Back-Lot Dreams


Hollywood East may finally be on the horizon. New York’s debilitating fiscal crisis notwithstanding, a $150 million 15-acre studio complex is going up in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Steiner Studios, named for the shopping center tycoons who are funding the mega-project out of their own pockets, promises to be in operation next year. Their hope is to regenerate a Gotham entertainment business that peaked back in 1998—when 221 films were shot in the city (compared with 180 last year) and the plans for the Brooklyn studio first emerged. But now, while producers, crews, and city officials agree that New York’s film and TV infrastructure seriously needs a face-lift, there are doubts about whether our entertainment sector—already struggling with the flight of productions to cheaper locales—can sustain such an ambitious venture.

It won’t be the first time city developers and would-be moguls have attempted to erect a major motion-picture facility in the New York area. The Shooting Gallery’s Larry Meistrich, Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein, and Tribeca Films’ Robert De Niro are among those who’ve tried and failed to construct Hollywood-style back lots in the boroughs. In addition to Steiner Studios, the mayor’s office is also supporting Studio City New

York, a $375 million “vertical studio” slated for Eleventh Avenue and 45th Street, which aims to be up and running in the next three years, but for now remains in limbo until an anchor tenant surfaces to provide necessary investments. Staten Island’s Stapleton Studios, another grand endeavor, can likely be counted among the corpses: The project now faces a protracted legal battle with the city, which alleges Stapleton’s partners do not have the financial resources to pull off the development.

What makes a large studio so important to the city, according to the Economic Development Council’s Andrew Stern, is that the revenue-generating Hollywood productions that do come spend only a couple of weeks on the streets and then return to Los Angeles’s soundstages—which total 3.5 million square feet compared with New York’s 600,000. “What we’re trying to do is fill in that gap,” he says, “so there’s no reason for a movie to leave New York when the location shooting is done.”

The Steiner project will also address another of the city’s major production weaknesses: a lack of high-ceiling soundstages that can handle a Godzilla or simulated skyscraper. “In L.A., they probably have around 65 stages over 27,000 square feet, and New York has one,” says Jay Fine, president and CEO of Steiner Studios. By fall 2004, Fine contends the Brooklyn studio will have five large stages operating, three of which will be among the city’s biggest, at heights of 45 feet.

But if Steiner and Studio City move forward, it will be a challenge for them to stay viable, says Hal Rosenbluth, president of Kaufman-Astoria Studios, the Queens-based 14-acre compound that is home to “The Big House,” currently the largest soundstage east of Hollywood. “It’s not like Field of Dreams—’if you build it, they will come,’ ” he says. “The facilities are always dependent on someone else—be it Warner Bros. or an independent. All we can do is put up a shingle and say, ‘Is there anyone who can use them?’ ”

New York’s new film commissioner, Katherine Oliver, says a self-contained area like Steiner Studios will be just what the city needs to reinvigorate its film and TV industry. “I have spoken to every major studio head, and the consensus is that if there were more spaces, they would bring the work here.”

But as long as the West Coast is home to most special effects houses, say industry professionals, Los Angeles will remain a one-stop shop for most multimillion-dollar features. In addition, Canada recently reinstated a lucrative tax break to foreign producers, and other locales, from New Zealand to North Carolina to Eastern Europe, continue to offer competitive rates for Hollywood shoots.

And then, of course, there’s the weather, “We don’t have weather in L.A.,” says Ric Wolfe, Sony Studios’ stage manager. “With you, it’s cold, snowy, and nasty, and in the summer, it’s hot and unbelievably humid. The [New York facilities] better buy good air conditioning.”

Steiner Studios’ Jay Fine claims that everything from office space to lighting equipment and food services will be located close together on the gated Navy Yard back lot, making weather issues less problematic.

Even so, the city’s most reliable production dollars have come from television, not Hollywood blockbusters, argues Rosenbluth. “Features come in for a very short period, but television gives you a much more extended life,” Rosenbluth says. Kaufman-Astoria has had running leases for The Cosby Show, Sesame Street, and most recently Mike Nichols’s HBO miniseries Angels in America. Long Island City’s Silver Cup Studios, currently New York’s largest complex, which is also planning additional construction, has enjoyed tenants such as Sex in the City and The Sopranos, whose long-term runs will likely expire soon, fueling worries about a sustained production downturn.

While Rosenbluth says more space is needed (a new $10 million medium-sized soundstage is on tap for Kaufman-Astoria in 2004), he warns, “If you overbuild an infrastructure, you will establish a degree of difficulty for everybody on the playing field.”

John Penotti, the head of Tribeca-based Greenestreet Films, agrees. “While we always want to increase the amount of production in New York,” he says, “there may be a finite amount that the city can handle.” Even now, without 50-foot cranes and celebrity trailers blocking off avenues, Commissioner Oliver concedes, “Traffic is a nightmare and parking is an issue.” But she says new efforts to organize the city’s hosting of film and TV productions—from computerizing the permit process to weekly meetings with government agencies like the MTA and DOT to coordinate logistical concerns—will prevent additional shoots from infringing on New Yorkers’ quality of life.

Though community boards have no complaints about the Steiners, the Satmar Hasidic population in nearby Williamsburg raised a stir in 2001 for what they alleged were the corrupting influences of Hollywood in their neighborhood. “It’s like bringing Times Square into the middle of Amish country,” Rabbi Abraham Zimmerman told the AP. But Jay Fine claims Steiner Studios will remain sensitive to the needs of the Satmars, as well as offer training programs and internships for city residents. (Studio City New York’s West End plan includes construction of a new gym for the adjacent school, I.S. 51.) Fine also touts the over 1000 skilled jobs that the studio could create next year, if they are operating at full capacity.

According to producer Ted Hope, these jobs are vital to the future of New York’s independent film community. “We’re like that little bird on the hippo’s back; the studios sustain us,” he says. “They only way New York is going to be able to cultivate homegrown directorial talent is if the bigger movies are happening. Right now, crews are worrying about how to pay the bills because they’ve been out of work so long.” Hope continues, “When New York is active as a production center, you might start to believe in trickle-down economics.”

Kaufman-Astoria’s Rosenbluth is confident that New York’s entertainment business will soon see better days, but he still remains skeptical about the new studios. “The reasons that productions come to New York will probably remain the same: The talent is here or the scripts are here,” he says. “But whether there will be enough new production to support these new facilities remains to be seen.”

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 18, 2003

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