but actually worse than, 18 years before when the same real estate burned down, burned down to the ground, and had to be rebuilt. I was on that team 18 years ago and I was very proud to volunteer my services to rebuild the lot this time.''

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who shot five films on the Universal backlot in his previous life as an actor, said the studio helped make him the star he became when it released ``Conan the Barbarian'' in 1982.

``For me this is kind of a homecoming. ...They were the ones that launched my career, and then we did `Conan the Destroyer' and `Twins' and `Kindergarten Cop' and `Junior,''' Schwarzenegger said. ``I have all kinds of really great, great memories of this studio and, of course, we want to make sure they reopen this backlot as quickly as possible.''

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who also came to Universal when the blaze started, thanked the Los Angeles city and county firefighters who helped prevent deaths and serious injuries that day.

``Our firefighters and our police officers collaborate and work together on a scale and a scope second to none,'' he said. ``We saw the devastation on that day and I can tell you, I couldn't have been prouder of the men and women of the LA county and LA city fire departments.''

Spielberg also praised firefighters for going into the film vault, which houses all the negatives and was in danger of burning, and hauling out film cans one by one to ensure their safety.

``I looked at all the titles _ of course, several of the titles should have burned,'' he said, drawing laughs, ``but the majority of the titles, I thought, were awesome titles.''

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