Revealing the untold story of Universal Studios' backlot fire

June 13, 2019, 12:42 PM · Many theme parks fans likely remember the devastating 2008 fire on the Universal Studios Hollywood backlot, which destroyed the original Kongfrontation encounter as well as many iconic film sets. Universal worked quickly to rebuild, reopening the backlot to tram tours the next year and opened the new King Kong 360/3-D in 2010.

But looking at the fire from the perspective of theme park fans reveals only part of the story of that tragedy. In the New York Times Magazine, reporter Jody Rosen writes that the Universal fire destroyed much more than anyone reported at the time.

The fire consumed the west coast archives of Universal Music Group, which included thousands of original master recordings, including those of some of the most famous records in music history. Obviously, copies exist, but as the story details, the masters are invaluable in preserving the audio quality of these songs.

It's a great read for anyone interested in popular music, entertainment, or the history of one of the world's most popular theme parks. And it further illustrates the unique history of Universal Studios Hollywood, which has long existed in an at-times uneasy balance between multiple purposes: as a film production studio, location sets, post-production facilities, an entertainment company headquarters, a tourist attraction... and, perhaps inappropriately, as an archive for filmed and recorded entertainment.

Those multiple roles give Universal Studios Hollywood an authenticity that other movie-themed parks lack. This isn't a pretend movie studio. It's the real thing. But the tasks of making movies and entertaining theme parks fans don't always align well, if at all. And neither mix well with the sensitive task of preserving what can be fragile original film and tape recordings, which need to be kept in strictly controlled environments, well away from the pyro of theme parks and the chaos of film production.

Go read the piece for the full story, which also addresses the challenges of music preservation in a digital age when many recordings never exist in any physical form.

In recent years, the theme park has taken over more of the Universal Studios property as ever-growing crowds — now approaching 10 million visitors a year — prompt Universal to tear down sound stages to clear space for new attraction sites. Ultimately, economics pushes Universal to convert specific properties to their most valuable use, which in Hollywood appears to be as a theme park resort. But part of USH's value as a theme park attraction lies in its authenticity as a working studio. Universal must never allow Universal City to become a homogenized facility. (Even if I would be perfectly happy if it shipped every master recording, negative, and original media far away to more secure facilities.)

Yet no matter what the future holds for Universal City, it always will retain its history — with its tragedies as well as triumphs.

Replies (3)

June 13, 2019 at 1:27 PM

Overall, the concept of a formal movie studio is becoming extinct. So many cities/locales are offering tax breaks and vacant warehouse districts for movie productions that the need for an LA Based production facility is practically obsolete. Studios are already struggling to make ends meet by renting out sound stages and backlots for commercials, music videos, and other uses, but the returns on those rentals are slowing to a crawl. It costs a lot of money to maintain sound stages and to keep them updated with modern equipment and technology. It also doesn't help when you can edit and produce a movie or TV show on a laptop while sitting in an airport.

Also, when a production that films on location in Vancouver, New Mexico, or Georgia, it can often make more sense to keep the cast and crew there and utilize comparable remote facilities instead of trekking back to Hollywood for set-pieces and ADR. With so many shows and movies being filmed and produced outside of Hollywood these days, I wouldn't be surprised to see USH the theme park to fully consume the Universal Studios property save for a handful of soundstages and offices for in-house productions (like game shows, reality shows, and sit-coms).

June 13, 2019 at 1:29 PM

Not extinct overseas, as China, India and other developing markets have brand new studios attractions opening.

June 15, 2019 at 11:38 AM

I do think the studio lot is becoming less relevant. More productions are being filmed across the country and across the world. If the studios do end up boycotting Georgia, that may mean more work back in L.A. but probably not enough to make a noticeable difference. Disney is renting part of the 20th Century Fox studios from the newly formed Fox Corporation but only for a few years. After that, some historic elements will be saved, but I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the land gets sold and redeveloped. There’s a lot of places to film T.V. and movies around the world, but only so much space in one of the worlds most populated cities.

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