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First Universal Tour of Rebuilt New York Street; Spielberg Talks

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood June 3, 2010 at 8:27AM

On the morning of June 1, 2008, Steven Spielberg was sound asleep when the phone rang with horrible news: "The lot is burning down again." Spielberg jumped out of bed and drove 28 minutes to Universal City, waving his ID at roadblocks until he got to scene of the fire. "It was a wall of flame," he recalls. "At the height of the fire it was like watching special effects--the only problem was that it wasn't."
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Thompson on Hollywood
Thompson on Hollywood
Thompson on Hollywood
Thompson on Hollywood
Thompson on Hollywood

On the morning of June 1, 2008, Steven Spielberg was sound asleep when the phone rang with horrible news: "The lot is burning down again." Spielberg jumped out of bed and drove 28 minutes to Universal City, waving his ID at roadblocks until he got to scene of the fire. "It was a wall of flame," he recalls. "At the height of the fire it was like watching special effects--the only problem was that it wasn't."

As firemen pulled film cans out of the burning video vault, Spielberg took pictures and emailed them to Martin Scorsese, his archivist colleague at the Film Foundation. (While some rare prints were lost forever, the studio maintains a separate library with duplicate masters and has been striking new prints to replace many of the lost films.) Four acres burned, demolishing the King Kong attraction and much of New York Street where many films including The Sting, Blues Brothers, To Kill A Mockingbird, Back To The Future, Frost/Nixon and Bruce Almighty were filmed. (The iconic Back to the Future Clock Tower survived.) As they stood together overlooking the conflagration, Universal studio chief Ron Meyer turned to Spielberg, as the studio had after the last fire 18 years before, to help plan the reconstruction. Spielberg and his long-time production designer Rick Carter, who won an Oscar for Avatar this year, moved swiftly to come up with a model for the new New York Street. It took them one week. "There's always been a New York street on every lot," says Spielberg. "It can be any street that the imagination provides."

The new back lot would not only replace the old one, but add a London Square and build in filmmaker-friendly changes over a 13-block area, including modern buildings, 10 to 25-foot higher facades (to save on CG costs, says Spielberg), practical roof-tops, interiors and fire hydrants, narrower streets with steam-hissing manhole covers, and a state-of-the-art fire prevention system. "It doesn't have to be a New York street," says Carter. "It can be anything urban. It has much more detail, it's more conducive to shooting, with depth and angles on angles."

See video below of Spielberg, Schwarzenegger and Meyer as well as the first tram tour of the new New York Street and London Square, designed by a team of 25 headed by art director Beala Neel. 135 million tourists take the Universal tour every year.

While Meyer admits that the improved New York Street cost $200 million (the studio did collect some fire insurance), the studio mounted a major press conference last week, attended by Governator Schwarzenegger and Mayor Villaraigosa, in order to lure productions to shoot at Universal. The new King Kong 360-3D exhibit (the old one was a hit on the studio tour) is still under construction, with input from Spielberg's Tintin collaborator, Wellywood mogul Peter Jackson. It will open July 1.

Steven Spielberg Speech:


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New York Street Tram Tour:


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London Square Tour:


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This article is related to: Directors, Genres, Studios, Video, News, Steven Spielberg, Comics, Universal/Focus Features


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.