Movie maker Steven Spielberg, now in England filming ''Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,'' has embarked on a crusade of his own. With the help of British and American investors, he is trying to prevent Britain's legendary Elstree Studios from being razed for commercial development.
The studios were recently sold for an estimated $36 million by the ailing Cannon Group Inc. to an investment consortium led by the City of London financier Peter Earl, in a deal that has left the British film industry reeling. Mr. Earl, chief executive of Tranwood P.L.C., an investment banking group, declined this week to disclose his plans for the property, saying only that he and his co-investors were ''exploring a range of options.''
Mr. Spielberg is taking no chances. He has lent public support to the Elstree S.O.S. (''Save Our Studios'') campaign, which has persuaded the Hertsmere Borough Council, Elstree's ruling authority, to impose a building-preservation order on the site. The order, effective July 13, prevents anyone from demolishing or altering the studios for six months while the Environment Department considers an appeal to have Elstree listed as a historic site - which would afford it long-term protection against development. Appeal to House of Commons
Mr. Spielberg also visited the House of Commons earlier this week to make a plea for Elstree's preservation, and 55 members of Parliament signed a motion calling for the studios to be saved.
Elstree, built in 1926, was a favored haunt of Alfred Hitchcock, and it was there that he made ''Blackmail,'' Britain's first talkie. Ronald Reagan was at Elstree in the late 1940's, appearing in ''The Hasty Heart.'' Mr. Spielberg and George Lucas, maker of the ''Star Wars'' series and executive producer of ''Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,'' have produced 11 movies between them at Elstree.
''I am committed to seeing Elstree survive as a film studio,'' Mr. Spielberg said Friday, during a break in filming at the studios in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire. ''This has been my overseas Hollywood since 1979.''
Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Lucas were first drawn to England at a time when the strong dollar and weak pound made film making cheaper here than in the United States. Though currency rates are no longer in their favor, they have continued to make films in England because of the availability of skilled laborers and craftspeople, Mr. Spielberg said. If Elstree cannot be maintained as a studio, he added, he will probably stop making movies in England, for Elstree accounts for one-third of all available sound stage space in the country. 'That's the Rub'
Mr. Spielberg estimates that the 27-acre complex is worth a maximum of $20 million as a film studio, an amount he believes he could raise.
The property, however, lies right off a major highway that links the north and south of England, which makes its redevelopment value far greater.
''That's the rub,'' Mr. Spielberg said. ''It would be very, very hard for any of us to put together a consortium of reasonable investors who could pay what it's worth as real estate.''
At this point, Mr. Spielberg said, he can only hope that Mr. Earl will be either swayed by public support for the studios' preservation or intimidated by the chance that Elstree could be declared a historic site.
In the meantime, Mr. Spielberg said, he continues to receive calls from investors interested in buying Elstree as a movie-making operation.
Mr. Spielberg said he would be willing to put some of his own money into buying Elstree, and he believes that Warner Brothers, which in the past has indicated an interest in buying Elstree with Mr. Lucas and Mr. Spielberg, would also ''like to step in at a reasonable price.'' Simply Not for Sale
But Mr. Earl, no stranger to controversy, having set himself up as one of London's experts on corporate restructuring, said he is ''not even remotely worried'' about the preservation order. And he said the Elstree property is simply not for sale at any price. The property was acquired by the Tranwood Earl Company, a Tranwood division that put together the consortium to buy Elstree.
''It's not on the market,'' Mr. Earl said. ''We bought it with a view to doing something with it. What we'll do with it we're not yet sure.''
The opportunity to buy Elstree presented itself rather quickly, Mr. Earl said, and he and his consortium bought it rather quickly.
''It was like if Buckingham Palace came onto the market - it's a great location,'' Mr. Earl said. ''So you buy it, and you figure out what to do with it afterwards.'' Warner Communicationsd (Warner Brothers)
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