Universal Studios tried Tuesday to put a good face on the accidental weekend fire that ripped through its back lot.
But a comparison to a previous fire in 1990 suggests the blaze could inflict tens of millions of dollars in short-term damage on corporate parent General Electric Co.
The biggest casualty was the New York streetscape set, a favorite among filmmakers who pay tens of thousands of dollars a day to cast it in blockbusters such as “Spider-Man 2” and “Transformers” along with popular TV shows.
The studio also lost its popular King Kong attraction; an undetermined number of film and music recordings; and a full day of revenue when it didn’t open for visitors on Sunday.
An average of 25,000 people visit on weekend days this time of year.
‘It can be rebuilt’
The damage has not yet been tallied but will likely exceed the estimated $25 million caused by a fire in 1990 that also destroyed the streetscape and caused minor water damage to the King Kong attraction.
Authorities initially put the size of Sunday’s fire at 3.5 acres. NBC Universal spokeswoman Cindy Gardner said Tuesday the blaze approached five acres. The 1990 fire charred about three acres.
Universal has said the studio and theme park were already back to business as usual.
“We’re very grateful there was no loss of life, and no serious injury,” Gardner said. “It was tragic and iconic, but it can be replaced and it can be rebuilt.”
Theme park spokesman Eliot Sekuler said attendance Monday was slightly over projections, as the new, $40 million Simpsons ride continued to draw visitors.
In addition, none of the studio’s 30 sound stages was damaged, and all 10 film and TV productions scheduled for the lot proceeded as planned, he said.
Insurance to cover losses
The video vault, housing 40,000 to 50,000 videos and film reels, was destroyed, but Gardner said the contents were digital or film copies, not the master negatives kept elsewhere.
Music stored in the vault also had backup copies, said Peter LoFrumento, a spokesman for Universal Music Group, now a subsidiary of Vivendi SA. It was unclear if the recordings were originals, he said.
Gardner said the company has insurance for the damage and lost business. She had no further details on the extent of the coverage or when it might be paid.
In such cases, corporations often take short-term writedowns on losses as they await reimbursement.
Paul Ruben, North American editor of Park World magazine, which covers the theme park industry, said Universal could actually benefit from the fire.
“I think in a perverse way it will increase interest in visiting the park,” he said. “If Universal is smart, they will add an additional charge to see the ruins.”
The studio plans to rebuild the New York City streetscape to compete with similar sets at Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros. Some production companies were already scrambling to book alternative sets at Warner Bros. and elsewhere.
“The last time this happened in 1990, they ended up rebuilding it better,” said art director Francois Audouy, who helped shoot the final battle scene in “Transformers” on the Universal set.
With the King Kong attraction destroyed, back lot trams were redirected to skirt the fire damage, with guides encouraging international tourists to take photographs.
One guide told tourists the scenes of Atlanta burning in “Gone With the Wind” was created when moviemakers deliberately set fire to old Universal sets in 1938.
Sekuler said some of the back lot landmarks had not been destroyed.
The town hall from such movies as “Back to the Future” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” was only half-burned, and the nearby courthouse was intact.
In addition, the famous clock tower at the center of the electrifying climax to “Back to the Future” had been safely tucked away in storage, he said.