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Some movie studios build a wide variety of sets on the backlot, which can be modified for different purposes as need requires and "dressed" to resemble any time period or look. These sets include everything from mountains, forests, ships, to small-town settings from around the world, as well as streets from the Old West, to whole modern-day city blocks from New York City, Paris, Berlin and London. There are streets that comprise an assortment of architectural styles, Victorian to suburban homes, and 19th century-style townhouses that encircle a central park with trees. An example of this is "Forty Acres" in Culver City, California or, in the case of Universal Studios, the home of Norman Bates from the Hitchcock movie Psycho.
The shells, or façades, on a studio backlot are usually constructed with three sides and a roof, often missing the back wall and/or one of the side walls. The interior is an unfinished space, with no rooms, and from the back of the structure one can see the electrical wires, pipes, beams and scaffolding, which are fully exposed. Ladders are usually built into the structure, allowing performers to climb to an upper-floor window or the roof to perform scenes. Not all the buildings and houses are shells. Some are closed in with a fourth wall. When not otherwise in use, they serve as storage facilities for lighting and other production equipment. When in use, the structures are dressed by adding doors, window treatments and landscaping. L-shaped temporary walls are placed inside of doors to give the illusion of an interior. When not in use, the structures are usually stripped of this dressing.
Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles offers a rare look into the Warner Bros. backlot, with scenes spilling off the Laramie Street set into various stages and eventually out of Gate 3 onto Olive Avenue in Burbank, California. Television shows such as Moonlighting and It's Garry Shandling's Show also broke the fourth wall and gave audiences a peek of life on the other side of the camera.
All the sets on a studio backlot are built to appear large, as if covering miles of ground on the big or small screen, while actually occupying only a few acres of the backlot.
In their heyday, some backlots covered hundreds of acres around existing studios, and filmmakers rarely left the lot, as they would intercut the backlot shots with a handful of establishing shots filmed on location by a second unit.
Today many studio backlots are gone or nearly gone. There are several reasons for this. Los Angeles, like the rest of the United States, went through an economic boom after World War II. This caused real estate prices and property taxes linked to fair market value to rise dramatically (the latter problem was curtailed by the enactment of Proposition 13 in 1978).
At the same time, during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s (the period when Hollywood underwent the transition from the Golden Age to New Hollywood), global movie audiences were increasingly annoyed by films that were supposedly set all over the world, but were obviously filmed in California. The primitive special effects technology of the era made it difficult to remove clues, such as chaparral-covered hills at the horizon line. Audiences wanted to see actors in locations which were both exotic and authentic, as opposed to tacky Hollywood copies. The box office failure of the 1968 film Camelot was blamed in part on this issue, which in turn marked the end of large-scale backlot production in Southern California.
By the early 1970s, the industry had transitioned to location shooting for the majority of outdoor scenes, and backlots were widely viewed as an obsolete, unwanted capital expenditure and a tax burden on studios. Many were razed and the land was either sold to developers or repurposed for theme parks or office buildings.
Though some studios like MGM and Fox sold vast tracts in the '60s and '70s, many historical sets continue to be demolished today, as there seems to be little interest in their preservation. Most recently, the western town set of Warner Bros., used in TV shows Bonanza, The Waltons and films like Wild Wild West, was razed and repurposed into office space.
- "40 Acres" The Lost Backlot Studio of Movie & Television Fame
- "Columbia Ranch.net" A website about the former Columbia Studios Ranch in Burbank CA
- Backlot space at Pinewood & Shepperton Studios