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Disney to announce deal for 'Avatar' theme park attractions

Photo: A scene from "Avatar." Credit: WETA / 20th Century Fox.The Walt Disney Co. is set to announce a major licensing deal to bring "Avatar" attractions to its theme parks, according to a person with knowledge of the matter.

The Burbank entertainment giant has secured the rights from 20th Century Fox movie studio, which released the 2009 blockbuster, and director James Cameron's Lightstorm Entertainment.

For Disney, the deal is significant because it usually relies on in-house content for its attractions. "Avatar," the highest grossing movie of all time, is expected to become a major component at various Disney parks, with the first such attraction debuting at Disney World in Orlando, Fla., said the source.

The two other major attractions that Disney parks based on non-Disney movies are "Indiana Jones" and "Star Wars."

Landing "Avatar" is a huge coup for Disney, which missed out on securing the rights to the "Harry Potter" franchise, which went to Comcast's Universal Studios theme park in Florida and is a wildly successful attraction.

Like "Harry Potter," Disney is expected to create a whole experience around "Avatar," the hit movie about humans colonizing an alien moon. Cameron is expected to be heavily involved with Disney on designing the attractions.

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James Cameron to produce next two "Avatar" films at Manhattan Beach studio

-- Claudia Eller and Joe Flint

Photo: A scene from "Avatar." Credit: WETA / 20th Century Fox.

On Location: James Cameron to produce next two "Avatar" films at Manhattan Beach studio

Landau 
Over the din of buzz saws and beeping forklifts, producer Jon Landau can barely contain his excitement as he strides into a 45-foot-tall sound stage that is barren except for workers building sets for a commercial shoot.

“We’re taking over these two buildings here. We'll have 200-plus people working down here. This is going to be the heart of the next two `Avatars’,” he beams, referring to the planned sequels to the highest grossing film of all time.

MBS Media Campus, formerly known as Manhattan Beach Studios, has just landed A-list tenant Lightstorm Entertainment, the production company headed by “Avatar” director James Cameron and his longtime business partner Landau.

The duo had considered building their own facility or even moving to Vancouver, Canada, or New Zealand to take advantage of lucrative tax breaks. Instead, they opted to remain in Los Angeles –- a boost for a region that has lost many major film productions to other locales -- because of the range of services at the sprawling complex near Los Angeles International Airport.

“We had a choice,” Landau said. “We could have been anywhere. When it came down to it, we looked at what they had to offer and it was almost the perfect production paradigm: with big soundstages, adjacent office space and dressing rooms and state-of-the-art infrastructure.”

Lightstorm recently signed a five-year lease to occupy 115,000-square-feet of soundstage and production office space at the studio, owned by private global investment firm Carlyle Group and operated by Hollywood-based Raleigh Studios, which also manages studios in Michigan, Louisiana, Georgia and Hungary.

Cameron produced the 2009 3-D blockbuster “Avatar” at Playa Vista in a studio half the size. But the former aircraft hangar, which dates back to the days of Howard Hughes, was too small and too old to accommodate additional demands by Hollywood's most famous futurist, who took performance capture technology to a new level in the sci-fi movie. Avatar

Lightstorm will keep its corporate office in Santa Monica, but in November will move its entire production operation to the Manhattan Beach studio that is already home to Marvel Studios, which filmed much of “Thor” and “Iron Man 2” at the facility. Other tenants are TV shows “CSI: Miami,” teen drama “90210” and “America's Funniest Home Videos,” and will soon include the new ABC drama “Revenge.”

Built in 1998, the sprawling complex spans 22 acres and 15 stages, making it one of the largest independently operated studio facilities in the Los Angeles area. The facility, which has been fully occupied most of the last three years, has had various owners since then. 

The Carlyle Group acquired the studio, on Rosecrans Avenue, from Oaktree Capital Management in 2007 for $150 million and has invested another $20 million in upgrades, including adding a New York streetscape, a 3-D screening room and post-production company. The studio also has an array of vendors and equipment suppliers, making it a kind of one-stop shop that made it appealing for Lightstorm.

“We have all these different companies that come together and feed off each other,’’ said Raleigh Studios President Michael Moore. “It’s a fun atmosphere.”

Moore was no stranger to Landau and Cameron. His company also manages the studio in Playa Vista where “Avatar” was produced.

Additionally, Carlyle and Lightstorm will invest more than $5 million in improvements, including adding two gyms, one for employees and a private one for Cameron; a commissary adjacent to the sound stages; and a private screening room for Cameron. Solar panels will be installed to provide all the electricity needed for the “Avatar” films, which are expected to begin production next summer.

Two of the stages will be used to create a virtual stage where dozens of small cameras capture the movements of actors wearing special body suits as they run through their scenes with mock-up props that simulate actual objects. The data are stored on computers and manipulated by a team of visual effects artists, who will be able to observe the action through windows installed between the sound stages and offices.

“For the last film, our art department was in Santa Monica, our editors were in Malibu, our production team was in Playa Vista," Landau said. “Here, everything is going to be in one area, and we’re all going to be together.”

Top Photo: Jon Landau, Academy Award-winning producer with Lightstorm Entertainment at the MBS Media Campus in Manhattan Beach, where Lightstorm will be moving and will produce the next two "Avatar" films. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times.

Side Photo: The character Neytiri, voiced by Zoe Saldana, right, and the character Jake, voiced by Sam Worthington are shown in a scene from, "Avatar."  Credit: AP Photo/20th Century Fox.

-- Richard Verrier

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