The Location Guide interviews Perry Husman, Senior Vice President of Warner Bros Studios
Ahead of the AFCI Locations Show, The Location Guide will be dedicating its news section from April 11th to 15th entirely to articles about filming in the West Coast of America. Senior Vice President Perry Husman, one of Warner’s key decision makers, spoke exclusively to TLG about the studio’s creative process.
I grew up in a small town in Wyoming and didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do when I went to college. I actually got kicked out of college for having a bit too much fun but then I got a job on a production called Grizzly Adams. I was working as a Production Assistant and I remember my first day out on the set, I saw the Producer and the Director riding in a crane and I knew that that’s what I wanted to do.
I worked my way up from that role to later being a Producer and a Director myself and ended up working at Warner Bros (WB) on television shows for about ten years before getting the opportunity to come over to this job and actually work for the studio itself. It came at a time in my life when my kids were just starting in grade school and I just didn’t have time to see them when I was working on productions. I was leaving at six o’clock in the morning and coming home at ten o’clock in the evening because that’s what it took to make a TV show as a Producer. This job gave me the chance to still be connected with production and leave work at a reasonable time to see my family.
Now I don’t have to deal with that phone call from the set saying: "we didn’t make our day, we’re two pages behind, they’re kicking us out because of the curfew and the location isn’t available tomorrow. What do you want us to do?" That transition was ten years ago now and WB is just a great studio to work in, one of the best in the world. I’m very lucky because they let us put back into the studio what we make every year so we can keep this place up.
A lot of other studios struggle with maintenance funding but this place will stand the test of time because of how good it is about reinvesting. Jon Gilbert, the Worldwide President of Studio Facilities has a great eye and he cares very much about the heritage of the studios.
Are WB productions the majority of projects that take up residency here?
It used to be about 90% but right now it’s around 70-75%. We’ve got a couple of Netflix shows which is really exciting because Netflix has just taken over the world and between them, Amazon and Hulu it’s like having three more major networks to contend with and they all need product. This is great for me because that’s what we do, but we’ve got a whole variety of stuff here now.
It used to be that I would have 22 episodes of a single camera show like Friends on the sitcom side or E.R. on the dramatic side, they would shoot their 22 episodes and go away for three months, then come back and do it all over again. They’d do that for 10 years but now the business doesn’t do that anymore, nobody’s buying 22 episodes, its 10 episodes and a different model where people are binge-watching. We’ve been doing a new show for Netflix, the Ashton Kutcher sitcom over on Stage 12 called The Ranch. They drop all 10 episodes on April 1st. People go in and either watch one episode a week, or just binge-watch them all.
We also did the return of Full House (Fuller House) here which was a huge sitcom in the United States in the 1980s and there was all this buzz about the remake. When it dropped it was really interesting to see the response because it’s instant and you know how many have logged on to watch it. It’s a new day for the industry.
How have you catered to this new episode structure, particularly as productions take up a shorter period of residency at the studio?
I’ve had to change the structure in our deals with WB shows as I can’t allow them to sit on stages for long periods of time anymore. When they shot for 22 episodes, the studios were only in the dark for two or three months of the year so it didn’t make sense to tear out all of those sets because the cost was really significant to do that and then put it back in. By the time you tore it out you had to start putting it back together again so it made no sense, but now there’s such a gap that they do have to take it away so we’re flipping these stages constantly and the labour that it takes to do that is considerable. It’s really changed the business in terms of how the studio operates; you need more support to fewer shows.
So the demand for labour has risen?
Definitely. With all due respect, when a crew leaves it’s like they’ve just trashed your house. I was just walking through one of the dressing rooms and they hang pictures with two inch wood-screws and there are 30 of them in a wall, but that’s just the nature of the business as we’re constantly turning it over. There’s good and bad to that, you’ve got new clients, new revenue streams but it results in more work for some departments.
They can certainly get in contact with myself or my Director, John Smith. What we have to offer is a full service studio, by that I mean that someone can turn up without a single thing on them and we can provide everything that they need for their production. From the stages to the lumber yard, the sound department to the postproduction department, we can help with every step of the way. That’s very attractive to a lot of people. We have one of the largest property and set decoration departments in all of Los Angeles, as well as a costume department which is phenomenal. They actually do more third party work than WB productions because they’ve just become one of the biggest departments in the industry.
Are any restrictions on what can be accessed by non-WB productions?
Nope, we rent to everybody and we encourage that. For instance, our property and wardrobe departments have a global reputation and they ship worldwide. It’s the same with our departments down in the mill such as the paint and metal shops, they do a massive amount of third party work. Right now our design studio is planning the Christmas installation for Westfield Malls. Our work goes far outside of the entertainment industry as well but that’s the beauty of it, there’s nothing that we can’t do. Whether it’s blowing up somebody’s car or going down to wardrobe to find the perfect pair of high heels, we can do it all.
What can you say about the WB Studio in Leavesden
Before we got our hands on it, the place was an old abandoned air facility that they used to make bell engines for helicopters, and when Harry Potter started shooting there it was just an abandoned warehouse with leaks in the roof and everything. They shot there for 10 years with buckets underneath all of the holes. We finished paying the rent after 10 years and then we bought it, fixed it up and now it’s a state-of-the-art studio. We’ve got 12 sound stages now after starting with nine. We completely renovated it and it’s been a huge success.
And what productions have been there since?
A couple of Mission Impossible movies, we did Pan there. We just finished Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them that comes out in November. I’d have to go back and look at the credits to name them all but it’s just been going from one success to the next. The incentive to shoot in the UK is fantastic, I just can’t keep movies here and compete with that. We’re running a TV studio here for the most part now.
Is that a genuine problem here then?
More so here than in some states. Louisiana for instance has a rebate programme, so does New York and there’s a small one in the Detroit area. They’re not as good as the UK but they do make it more affordable if you need that type of locale or if you have talent that won’t travel. That way they can film domestically.
Mainstream coverage of the American film industry portrays the notion that it is domestically split between California and Georgia, is this true?
California’s struggling, but it is getting better. The incentive programmes that they put in recently have helped particularly with low to medium budget features. We haven’t landed any tent-poles because of it yet, the one’s spending USD200 million are going to the UK. There was a surge up in Vancouver but the dollar has been up and down. It’s interesting to see but we do struggle here, the incentives have certainly helped the TV group though. Now we’ve got a lot more shows that we could have lost to Canada and the exchange rate has made it affordable to stay here.
Other than that we don’t really get the tent-poles anymore. We’re about to get one though with the next Christopher Nolan movie because he wants to be here, so we’re going to open up our deep tank on stage 16 which we haven’t had open for about 10 years because people just aren’t making big water movies here anymore.
What was the last production to use the tank?
There was a third party movie called Déjà Vu and before that it was Poseidon so it’s definitely been a while.
Is Nolan using any other facilities?
They’ll have another stage here but it won’t be anything too significant; it’ll be bedroom and small sets so that when they want to do a switch over from the tank, they’ll have something to jump to for a couple of days whilst the water gets dumped and swapped. The production will be here for five months but only really shooting for about a month, a lot of it will take place in the UK and in other European countries.
I have a great team. We have 35 sound stages here and 14 backlots with the total space between here and the Ranch, which is two blocks away is 150 acres of land, so it’s definitely a big footprint. We can have anywhere from 20 to 40 shows here on a given day. It can be busy between the commercials, still shoots and the shows they’re prepping. Even if shooting is still a few months away the teams going through preparations whilst other productions are filming round the corner. It’s definitely busy but I’ve got a great team.
You mentioned that WB caters to commercials productions, could you elaborate on that?
We do commercials, still shoots, music videos, bar mitzvahs, you name it and we do it. We do a lot of really high-end commercials actually, on backlots especially. It’s so convenient for a commercial house to come in here when they need a street that literally only has four storefronts on it because they don’t need to see more than that. To do that in a downtown location and shut down streets, with the noise as well, it’s too much work so it’s very beneficial to come here and they get privacy with that. They come in behind these walls and they can do whatever they want to do. Whether it’s a just a simple car commercial or doing some extravagant explosion, they can do it in a controlled environment.
We’re averaging close to USD4 million in revenue each year from commercials, and that’s with anywhere between 75 to 100 commercials a year. As I previously mention, we also do still shoots, music videos and even special events. The special events aren’t necessarily filmed entertainment for example. Ellen Degeneres had her 50th birthday party here and it was an extravaganza. We have a big events team and right now they’re doing a huge press junket for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, so it’s been a flurry of activity with all the news outlet running around.
We’re one of the very last full service studios in the world as we have all of these different departments open. A lot of the bigger studios have unfortunately had to close some of their departments one by one because they take up a big footprint and don’t generate enough revenue. We’ve managed to keep a lot of them alive although it is a struggle sometimes as there aren’t a lot of people doing hand crafted staff work anymore, especially with the technology that the digital world offers. If you want corbels on the top of a building then you just draw them in and they’re there!
Do you foresee a time when WB will have to close down some facilities due to the rise in technology?
I don’t think I’ll see that in my lifetime but there will be a time when virtual worlds will exist We’ve played around with it to a certain extent on one of our stages where we had a motion capture stage set up for gaming. With that technology they’ll draw the entire background and maybe go out and take a couple of photographs, drop them in and expand it and that becomes the world without actually shooting in that environment. They shot on a stage with guys in motion capture suits and no green screen because everything had already been ingested into the computer.
We will see a time when that might start to dominate but the industry isn’t ready for that yet. These backlots are for the TV shows that have to churn episodes out weekly and don’t have the time for digital effects, so they’re definitely going to rely on practical effects for a while. I do want to be a part of that technology as it moves forward and figure out how to incorporate my backlots into that technology.
Have you seen an increase in video game productions shooting here?
There’s been a massive increase and it’s definitely an interesting business. Our postproduction division has gotten into the gaming world pretty extensively now and the advancement in technology there is moving so fast. I think the film business has a lot to learn from the game business in the way that they shoot and record footage. We did the promo commercials for the most recent Call of Duty as they shot on one of our streets. The public response to that game’s release was incredible; movies only wish they could make that kind of money. There’s a big future there.
You mentioned that on average you get between 75 to 100 commercials a year, what are the numbers for film and television?
With the new model where we’re flipping these stages over constantly and shows are only doing ten episodes a year, we’re averaging about 25 TV shows a year and about five movies alongside other types of shows. One example is the MTV movie awards, it’s a one day event but we’re spending six weeks prepping it. For the first time they’re going to do the awards in an outdoor environment so we’re building a giant stage down on New York street as we plan to host 5,000 people.
We’re starting to do more of these types of events, we just finished one called Grease Live!, a very different and innovative project where they took the Broadway show and performed it live on television. It was a Paramount show, shot at WB and aired on Fox. We were the only ones who had the facilities to support what they needed to do and because it was live, they had the interiors on the stage and it was connected to a backlot where during commercial break, they jumped back and forth. We were the only ones who could set all that up logistically; it was a huge challenge but a lot of fun. Again, that was something that we worked on for three months for just one day.
The industry is changing as we’re doing more and more of that kind of stuff. When I came here there wasn’t a single talk show being filmed at the studios but now we’ve got The Ellen DeGeneres Show and Conan. I’ve got another show here called The Real on stage 10, so we’re getting a lot of different types of shows.
Talk shows have certainly seen a rise in popularity in recent years; do you believe that to be one of the more stable production industries to be in?
Only if you’ve got the right talk show. Ellen is just rock solid, she’s going to be here for years. I think it’s becoming the type of format that audiences of daytime TV prefer to soap operas. Soap operas are gradually fading out and in that time they need to be filled with something else, so it’s either Judge Judy or a talk show!
What are some of the stranger requests you’ve had?
How can we have a baby rhinoceros run down the street? And we did it! It was for an Australian talk show that was here for about six months and they wanted to have a scene where a baby rhinoceros chased their talk-show host down the street. You don’t usually teach baby rhinos to do that because it can be quite dangerous, but it was a lot of fun.
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