M-G-M in Culver City was the greatest studio in Hollywood. Add to that the history of its current resident, Columbia / TriStar, and one would think that a tour of Sony Studios would be a film-lovers dream come true.
Oh, Sony's new guided tour is respectable. It has its interesting moments. But it doesn't even begin to live up to its potential. Compared to other available studio tours, I'd have to say that it ranks below both the Paramount tour and the Warner Bros tour.
[ Warning: It's been several years since I last took the Sony tour, so my review of it, below, is out of date. With luck, they may have improved it since then. I'll try to update it soon. ]
This is a guided walking tour - no trams here. It lasts about two hours, and is a realistic look at the inner workings of a modern movie studio (no snapping sharks here, folks.) But they charge less than Paramount's $35 per person for the privilege.
And, alas, like Paramount, they also manage to take what should be a fascinating subject and manage to make it seem pretty mundane.
The tour begins across the street (to the east) in the impressive atrium of the cantilevered Sony Pictures Plaza building. You park underneath, go to a small office on the north side of the atrium lobby, pay your $33, and then usually wait a few minutes for the tour to begin. (Be sure to phone ahead for reservations.)
You can spend this time looking at the mini-museum Sony has erected on the east side of the atrium, hosting a small number of exhibits from their current and past films. On my visit this included props and sets from “Stuart Little”, and costumes from movies like “Bugsy”. (Other exhibits have included items from "Charlie's Angels" and "The Patriot.") There’s also a fast food area and some tables, if you want a snack.
Eventually, your guide for the tour (in our case, a friendly young woman) will emerge to escort the tour group across the street and past the studio gates.
The first thing you’ll probably be shown is the Thalberg building (named after the young genius who virtually ran M-G-M at its prime.) They’ll take you for a quick trip into its small lobby and show you a display featuring a few of the Best Picture Oscars won by Columbia/TriStar over the years.
Which brings up one not-so-small problem.
Since Sony now owns the studio (which is now home to their Columbia & TriStar Pictures), I suppose it is to be expected that the emphasis might be on Columbia, rather than on M-G-M. And it is.
But Columbia is a relative newcomer to this Culver City lot. They spent most of their time at what is now called the Sunset-Gower Studios in Hollywood (until 1972), and spent their latter years in the Valley (sharing with Warner Bros what was then called “Burbank Studios.”) It was only in 1990 that Sony finally purchased this historic Culver City lot. For more than six decades (from 1924 to 1986), and all of Hollywood's Golden Age, this was M-G-M Studios.
Yet although many of the buildings on the lot are named after former M-G-M greats, M-G-M itself gets only an occasional nod during the tour - a mention or two of boss Louis B. Mayer (often anecdotes about him being a penny-pinching slave-driver), or a passing reference to a classroom where Judy Garland & Mickey Rooney went to school as kids on the lot.
Far more attention is paid to Columbia’s recent productions, such as “Party of Five” and “Jeopardy!”, than to the 60 years when this lot was the crown jewel of Hollywood, with “more stars then there are in heaven.” Since Sony is running the tour, that is not surprising - but it is disappointing.
Another drawback to this, and other studio tours, is the absence of permanent outdoor sets.
In Hollywood’s Golden Age, when shooting on location was almost impossible, most major studio lots were filled with large outdoor sets: New York brownstones, European neighborhoods, and Western towns where most of the movies’ outdoor scenes were shot. Studios then were a virtual world of their own.
MGM was no exception. Take a look at the DVD of "That's Entertainment," which includes an informal tour of this studio's back lots filmed back in 1974, for a glimpse at what MGM used to look like. But don't expect to see the residential neighborhood where Mickey Rooney spent 20 years playing 'Andy Hardy', or the city street where Gene Kelly danced in "Singing in the Rain," or the train station where Fred Astaire filmed "Band Wagon."
Alas, those back lot sets are a thing of the past. While Paramount has retained its giant New York set, and both Warner Bros and Universal have huge back lots, it appears that not a single outdoor set remains on the Sony lot. They were demolished long ago, and the land they used to sit on (on the studio’s west side) was sold to developers who put up rows of tract homes.
Big outdoor sets are something that I think most visitors probably expect to see on a studio tour; instead we are treated to row after row of those faceless, factory-like sound stages where indoor scenes are shot. It’s a problem at Paramount, and it’s a problem here. And it’s one reason why Warner Bros - which still boasts a wide range of colorful outdoor locales - remains the most interesting of the studio tours.
From the Thalberg building, the tour heads west, under an impressive bridge displaying giant posters from “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Lost Horizon”, emerging on a street lined with faux storefronts. This new Main Street is the product of the recent $100 million restoration effort mounted by Sony, which has given the old studio a much brighter, more colorful look. The facelift, with its landscaping and fresh paint, has softened that usual industrial edge that plagues studios, lending more of a campus-like feel to a good portion of the studio lot. As such, it’s just a more pleasant place to spend time.
(To see what the studio lot looked like before Sony restored it, check out these photos.)
A right turn takes the tour north towards the historic M-G-M gates along Washington Blvd, and to a group of buildings that include a theatre which was used for studio screenings, a commissary/restaurant (still in use), and the former office of studio chief Louis B. Mayer.
Our guide told us that after Clark Gable’s wife, Carole Lombard, died in a plane crash, the stars of M-G-M gave Gable a standing ovation when he returned to the couple’s regular table at this commissary. Unfortunately, they didn’t let us go inside - the guide said that it was being used...
And that is a continuing problem on this tour - and other studio tours around town. Many times we had to pass by interesting sites without going inside because they were being used...
For instance, I was told by someone who took the tour a week before that I would probably be shown the water tank used for staging those elaborate swimming scenes in those old Esther Williams' musical extravaganzas. But we weren’t - it was being used to shoot another movie.
The “Donny & Marie” set? Sorry, we couldn’t see it because it was being used.
There is far too much “walking past” and not enough “going in” to suit me...
From there, we followed the north wall west, past a two-story apartment building of sorts that our guide said was once used as a kind of dormitory for performers, complete with matrons who stood guard to prevent fraternization between male & female employees.
Passing a former schoolhouse for child performers and a rehearsal hall where Astaire used to practice his dance moves, we finally went inside for one of the more interesting stops on the tour: the scoring studio, where they record the background music for movies (and other things.)
First they showed us the modern, glassed-in control room, full of electronic keyboards; then we stepped back in time a bit, as we entered the actual recording studio, a bare-wood-walled room where they say the acoustics are so outstanding that they haven’t painted it in decades - for fear of disturbing the audio magic. According to our guide, the room is booked for years in advance, and Whitney Houston refused to record anywhere else.
(My friend says that on his earlier tour they skipped this scoring studio because it was being used...)
We also went paid a visit to the wardrobe department, where we saw original costumes (on dummies) from movies like “My Best Friend’s Wedding” and “Zorro”, as well as more mundane costumes (from current TV shows) on racks being tended by the staff.
Then it was out for an extensive
journey through the “industrial” portion of the studio - strolling down
alleys past one giant, barn-like sound stage after another.
This is the dreary but authentic reality of the modern-day movie studio, where most business consists of renting sound stage space for interior shooting by production companies.
As we strolled past historic Stage 27, where “The Wizard of Oz” was filmed, our guide blithely noted that one could still see some of the original “Yellow Brick Road” inside - but only if they took up the floor! We didn’t even get a peek inside...
But we did go inside a few of the sound stages.
In one, they had been filming the Harrison Ford movie, “What Lies Beneath.” Still on display were mock-ups of residential, New England-style homes - exact replicas of the actual homes they had shot on location in Cape Cod.
In another, Stage 19, we saw the (idle) set of the TV series “Party of Five.” (This was back in early 2000, when the show was still in production.) They took us on a quick tour of the show’s kitchen and living room sets. They like this show... a later stop showed us the set of "Salinger's" the restaurant & bar owned by the family on “Party of Five.” (We even got to sit in the booths.)
One of the more interesting stops took us upstairs (via a tiny elevator or a very long flight of stairs) to the workshop of an independent company which paints huge, realistic murals (mattes) as backdrops for the movies. [See the photo below.]
We walked through the sound stage which normally houses “Wheel of Fortune”, but on our visit (as luck would have it) the set had been broken down and packaged in crates for hitting the road on one of the game show’s national tours.
We had better luck on the more permanent set of “Jeopardy”, where we sat in the seats overlooking the well-known game board and contestant podiums while our guide gave us a few details about the show and host Alec Trebek. (As you might expect, the familiar set looks considerably different when it is dark.)
We also got a peek inside a dim sound stage with a movable ceiling, and stepped into another where the “flying monkeys” in “The Wizard of Oz” were originally filmed as the actors hung from the high ceiling.
(Speaking of sound stages, Sony Studios is home to the largest sound stage in the Western Hemisphere, Stage 15. It is approximately 42,296 square feet, and about 40 feet high. They filmed "Spider-Man", "Air Force One" and "Hollow Man" in Stage 15.).
As we headed back towards the gate, we were passed by an extra who looked like he had just been in a bad traffic accident - half of his head and shoulders covered in bloody, gory makeup. He smiled as he passed by - and I wondered if he was a shill. So I asked my friend who had taken the tour earlier if he had also seen “bloody guy” on his tour. He hadn’t. So, it was apparently just one of those spontaneous encounters.
The bottom line about this tour is that it’s reasonably priced, and if you have never seen the inside of a Hollywood movie studio before, it’s well worth a visit. But if you’re expecting something special because this was once the historic M-G-M Studios, or if you’ve already been on the Paramount or Warner Bros tour, save your money - there’s nothing particularly unique to see here.
But experiences and opinions differ, of course. A fan of Seeing-Stars writes to tell me that the Sony tour was his favorite studio tour. He reports that his tour group was small (just six people), and that when their tour guide spotted Will Smith on the lot, filming "Men In Black II", she took the them over to meet him, and that Will spoke with the group. They also got within feet of Dabney Coleman and Simon Baker of "The Guardian". They also enjoyed going on the set of "Jeopardy!" and felt that the tour seemed "less restrictive and less commercial," and that they "really felt like we got behind the scenes."
In September of 2004, Sony announced that it had bought MGM (the company) for $5 billion. There's a touch of irony in this, since Sony has occupied the old MGM studios for years. Sony acquired MGM mainly in order to get the company's library of films, which is believed to be its most valuable asset. It constituted the biggest library of color movies in the world, including franchises such as "James Bond", "The Pink Panther" and "Rocky". Word is that MGM will continue to operate as a private company (which the Sony will own), and will continue to put out several films a year. But now that they own the MGM name, perhaps the Sony studio tour will focus more on the MGM heritage on the lot.
Update: as of 2010, I'm told
they have added an outdoor scenic backlot of a New York brownstone
(which was recently used for "Burlesque", a film starring
Cher and Christina Aguilera.)
Price: $33 per person. You pay for the tickets at the Sony Plaza building across Madison Street from (east of) the main gate. Make reservations in advance, by phoning (323) 520-TOUR. Or, you can now buy your tour tickets online by going to this link.
Hours: Monday through Friday, at 9:30 AM, 10:30 AM, 1:30 PM and 2:30 PM. Reservations are strongly encouraged. The tour lasts approximately two hours. Minimum age: 12.
Parking: an underground garage beneath the same Sony Pictures Plaza atrium - free with the tour.
Getting there: Sony Pictures Studios is located at the northwest corner of Washington Boulevard & Overland Avenue, in Culver City. The studio is bounded by Washington Boulevard (on the north), Culver Boulevard (on the south), Madison (on the east) and Overland (on the west). The main gate faces Madison. Parking is in the tall atrium building across the street (east of) the main gate, which is also where the tour begins. / See directions for Sony Studios.
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