A Collection Gets Shelved
Cost-cutting closed the Universal Studios Research Library. But where does that leave filmmakers searching for an added touch of realism?

March 5, 2000, By Amy Wallace, Los Angeles Times

It's the place where Gregory Peck got the idea for his ordinary-Joe hairdo in "To Kill a Mockingbird," where Alfred Hitchcock got the lowdown on flight patterns for "The Birds," where George Roy Hill first glimpsed the bookie joints he wanted to depict in "The Sting" and where Steven Spielberg learned about shark behavior for "Jaws."

For 84 years, its voluminous clipping files--organized by topic and crammed with photographs of everything from baby carriages to fire hydrants--were used to design the look and feel of thousands of movies and television shows, from the cop shop in the 1950s TV series "Dragnet" to the rocket control panels in 1995's "Apollo 13" to the restaurants in this year's Jacqueline Susann bio-pic, "Isn't She Great."

Until five weeks ago, the Universal Studios Research Library was the oldest and largest remaining such collection in town--a vital visual resource for screenwriters, producers, art directors and set designers who relied on its books, magazines and indexed images to give their projects factual and atmospheric credibility. Want to see the purses Tiffany's made in 1970? San Quentin's gas chamber in 1930? Or American railroad station interiors before 1900? The library's files contained all that and more.

Then suddenly, to save money, Universal shut its library down. The abrupt closure--which came as a surprise to many on the Universal lot--has prompted an outcry from Hollywood's creative community, many of whom worry about the fate of the library's more than 50,000 books and magazines and 5 million clippings.

"Boy, they're shortsighted. I'm sure it cost money [to run], but not that much money," said Henry Bumstead, a veteran art director and production designer who twice won Oscars for films ("The Sting" and "Mockingbird") he researched at Universal's library, a resource he's used for 50 years. "But that's the way [studio executives] are now. They're all lawyers running it. They have no idea what it takes to do a film."

The shuttering of the collection has also inflamed existing concerns about Universal's film division, which has grown steadily more frugal since the studio was bought by Seagram Co. in 1995. Producers, directors and writers complain that Universal's movie operation--which many in town suspect may be spun off by Seagram chief Edgar Bronfman Jr., who has expressed more interest in his music division--is spending less money developing projects and marketing completed films.

"They only care about the things that tangibly translate to profits. The intangible things that go to creating a good company that ultimately is profitable are not something that show up on the bottom line," said one producer, voicing the concerns of many on the lot. "They're completely gutting everything that makes them a studio."

Mike Lobell, another longtime producer, called the library closure "a shame. For anyone who wants to be in the movie business for a long period of time, these things are invaluable. But when corporate America takes over these companies, these [libraries] are the easiest things to close up because they have huge overhead."

Universal officials say the library was closed because it was no longer cost-effective. All studio research libraries charge hourly fees to those who use them, but they can lose up to $300,000 a year--not a huge amount in a town where the average cost of producing a movie is $53 million. More important, studio libraries gobble up space--Universal's occupied 4,000 square feet in the basement of a former motel on Lankershim Boulevard. And on increasingly crowded studio lots, real estate itself has become valuable.

"It's unfair to expect any company big or small, corporate or creative, to not be fiscally conscious or aware," said Universal spokeswoman Terry Curtin, who said the library was closed after "a long analysis. It was determined that while it was a valuable historical element, the usage was not enough to justify keeping it open."

Universal Pictures Chairman Stacey Snider said that after the library was shut, "I didn't get one phone call [of protest]. Not even one. I had meetings last week with five filmmakers who are in pre-production, and it didn't come up. Whatever sturm und drang people were feeling, it didn't get to my desk."

But Michael Baugh, a production designer who is leading an effort to persuade Universal to donate its library collection to a new nonprofit foundation called the Library of Film and Television Design, said Snider is "talking to the wrong people."

"She's not talking to designers," said Baugh, who lamented that the Universal closure is part of a trend. "The Universal library is the story this week. Next week, it'll be another. These libraries will never be secure until they belong to us, the people who use them. As long as the forces of Wall Street are in play and people are looking only at the bottom line, they're always going to be in danger."

Andy Lee, who was chief of the Universal library for 30 years ending in 1989, is trying a different tack: He and others have contacted Spielberg's attorney in the hopes that the Oscar-winning director will personally intercede.

"We were involved at the beginning [of his career]. 'Jaws' we did, gathering all kinds of shark material and background stuff on sea towns. We also worked on 'Sugarland Express,' " Lee recalled. "If he could just save the files. The clippings, at least."

Universal is not the first studio to divest itself of its research collection. In contrast to Hollywood's golden era, when every major studio had a vast library, today only 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros. maintain their own. The city of Burbank houses a third, an earlier Warner Bros. library donated by the studio in 1975. And a fourth, the former Samuel Goldwyn Studios library, is housed at DreamWorks SKG in Glendale (though its owner, Lillian Michelson, has been told her lease is up in November).

In the process of moving and dismantling the various studio collections, much has been discarded and lost. For example, MGM's library--known for its reservoir of materials from epics like those of director Cecil B. DeMille--fell into disrepair before its remains were bought by Warner Bros. and rebuilt.

Paramount's library was sold in the 1970s to director George Lucas, who moved it north to his Skywalker Ranch in San Rafael. Similarly, the old RKO Radio Pictures' library was bought by Francis Ford Coppola. It resides at his Napa Valley winery.

"This has been the age-old conflict that exists around these libraries. The reason the city of Burbank received the Warner Bros. library is that studio execs felt the cost of maintaining it was more than its value. And yet, you can't function as a studio and create these great sets without a research library," said Marianne Grasso, vice president and executive director of the National Assn. of Theater Owners, who previously ran the Burbank-based Warner Research Library for 11 years.

"If you talk to a production designer, when they need that picture they'd give their firstborn," Grasso said. "But if you talk to a studio exec, they probably look at it as a bunch of old books."

The closure of Universal's library sent shock waves in part because it was unexpected. Sources said Universal executives at all levels--from Snider to Romy Kaufman, vice president of Universal's story department, to Universal Studios President Ron Meyer--were surprised to learn of the closure, which was announced via e-mail four days before the doors were locked for good. The decision, the e-mail said, was made by the Studio Operations Group, which handles the allocation of everything from parking to office space.

"It was completely out of the blue. As recently as a year ago, they had talked about building a new facility for the Universal library," said Baugh.

Curtin said that the Studio Operations Group came to its decision after finding that during some periods, the library's two full-time researchers had received only two or three requests for help a month. But Margaret Ross, a researcher who was let go after more than 25 years at Universal, said that estimate is way off. "That makes it sound like we were sitting around doing nothing for 28 days," she said, sounding stunned. "We were doing 20 to 25 requests a week."

The library didn't only serve Universal projects. For $70 an hour, Ross and her partner, Marilyn Schanzer, researched robots for Disney's futuristic Robin Williams movie "Bicentennial Man," for example, and did loads of work for ad agencies that wanted to make their commercials look genuine.

But over the years, the library's primary responsibility was to enrich Universal projects. Even in the Computer Age, when everything seems available on the Internet if you can only locate it, many designers found that the library's carefully tended collection and its trained staff gave them much more to work with than any dot-com.

When the production designers on Spielberg's "Jurassic Park" needed to imagine a scientific laboratory of the future, Ross and Schanzer went to their "Laboratories" file and passed along a variety of renderings they'd clipped, filed and saved in the hopes of meeting just such a need. For the upcoming "U-571," a submarine picture starring Matthew McConaughey, they consulted their huge World War II clipping file (broken down under categories such as "Aviation," "Nuremberg" and "War Rooms") to provide accurate pictures of jeeps and submarines of the period.

Then, in mid-January, the two researchers were given two weeks' notice.

The Universal Research Library was created in 1916 for studio founder Carl Laemmle. At that time, movies were rarely shot on location, so production designers were regularly called upon to re-create actual places on the studio lot.

"Hollywood was a blank page. We were reproducing the whole world on this blank page and our access to the world was through the research libraries," said Robert Boyle, a production designer since the 1940s.

But the library did more than help dress the set. Lee, the former Universal library chief, recalls Peck coming in before shooting "To Kill a Mockingbird" to research his hair style. Peck wanted to look like an ordinary lawyer, not a movie star, and after some searching, Lee and his staff determined that Fortune magazine was the best resource; Peck borrowed all the issues from the year 1932.

Similarly, Boyle remembers heading down to the Universal library to work on one of the many films he did for Hitchcock: 1963's "The Birds."

"We needed to find out which birds we could use best," recalled the 90-year-old production designer. "We finally settled on two types: sea gulls, which were very greedy beasts that would always fly toward the camera if there was a piece of meat, and crows, which had a strange sort of intelligence. We read all about what crows could and couldn't do."

Boyle called the closing of several libraries in the past 20 years "the disgrace of Hollywood."

"I think the Harvard Business School came out and decided that wasn't a very important area, so they destroyed it," he said, referring to the increase in MBAs in the ranks of studio management. "It wasn't just Universal. [Several studios] decided it was a cost that you couldn't allocate a profit to. But libraries are not for profit. They're for knowledge. Take them away and you get dullness."

* * * Put in a call to Universal's library these days and a recording recommends that you visit the Burbank Public Library, where the Warner Research Library has been housed since 1975. But periodically that library too has been in danger of losing its home, as some city leaders have argued that its space could be better used to house books that serve a larger segment of the population.

For the moment, anyway, the Warner Research Library appears safe from eviction. But as its collections grow, the place--which is currently doing research for TV's "The West Wing" and for Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay's upcoming historical drama "Pearl Harbor"--gets ever more crowded.

Researcher Susan Hurlbert and librarian Misha Schutt are creative about conserving space. Recently they made color copies of their license plate collection so they could store the bulky plates (which designers consult regularly when working on period projects) someplace out of reach. And every storage cabinet also serves as a shelf--the better to ensure access to their idiosyncratic clippings, filed under headings like "Dead Bodies," "Control Rooms" and "Private Planes."

Nearby, at DreamWorks' Animation Campus in Glendale, Michelson's library recently found pictures of B-29 Superfortress airplanes for Warner Bros.' upcoming Clint Eastwood project "Space Cowboys," helped Disney figure out what the back of the Hollywood sign looks like for a scene in its upcoming Nicolas Cage action flick "Gone in 60 Seconds" and found out about pigeon houses to flesh out a pigeon-fancying story line in DreamWorks' "The Legend of Bagger Vance," Robert Redford's golf drama.

"You never know when these old books will come in handy," Michelson, 71, said the other day, cradling an obscure 1957 tome called "The Pigeon" in her hand. But handy or not, the collection will soon be gone. DreamWorks, which has generously housed Michelson's 7,000 books, 100,000 periodicals and 1.5 million clippings since 1995 in return for her research help, needs the space.

With all these collections potentially homeless someday, production designers, costume designers, art directors, set decorators, librarians and directors have joined to form the fledgling Library of Film and Television Design with the goal of keeping the collections in Los Angeles and accessible to those who use them. So far, they have more dreams than resources--they've raised just $10,000 to do mailings.

But Baugh, the production designer, says if the foundation's board can persuade Universal to donate its collection to them, fund-raising to house and staff the library will begin in earnest. He estimates rent, insurance, utilities, security and staff would run in the neighborhood of $250,000 a year, and he's confident that sum can be raised.

Universal's Curtin said that the studio is seriously considering Baugh's request. But she said much of the collection is already headed elsewhere--a collection of architectural books has been sent to a library in Canada that the Bronfman family has supported in the past; anything having to do with Universal's history will be sent to the studio archives; and certain research materials will be sent to the story department for reference.

"I don't know how much of value will be left," Curtin said.

That depends on what you value, said Grasso, the former librarian who is also involved in establishing the new foundation.

"If you try to put a monetary value on a collection like this, it's hard to quantify," she said. "Materials in pristine condition would be worth millions. But it's not an archive. It's a working library, so these things have been used. And if it's not used by the artist and filmmaker who needs that creative inspiration--if it's not vital--then what's the point?"

She paused, allowing herself a moment of hope.

"Lillian's library is a gem," she said of Michelson's collection. "If we could marry all these libraries, if we could somehow put them all together, wouldn't we have something?"

Amy Wallace Is a Times Staff Writer
copyright 2000

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