The Metropolitan Pictures lot in The City Burns at Night is loosely based on Paramount Studios. Originally, I’d based it on MGM, but when I was working on City Burns one day and plotting out Miller’s path from Schwab’s to the Studio to Beverly Hills, it just made more sense geographically to not use MGM, which is all the way over in Culver City.
I’ve had the privilege of visiting every major studio lot in Hollywood. It took me several years and a little luck, but I finally managed to do it. Because this list is so extensive, I’ve broken it up into two installments. For Part 1, we’re going to cover the easy ones on the list: Studios that offer tours for the general public.
If you’re going to do a studio tour, Warner Bros. is a great place to start. It was my very first tour in 1998 and I’ve been back many times. And every visit has been different from the last. They’re always looking to make it bigger and better.
For this reason, it’s easily the largest, with a huge welcome center that tells you the history of the studio, offers interactive exhibits on how movies are made, a two-story museum of props and costumes (largely DC and Harry Potter), another museum of autos (Scooby Doo and all the Batmobiles), and more. Plus, they have the Friends set where you can sit on the famous orange couch from Central Perk.
It’s all very organized and a tourist attraction unto itself. But it’s also a whole lot more. After they divide you into smaller groups and leave the visitor’s center, they whisk you around the lot on a stretch golf cart. But you still get to walk around. You visit the historic back lot, a couple of departments, and two sound stages: one for a multi-camera live audience show (Big Bang Theory was very popular), and one for a single-camera show that looks more like a movie set. Because they are a working studio, all of the above is subject to change. And if there’s something you really want to see, just ask. They may not be able to grant it, but they’ll try. The guides are always friendly and knowledgeable.
The tour itself lasts two hours, but once they drop you off in the gift shop, you can easily spend a lot longer. They also offer additional tours, such as The Classics Tour and the Deluxe Tour.
A close second to WB is the Paramount tour, which was my second (also in 1998) and which I’ve done also a few more times since. The thing I really like about the Paramount tour is that it’s smaller and more intimate. The studio is plenty large, but feels more like a campus. Yes, they also have a visitor’s center with props and costumes, but it’s just one room. They also put you on a stretch golf cart, and like WB, you’ll still do your share of walking.
Paramount is the only studio that’s actually in Hollywood (the others are in Burbank and elsewhere). There are multiple views of the Hollywood Sign from the historic lot. You’ll start at the famous Bronson Gate, which was featured in Sunset Blvd. (1950). Fun fact : It was not named for Charles Bronson, but rather the other way around.
In addition to the impressive Paramount theater, sound stages, and back lot sets, you’ll also see the parking lot that doubles as a water tank. It’s been used in movies from The Ten Commandments (1956), Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), and The Truman Show (1998).
Situated on the corner of Melrose and Gower is the former home of RKO Studios. It was eventually purchased by Desilu (the production company of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball). Today it’s all part of the Paramount lot and home to some of the best stories you’ll hear on the tour. Fun facts: Desi Arnaz invented the modern sitcom and it’s thanks to Desilu that Paramount owns Star Trek.
Like WB, you’ll get to visit sound stages for TV shows, usually something with an audience and something without. The tour lasts two hours, but you can spend longer after they put you in the gift shop. They also offer a VIP experience.
Sony Pictures Studios (formerly MGM)
The Sony lot is a tale of multiple studios, starting with Thomas Ince in 1915 (creator of the studio system), to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer during the Golden Age, and the remnants of both United Artists and Columbia Pictures today.
It’s been a long time since I’ve done this tour, and I hope to do it again one day. There’s a lot of history on this lot. This is where Gone With the Wind (1939), The Wizard of Oz (also 1939), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), and the Spider-Man series were all filmed. It was once the size of a small town, with a huge back lot, its own police and fire departments, and a school for all the young stars like Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Janet Leigh, and Roddy McDowall. And, of course, it was the home of the biggest stars in Hollywood, like Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, and Elizabeth Taylor.
Sadly, the studio fell on hard times in the 1960s, and much of the back lot was sold off and demolished. Sony bought both Columbia and the MGM lot in 1990.
Sony does a lot of television these days, so chances are you’ll likely get to visit the sets for Jeopardy! or Wheel of Fortune. And it looks like they’ve recently added a new museum. Like the other studios, they also offer a couple of VIP packages in addition to the regular tour.
I put this one at the bottom of this list because, while it may be one of the very first studio tours (and rather iconic), these days it’s basically a theme park attraction. Especially since you actually have to visit the park to do it.
For this tour, you stay on the tram the whole time. The narration is pre-recorded and you’ll get to see movie clips and bits with celebrities, like Jimmy Fallon. Yes, you’ll pass the Jaws shark (scary!), but also the outdoor sets for Psycho(1960), War of the Worlds (2005), and How the Grinch Stole Christmas(2000). In addition, you’ll get to see historic sections of the backlot. And be sure to keep an eye out for the porcelain deer.
Universal also offers a VIP experience, which is much more like the other studio tours. You get a tour guide, are allowed to walk around, and express line access in the park.
In Part II, we’ll cover the studios that aren’t necessarily open to the general public. And I’ll tell you which is my personal favorite.