Los Angeles has countless things to do and see, however it is the film and movie industry (known as the entertainment industry) that are a significant economic driver and international tourist attraction of the city. Although the term “Hollywood” is synomonous with the industry, in reality only one movie studio, Paramount, remains in Hollywood proper with the rest of the movie studios scattered across the LA Basin and San Fernando Valley. It should be noted that in today’s age most of the production on the studio lots are not of movies but more TV Shows, commercials, music videos and independent digital shorts where those producers have budgets to “rent” the studio space. Many movies are largely shot on location and in Canada (although the executive and creative strategic decisions are housed on the studio lots).
Seeing Hollywood Studios
Touring Hollywood Studios is easy if you plan ahead. Not every tour is equal and they often change. Not every studio has a tour. Of the seven major studios, the following provide behind the scenes looks into their operations: Universal, Warner Brothers, Paramount and Sony Pictures. The Universal tour is an extension to the Universal Studios Hollywood theme park while the others are just straight up walking tours. If you are totally into the movie industry and want to see as much as you can of the inner workings we recommend doing two. Do the Universal as a baseline of what a huge studio lot looks like and then pick one of the others-ideally either Warner Brothers or Paramount.
Universal Studios Hollywood is a mixed bag. On one hand it’s a total tourist zone, but, on the other the hand the actual back lot studio tour has some good information once you wade through the crowds to get to the actual tour. Universal is the original studio tour operator and back in the day that was the only thing to do when visiting the lot. Before the theme park the tours were several hours and a combination of walking and the tram. Then came the theme park and the tours were rolled into the theme park experience as another ride, shortened to 45 minutes and no walking. In addition they installed tv monitors on the trams that play tongue and cheek clips to add to the guide’s narrative as well as show scenes from movies that were filmed in areas you are driving by. Nevertheless the backlot to Universal is huge and it is cool as the tram climbs and descends hills leaving fake mock ups of urban streets only to transverse a fantasy rain forest and exit into a wild west backdrop. These effects are not for the tourist but really built out to maximize the movie making experience.
Some of the key points on the tour include a cruise down the exact street “Desperate Housewives” was filmed (along with countless other dramas/comedies with a suburban base), the plane crash wreckage from “War of the World’s” and the Bates Hotel from the movie “Psycho”.
It should be noted that there is still an added thrill element to the studio tour that most notably include the King Kong 3D attraction. Overall the information on the tour is comprehensive and thorough. If you are in Los Angeles for only a short time we recommend the Universal Tour. There’s no reservation, you can get in and out and if you are into the theme park experience then that is an added bonus.
The Universal experience is good primer tour if you will if you plan others. They do a good job of explaining the ins and outs of film production and have the largest lot. Armed with this knowledge when going to another studios tour you will be able to have perspective of what Universal has that they don’t (or vice versa) and get feel for how they use their resources to make a movie in lieu of not having something Universal may have.
Universal Studios is located in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles (just over the hill from Hollywood). There is a nonstop subway line and shuttle bus service from Hollywood and Highlands to Universal.
The next best tour is the Warner Brothers Tour. We recommend this one in addition to the Universal tour or in lieu of. Also in the San Fernando Valley and just two miles from Universal this studio is large and in continuous operation. These tours are two hours long (vs 45 minutes at Universal) and are in smaller intimate groups of 12. The guides drive you on a golf cart through the tight lanes between the actual sound stages and explain in explicit detail the movie and TV history behind many of these studios. The guides tend to be very knowledgeable and because it’s a lot smaller than the Universal Tour (i.e. 200 of you on a tram) there is plenty of opportunity to interact with the guides, ask questions and get the answers to a lot of questions some may have about the movie and TV making process. Like Universal Warner has city street mockups and different themed areas that are maximized to cater to producer’s imagination when filming.
Warner Brothers is one of the top syndicators of prime time TV shows (more so than Universal) and through this you will most likely get to see some of the inner workings of your favorite shows. ER, Friends, West Wing all have a history on this lot. In current times visitors will get to see the Two and Half Men, The Mentalist, Gilmore Girls and Conan O’Brien sets to name a few. Warner Brother’s is also the studio behind the Harry Potter series and the tour features a stop at the costume room housing the costumes props from this famous movie for you to see in person.
Those who are totally die hard and can’t get enough of the Hollywood Studio Tour should check out the Paramount Pictures Tour as well. If after Universal and Warner Brothers you’ve felt you’ve seen it all then you could probably skip this tour. Located in Hollywood (however you need to drive or take bus from Hollywood and Highlands or it’s a 20-30 minute walk) the studio is steeped in rich Hollywood tradition. One of the original Hollywood studios some of the most iconic movies and TV shows of our time were filmed here.
The Paramount Pictures tour is mostly on foot. The size of the studio is about that of Warner Brothers. Make sure you bring comfortable walking shoes. Beyond the movies Paramount operates an extensive syndicated TV arm and with that the tour includes visits to sets like Dr. Phil. The guides are knowledgeable and point out various sound stages and even open space areas that were transformed to be sets for popular movies and TV shows. Obviously relics to these movies and TV shows are long gone (although a routine looking office building towards the front of the lot served as the back drop for the high school the Brady kids attended in the Brady Bunch.)
The actual Sony Pictures lot is one of the oldest studio lots in LA and was once the MGM lot where such legendary movies as the “The Wizard of Ozz” was filmed. Located in Culver City (5 miles south of Beverly Hills and near LAX) this studio is in constant production of TV shows and movies. The Sony Pictures lot is one of the smaller studios and the tours easily transverse the lot on foot with ease.
The Sony Pictures tour is very similar to the Paramount tour. You walk with a guide who points out the various soundstages and what movies or TV shows were filmed there. Sony Pictures is also the taping location for Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune. Its up to the production schedule if you will get to see the sets to these shows and often they are dark and covered up making it difficult to distinguish recognizable elements from those shows.
The Sony Pictures tour is recommended for those who LOVE their movies, have done the Universal, Warner and Paramount and just can’t get enough. However its safe to say the Sony Pictures tour should not be your first or only studio tour when visiting Los Angeles.