Universal eyes fire damage, but business on track

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Universal Studios suffered major fire damage to its film lot on Sunday and closed its Hollywood theme park for most of the day, but company officials saw no halt to film or television work, a studio spokeswoman said.

Lost in the fire that erupted in the early morning were the “King Kong” attraction, the New York Street, a famous alley from “The Sting” and the courthouse square from the hit film, “Back to the Future”.

The Universal Studios Hollywood theme park had to be closed through early afternoon, and one building housing a video vault was severely scorched.

About 40,000 to 50,000 videos were damaged, but studio spokeswoman Cindy Gardner said the company either had other copies or could easily make them. Contents of a second vault holding master versions of older and classic movies were salvaged.

“Nothing irreplaceable was lost,” Ron Meyer, Universal Studios’ president and chief operating officer, said of the vault’s contents.

Gardner said it was too early to assess the full monetary damage of the fire that was first reported at 4:45 a.m. (1145 GMT) on the back-lot set depicting New York City.

She said none of the company’s offices would be closed on Monday. “It will be business as usual,” Gardner said.

A massive fire in the same back-lot areas in 1990 caused $50 million in damage.

Universal Studios is currently operated by NBC Universal Inc., which is 80-percent owned by U.S.-based General Electric Co. and 20 percent by French communications and utility company Vivendi. The film and TV studio is a sister company to the NBC broadcast network.

Despite the fire and damage, Universal planned to go ahead with Sunday’s popular MTV movie awards ceremony at the Gibson Amphitheater, which was not affected by the fire.

Feature films like “The Changeling” and “Frost Nixon” recently used the New York backdrop during production as did popular TV series including “Monk”, “The Unit”, “House”, “Heroes” and “Ghost Whisperer”.

But Universal’s Gardner said no shooting was scheduled there in the near-term.

Universal Pictures is one of six major film studios. It has been a major producer of horror and numerous other movies, and it tapped a young Steven Spielberg to make 1975’s “Jaws”.

The famed director still has a production company, Amblin Entertainment, on the Universal lot, and he is said to be considering rejoining Universal from his current home studio DreamWorks, which is owned by Paramount Pictures.

Media reports in recent months have cited sources as saying Spielberg may return to Universal now that his contract with Viacom Inc’s Paramount, which bought DreamWorks in 2005, is nearing an end.

Additional reporting by Bob Tourtellotte; Editing by Tim Dobbyn