Culver Studios before Amazon
A $600 million transformation will turn the lot where film history was made into the home of Amazon Studios
'Gone With the Wind' Credit Getty Images
It was a chilly Saturday night on December 10, 1938. Forty Acres, the fabled backlot of Culver Studios, then known as Selznick International Studios, was in flames. The fire was not an emergency, but a planned blaze being filmed by multiple cameramen, a reenactment of the burning of Atlanta during the Civil War. The shooting of the iconic scene kicked off the production of producer David O. Selznick’s adaptation of Gone with the Wind. As the outdoor sets burned to the ground, Selznick watched the thrilling spectacle in awe. Little did he know, the night held more surprises in store.
Before Vivien Leigh arrived on set to see the shooting of the Burning of Atlanta, Selznick had never seen her, the producer recalled decades later. “The flames were lighting up her face... I took one look and knew that she was right.”
Not everyone was so pleased with the events of the evening. According to The Atlantic’s Gavin Lambert, in surrounding Culver City, a few residents panicked by the flames took off toward the desert. But most were unsurprised. Even before its official incorporation in 1917, Culver City had been a picture town filled with the sights and sounds of filmmaking.
As the city enters its second century, it continues to be a center of entertainment, with Amazon Studios slowly taking over and expanding Culver Studios.
From the beginning, founder Harry Culver courted the nascent film industry. He had “this vision in mind of having a community that was self-supporting, that would eventually not be part of Los Angeles, but would annex from LA and become an incorporated city,” says Hope Parrish, president of the Culver City Historical Society.
As early as 1915, Culver set his sights on wooing early movie pioneer Thomas K. Ince to his new community. Charming, handsome, and brilliant, Ince was a true renaissance man, a producer, screenwriter, actor, and revolutionary studio head. At his studio Inceville, at the corner of Pacific Coast Highway and Sunset Boulevard, Ince organized the first modern studio, employing around 700 people.
Tired of working in fraught seaside conditions and the muck of the unpaved streets leading to Inceville, Ince was an easy mark. In September of 1915, he agreed to move his operations to Washington Boulevard in Culver City. The Los Angeles Times reported that Culver City was selected because of its location “halfway between Los Angeles and the beach centers, as well as its nearness to the foothills.”
'Throughout Culver City’s early years, movie studios provided the economic base for the area.'
Credit: Department of Archives and Special Collections, William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University
The new Culver City picture plant, fronted with Greek Revival Columns, was named Triangle Studio. It was not Ince’s home for long. Always a rebel maverick, Ince struck out on his own in 1918. Triangle Studio eventually became Metro Goldwyn Mayer, and is today the Sony lot.
“He went back to Harry Culver,” Parrish says. “He said, ‘Hey, listen, I need another piece of property because I want to start my own studio.’” The lot Ince decided on was 11 undeveloped acres on Washington Boulevard.
“More than two years ago I discovered the advantage of Culver City for a studio location,” Ince told the Los Angeles Times. “I had an experience of more than five years along the oceanside, and what gray hairs I have were caused by the worry attendant upon the financial strain of having to sit idle with hundreds of high-priced players on my hands, waiting for the heavy fog to clear. Mr. Culver showed me meteorological reports from the government relative to Culver City and various other places in and about Los Angeles, twelve more working days a year was Culver City’s showing, and I came to the conclusion that it was the ideal location for the motion-picture studios such as I want to build.”
Construction soon began on the $250,000 studio, built by the firm of Meyer and Holler. There were three mammoth cutting-edge glass sound stages, property rooms, dressing rooms, picture projection rooms, an electric plant, carpenter shops, and a large pool to be used for photographing ocean scenes, employees’ recreation, and to protect against fires.
Causing most comment was the stately main administration building fronting Washington Boulevard, built in the style of George Washington’s Mount Vernon. A rambling, yet graceful Southern Colonial white wooden structure, fronted with perfectly symmetrical windows and elegant columns, it reeked of East Coast pretensions. It was a declaration of status and staying power.
According to Movie Studios of Culver City, the administration building was nicknamed “The Mansion.” Ince would use the building as a symbol in promotional materials, under the banner “The White House of Silent Drama.” Inside, his second-floor office included a “galleon boat room,” which was modeled on the interior of the Edris, his prized yacht.
The Thomas H. Ince Studio officially opened on January 12, 1919. “The administration building hides from the front one of the most modern and thoroughly equipped picture making plants in the world, and the two largest photoplay stages in existence,” the Los Angeles Times reported. “The new plant has been equipped with every modern convenience for making pictures with efficiency and speed.”
Culver Studios, circa 1925. The actual studios are tucked behind the “The Mansion.” Culver City was still rural at the time; an orchard faces the studio on the left.
Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection
Ince continued to work a breakneck pace at the new studio, with the help of his wife, Elinor. “He and his wife both worked hard at the studio, and there are pictures of them sitting at the kitchen table working on stuff,” says Culver City historian Julie Lugo Cerra, author of Movie Studios of Culver City and Culver City Chronicles. “They were in a partnership that really put all of this stuff together.”
But Ince’s tenure at his dream studio would be short-lived. Already suffering from a heart ailment, he died at the age of 42 on November 19, 1924, after attending a yachting party thrown by publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst and his mistress, the movie star Marion Davies.
Elinor Ince kept the studio open for a year, but in 1925, it was sold to another movie mogul and innovator, producer and director Cecil B. DeMille. On February 26, at an event attended by Harry Culver and MGM head Louis B. Mayer, DeMille was officially given the keys to the studio. According to the Los Angeles Times DeMille took time to honor Ince, a “man who had the vision to rise from a funny little shack down on the beach at Santa Monica to this structure.”
DeMille would build many large-scale sets on what came to be known as Forty Acres, the studio’s 25-acre or so backlot. These included a massive recreation of the streets of Jerusalem for his film King of Kings. After a string of box office disappointments DeMille lost control of the studio. It eventually fell into the hands of RKO, who merged with Pathe, becoming RKO/Pathe in the early 1930s. It was during this era, in 1933, that King Kong was filmed on the lot.
David O. Selznick started leasing the studio in 1937. Here, Alfred Hitchcock, with script under his arm, walks with future screenwriter Joan Harrison.
Photo by Peter Stackpole/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images
RKO/Pathe frequently leased out the studio, and in February 1937, the now 60-acre studio was leased to the bombastic and brilliant independent producer David O. Selznick. Selznick quickly made The Mansion his headquarters, hanging a large picture of his father, Lewis, an early movie pioneer who his son felt had been mistreated by the business, over his desk.
When Selznick set up shop in Culver City, it had truly become the movie capital of the world, now home to Selznick International Studios, MGM, and Hal Roach Pictures. According to the Chamber of Commerce’s then-president Blaine Walker, even though 60 percent of all films made in LA were actually made in Culver City, movies at the time ended with the line “Made in Hollywood.” The tagline infuriated proud Culver City residents. The community threatened to change its name to Hollywood, before compromising, simply adding “Made in Culver City” to the end of all pictures produced there. The Selznick-produced The Prisoner of Zenda was the first film to proudly bear the stamp.
The new recognition came not a moment too soon, for over the next three years, two of the most famous, critically acclaimed movies of all time would be filmed on the Selznick lot. The first, Gone with the Wind, kicked off with the raising of the Confederate flag on the lawn in front of The Mansion.
It was on the suggestion of production manager Raymond Klune that Selznick decided to use actual sets on the backlot, including those from King of Kings and King Kong, for the burning of Atlanta. “Old sets were given false fronts and new profiles in order to simulate buildings of the period,” writes Selznick historian Rudy Behimer in Memo from David O. Selznick. “Seven technicolor cameras photographed doubles for the characters of Rhett and Scarlett in medium and long shots against the fire background. It was necessary to shoot this sequence ahead of the start of actual production in order to clear the area and allow for construction of the exterior Tara set, sections of Atlanta and various other exteriors to be used during the course of filming.”
The backlot fire made way for the fabled Tara, family home of Scarlett O’Hara. The iconic set featured landscaping designed by pioneering landscape architect Florence Yoch. Selznick was not happy with the final set of Tara, and later wrote that he wished he had used a real plantation house in the South.
The King Kong production couldn’t afford to travel to Africa, so Skull Island was recreated by RKO on the lot. In realty, Kong was just “an 18-inch puppet.”
Though the Tara set was torn down decades ago, legend persists that it was in fact The Mansion. “People always look at the front of the Culver Studios and at The Mansion and they think that Gone with the Wind was filmed there,” Lugo Cerra says. “However, that wasn’t the mansion in Gone with the Wind. But everybody remembers it because it was a Selznick release, and Selznick’s logo featured a picture of The Mansion.”
While Gone with the Wind fever consumed the country, another excitable, bombastic genius was making movie history on the Selznick lot. Orson Welles was directing and starring in Citizen Kane, a thinly veiled take-down of William Randolph Hearst. With his troupe of young enthusiastic actors from the Mercury Theater, Welles shot portions of the film’s newsreel segment all around Forty Acres.
“There was a big back lot, and as we were moving from one place to another, we’d say, ‘Well, let’s get on the back of the train and make me with Teddy Roosevelt,’ or whoever it was,” Welles recalled to director Peter Bogdanovich in This is Orson Welles. “It was all kind of half improvised—all the newsreel stuff. It was tremendous fun doing it.”
Over the next 10 years, many important movies including A Star is Born, Intermezzo, Rebecca, Spellbound, The Magnificent Ambersons, Portrait of Jennie, and Duel in the Sun would be filmed at Selznick International Studios.
The studio was eventually taken over by RKO, before eccentric owner Howard Hughes (who is said to have once roller skated through The Mansion) sold it to General Tire. In November 1957, Desilu, owned by TV golden couple Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, brought the studio for $6 million. Over the next half century, it would go through a bewildering number of owners, officially renamed The Culver City Studios in 1970.
Despite the constant change in ownership, the lot would be used for the productions of famous TV shows including Lassie, Star Trek, and The Andy Griffith Show, employing many Culver City residents.
Lugo Cerra, who grew up in Culver City, where her father was chief of police, recalls that many school children treated the studio like a giant playground. “All of my friends, all of the kids around there, they were always climbing walls to go over and see it,” Lugo Cerra says. “It was a place where almost everybody in town had gotten in illegally.”
The studio always tried very hard to be a good neighbor, she says. “One of the neighbors called and was really upset with the fact that [noise on the lot] was disturbing their nice, quiet neighborhood,” Lugo Cerra says. “The fellow who answered the phone, whose name I don’t know, he said, ‘Could you come over for a minute?’ And so, the neighbor fellow came on over, and he took him over to the soundstage and opened the door, and the Beatles were practicing!”
The mansion in 2012. It once served as the opening logo for all of David O. Selznick’s movies.
Photo by Bret Hartman for The Washington Post via Getty Images
Historical society president Parrish, a retired prop master, is a Culver City native whose background would do Harry Culver proud. Both of her grandfathers worked in the film business, as did her father and cousin. “Growing up in Culver City, I always tell people you worked at Hughes Aircraft or you worked in the studio.”
Parrish’s father, Dennis, opened the Hand Prop Room on the Culver City Studios Lot in 1974. Then a young teenager, Parrish recalls running around the friendly, laidback rental lot, exploring an old stage that was filled with old props. “It was just like this big storage bin,” Parrish remembers. “And there was this big tall, to me it was like an eight-foot-tall, white polar bear that I’ll swear to you was the one from the Addams Family. And walking around in this warehouse, I would find all kinds of stuff. And I’d come out so dirty and you could hear the crackling of pigeon poop under your feet that had been there for years and years.”
Decades later Lugo Serra, now a prop master herself, was working on the lot on Mighty Joe Young. She and a producer with ties to the current studio owners were talking about her teenage exploits on the old stage. “He said, ‘Well, you’re not going to believe what we found when they were getting ready to tear down that stage.’ Parrish recalls “And he said, ‘We actually got it.’ I said, ‘What’s that?’ He says, ‘Rosebud.’ I said, ‘Are you kidding me? There was a rosebud in that warehouse?’ He said, ‘Yep.’ I was shocked!”
The “Rosebud” was the famed sled (sorry, spoiler) in Citizen Kane. Apparently one of the props sled’s had been left in the warehouse, forgotten, decades before.
In 1991 Sony Pictures Entertainment bought the studio. During their tenure films including Armageddon, Legally Blonde, and The Matrix were shot there. In 2004 it sold the ailing, out-of-date studio (now sans Forty Acres, which had been subdivided) to Studio City, Los Angeles.
In 2014, Hackman Capital Partners purchased the now 14-acre studio. Three years later, it announced a $600 million project to transform the studio by 2021, adding seven new buildings in preparation for Amazon studios, which signed a 15-year lease. Creating cavernous construction pits throughout the site, the lot it is now a tangle of metal beams and poured concrete, hinting at the state of the art stages and design studios to come.
Hackman did not return multiple interview requests. For historians in the city, this new chapter in the history of the fabled lot has been met with cautious approval.
“It’s kind of hard today to stop growth,” Parrish says. “And when you have someone who’s Michael Hackman and Hackman Partners who comes to the city and starts talking to all of us, and he’s very, very pleasant and he’s very approachable. And he threw a little party for us at Christmas time a couple of years ago, and he said, ‘I need your help going to the council to explain what we want to do here.’”
The historical society decided to support the new plan, but with reservations. “The only person who likes a change is a wet baby,” Lugo Serra, who briefly worked with Hackman, says. “We all have to get used to it.”
Parrish agrees. “It terrifies me to see these big, huge steel structures coming up on that lot right now,” she says. “But if it’s done with character and taste, and thought, you know, if they have a thoughtful way of putting it together, and they’ve been very good with the neighbors, pretty much. They’re very visible in our City Council meetings. So, I mean, I feel like you have to support it.”
There is also the knowledge that new media like Amazon is the future. “Most of my career was with celluloid. And then we went to digital. And they don’t need the type of soundstages that we once had,” Parrish explains. “They’d rather lease it, go out of state, do the tax incentives someplace else.”
In tight-knit Culver City, the arrival of such new media giants as Amazon, Beats, HBO, and Maker Studios—joining stalwarts like Sony—mean that the little community Harry Culver founded in 1917 lives to fight another day. “I’m glad that they chose Culver City,” Parrish says. “Santa Monica could have got them, Beverly Hills, the Valley. And it’s nice to see a town that’s always been based on the film industry actually have that same kind of energy with the new media. Having it back here again… there’s a lot of excitement.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated that the Burning of Atlanta was filmed in 1937 at the Culver Studios backlot. It was 1938.