Citing a burgeoning marketplace for digital production facilities, Tribune Entertainment Co. is undertaking a major overhaul of its historic Sunset Boulevard complex that will transform the facility into the nation's first fully digital studio lot.

The project, encompassing more than 70,000 square feet in seven sound stages on the former KTLA studio lot at 5800 Sunset Blvd., will cost between $10 million and $20 million, Tribune officials said. The conversion is on track to be completed later this year.

"We will be using it for our own productions and we'll be in the stage-rental business as well," said Dick Askin, president and CEO of Tribune Entertainment. "We converted the two other studios here to digital (in 1995) and the demand has been high."

Tribune Entertainment, a subsidiary of Tribune Co., plans to install digital Sony cameras and state-of-the-art recording equipment and control rooms for the production and pre-production of film, TV and new-media projects in the revamped studios.

In addition, the project will include landscaping and new signage promoting Tribune shows and a major remodel of "Tara," the distinctive 60,000-square-foot white colonial building that was built in 1923 to serve as headquarters for Warner Bros. Pictures. When it is finished, the building will become the corporate headquarters for Tribune Entertainment.

Despite a big jump in the number of available sound stages in the city over the past few years, Askin said he is confident that film and television producers will be eager to use the converted Tribune facilities.

"We consider it an investment in the future. We wanted to be at the front of the shift to digital, not at the end," he said. "As the entertainment business moves into the digital age, it's been our experience that producers have raised the bar in terms of their expectations for working with the best facilities."

Stephan Smith, a partner with Los Angeles Center Studios, which set up shop downtown in the old Unocal headquarters two years ago, agreed that the demand locally for digital production is set to explode.

"There is more and more talk about it. There's not a lot going on right now, but it's definitely coming, so it makes sense to prepare for it," Smith said.

Tribune's ambitious conversion means that Hollywood Center Studios, a leading independent producer of television programming and commercials, will have to move out of the Sunset site. Hollywood Center, which has its own 10-stage complex on Las Palmas Avenue, has been operating several of Tribune's nine sound stages for the past 15 years. The company's management contract expires at the end of April.

"They announced to us that they were going to expand their production," said Tim Mahoney, president of Hollywood Center. "Since they own the lot, they felt it would be an easy thing for them to take over these studios for their expansion."

As the nation's first fully digital sound stage facility, Tribune Studios, as it will be now be known, carries on a history of technological innovation at the Sunset site.

Warner Bros. acquired the lot in 1920 and seven years later "The Jazz Singer" with Al Jolson, Hollywood's first "talkie," was produced there as were "Rin Tin Tin," James Cagney's "The Public Enemy" and many other notable films.

Paramount Pictures bought the lot in 1954 as a location for television station KTLA, Channel 5, which still operates there. Television programs that have been produced on the lot include everything from "Gunsmoke" and the "Donny and Marie" show to "Let's Make a Deal" and "Totally Hidden Videos." Tribune Co. acquired the property in 1986 from Gene Autry's Golden West Broadcasting, which had bought it from Paramount in 1963.

"We're taking a lot that as a very strong heritage in Hollywood and, consistent with its early stages, we're trying to update that mandate with the conversion to digital," Askin said. "From our view, it continues that connection to Hollywood. We feel it's important to keep that spirit alive."

Construction on the Tribune Studios is expected to begin by June, Askin said, and the newly digital studios should be operating by this fall.

Tribune Co. has annual revenues of $6 billion and owns television stations, publishing companies, Web sites and newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, in markets nationwide.

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