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FILM STUDIES: Once upon a time, all the world was a sound-stage

Variety, the Hollywood trade paper, was once treasured for its punchy word-play headlines. The most celebrated of these was from 1935, when the headline "Sticks nix hick pix" was meant to convey that rural audiences had no appetite for films about themselves. Well, last week Variety shrugged off drab grabs and humdrum come-ons and hit show business with "Hasta La Playa Vista, Baby".

Explanation: in ordinary Spanish, "Hasta la vista" is a friendly salute on parting: "See you soon". However, for most humans (and robot variants) beneath the age of 18, "Hasta la vista", especially with the insolent "baby" added, is a sardonic kiss-off for anything from the bowl of cereal that is not going to be eaten to your father's second wife as she gets her divorce papers. It is the ultimate put-down line of Arnold Schwarzenegger's cyborg in Terminator 2.

And Playa Vista? That was the name of a development project covering about a thousand acres near the Balbona Wetlands and Los Angeles Airport. Why bye-bye? Because DreamWorks SKG, the movie enterprise launched in 1994 by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen, had at last abandoned plans to build a new studio complex there.

A lot of Hollywood old-timers nodded sagely, and said, "Told you so."

Those Wetlands, they said, were best left to birds, snakes and fish, and SKG only had birds and snakes. Wasn't that where Howard Hughes had once built the "Spruce Goose", the immense Hercules flying boat which never flew more than a mile?

More to the point, there hadn't been a new picture-making studio built in the Los Angeles area since before the war. The Second World War. And no one has any illusions about the business working at the levels of production and profitability it had known in the 1920s and 1930s.

DreamWorks must have been frustrated. It had invested a lot already in plans and research, and in fighting legal battles with the environmentalists who longed for the Balbona marshes to have no greater interference than about a thousand flight arrivals and departures a day. The official explanation was that the financing had proven too difficult to arrange. The industry interpretation of that was that DreamWorks had had time to discover how tough it is to make enough movies, and to make them consistently profitable, so as to justify the overhead. The studio had been budgeted at $250m.

In fact, the DreamWorks record isn't bad: Saving Private Ryan, Antz and The Prince of Egypt have done well. More to the point, in the few years of its existence - against a background of fewer movies being made, and more of them being shot overseas - DreamWorks has never had any problem renting sound-stage facilities in southern California.

But there's a more intriguing explanation. Once upon a time, movies filmed real space. D W Griffith built a version of Babylon in Los Angeles for Intolerance; at RKO, Orson Welles constructed many parts of Xanadu so that it felt as vast as the inside of Kane's head; as recently as Alien Resurrection, a sound-stage at Fox was converted to serve as a flooded spacecraft through which those wriggling demons could swim after Sigourney Weaver. On the studio back-lots there were the famous western streets. In 1938, David Selznick gathered all the exterior sets he could find, put 1860 fronts on them, and staged the burning of Atlanta for Gone with the Wind.

Such enormous rooms, or sets, required casts of thousands - you know the rhetoric; you've seen the splendid imagery; you know those moments when, suddenly, Lawrence of Arabia is in the desert, because David Lean and his crew went there. This travelling becomes less and less necessary. The great interior spaces, the natural panoramas, the casts of ants can be created by computer imagery. The sound-stage - once places of more than a million cubic feet - come down to a modest-sized laboratory, or even a desktop apparatus.

Does the result look and feel the same? That depends on how much you, the public, are prepared to notice, or ignore. And I am not sure that even a purist - addicted to the real space in the films of Renoir, Murnau, Mizoguchi or Anthony Mann - has an eye so sensitive that he or she will be able to tell the difference. Even if there is a shortfall, all we know about filmgoers is that they surrendered the gorgeous emotional wealth of Technicolor in the 1950s for the cooler, emptier colour systems that have followed it.

So who needs a studio any more? It follows that the surviving sound- stages in Hollywood are mostly old and in ill repair. They are not long for this world. A day may come when the young no longer know what a sound- stage was like, with its collection of dead sets, its miles of cable, and its small bright glades of story. These things pass. And passage may be our natural medium now. Sylvia Sidney died last week, and hardly a soul knew who she was, or what had been lost. A day may even come when some fond uncle trying to be hip snarls "Hasta la vista, baby" at the kids, and they stare back at him out of some happy future ignorance.