$100 million film studio to rise from rubble of ex-public housing site
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$100 million film studio to rise from rubble of ex-public housing site
A photo provided by the Thomas Edison Natoinal Historical Park shows the Black Maria, the nation’s first movie studio, in West Orange, N.H., circa 1893. Thomas Edison Natoinal Historical Park via The New York Times.

by Tracey Tully

NEW YORK, NY.- With a made-for-television flourish, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka climbed into an excavator earlier this year and punched the machine’s metal claw through a crumbling brick wall of the city’s first public housing site. The long-abandoned apartment complex would be replaced, he promised, with something better.

On Tuesday, officials announced a grand new vision for the 15-acre lot: The mounds of rubble at the center of a blighted neighborhood less than 2 miles from Newark Liberty International Airport will be replaced by a $100 million television and movie production hub featuring six large soundstages. There will be space for set building, postproduction editing, crew trucks and catering services when the facility opens in March 2024, officials said.

The project has been held out primarily as an economic catalyst for Newark, a poor but growing city about 13 miles west of midtown Manhattan. But it also offers perhaps the most visible sign yet of New Jersey’s emerging relevance in the film and television industry.

In recent years, companies struggling to meet a growing demand for streaming content have been increasingly drawn to the area in and around New York City, a region brimming with actors and skilled union labor. New facilities that have opened in the last year in Hudson County, New Jersey, and in Westchester County, New York, are frequently booked solid, and more studios are in the works.

One study estimated that the Newark project could bring as many as 600 long-term jobs and a constellation of new business opportunities to the city, the state’s largest with a population of 312,000 and a median household income of less than $38,000.

“The bigger idea is that Newark becomes a hub for creativity,” said John Schreiber, president and CEO of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, a cultural anchor in Newark recently named the developer for most of the site.

Great Point Studios plans to build the production hub for use mainly by Lionsgate, a company that created 26 Oscar-nominated films the year after it purchased the Starz cable operation in 2016.

Great Point’s chair, Robert Halmi Jr., said he was still confident about the future of streaming in spite of last month’s news that Netflix had lost subscribers for the first time in a decade, a dip that sent stocks tumbling industrywide out of fear that the model’s rapid growth was unsustainable.

The appetite for original streaming content, Halmi said, is here to stay. And soundstages where shows can be filmed indoors against a green screen or using LED technology are at a premium.

“We can’t build studios fast enough,” he said.

Several large soundstages opened in the last year across the Hudson River from New York City in Kearny and Jersey City. Dozens of productions, including award-winning movies like “West Side Story,” “Joker” and “Army of the Dead,” filmed there.

Bayonne’s planning board has given the go-ahead for a 1.5-million-square-foot production facility, 1888 Studios, on the site of an old Texaco oil refinery. Plans are in the works for a studio in West Orange, where inventor Thomas Edison created the country’s first movie studio. And a Netflix spokesperson confirmed that the company still intended to submit a bid next month to buy a roughly 300-acre parcel at Fort Monmouth, a defunct Army base on the Jersey Shore.

“We already had the resources in New Jersey — the human resources,” said Andrew Muscato, a movie producer who lives in Jersey City, where he made parts of “The Greatest Beer Run Ever,” a war drama based on a memoir that is expected to air on Apple TV+ later this year.

“The announcement of more production facilities feels like the last piece of the puzzle,” Muscato said.

It is Great Point’s second major production hub in the region; Lionsgate Yonkers, an even bigger facility in Westchester County, New York, opened in January.

In 2017, before New Jersey reauthorized tax breaks for the industry, directors making feature films spent $10 million statewide, and television series creators spent $38 million. Last year, feature films pumped $194 million into the economy, and television shows contributed $247 million, according to the state’s Motion Picture and Television Commission.

“The industry has erupted here,” said Steven Gorelick, executive director of the commission. “No one could have envisioned this progress, this quickly.”

Newark’s six soundstages will each be at least 20,000 square feet, a size considered large enough to lure business from popular production hubs in Georgia, New Mexico and California.

That has been New Jersey Gov. Philip D. Murphy’s goal for years.

He traveled to California in 2019 to generate interest in New Jersey among Hollywood leaders. Two years later, he signed a law that offered corporations that relocate or expand in New Jersey $14 billion in tax breaks. The legislation significantly increased the pool of tax cuts available through 2034 to companies that build studios or film in the state.

Last spring, after Georgia passed a law restricting voter access, the governor openly tried to poach production business away from Georgia when activists were calling for companies like Netflix, Disney and Warner Bros. to boycott studios there.

More recently, Murphy noted that Georgia was likely to ban abortion if the Supreme Court, as expected, overturned a woman’s right to end a pregnancy, providing even more reason for producers and directors to look for alternatives outside of that state.

“Georgia is going the wrong way on the values that are dear to a lot of the talent and the people behind the talent,” Murphy said.

It has been decades since the neighborhood around the housing complex, Seth Boyden Court, was considered a desirable place to live. Construction officials said one challenge during the demolition had been relocating the roughly 20 homeless people who returned nightly to the complex’s buildings, vacant since 2015.

But its location — “a baseball throw away from the airport” and less than 15 miles from New York City — is ideal for the actors, directors and crew members who will eventually work at Lionsgate Newark, Halmi said.

“A lot of the talent live in Manhattan,” he said. “A lot of the talent want to sleep in Manhattan.”

In addition to the movie studios, the city has authorized a separate company, Boraie Development, to build 200 units of housing for older people on 4 acres of the site and as many as 200 market-rate apartments nearby, Victor Cirilo, director of Newark’s Housing Authority, said.

“We think that we’re really going to be able to bring this neighborhood back to life,” Cirilo said.

Newark’s downtown has been booming for years. But neighborhoods farther from the city’s corporate heart, like the Dayton Street area where the studios are planned, continue to struggle. In addition to the hoped-for influx of money, the new facility, in conjunction with the arts center, is expected to offer internships and educational programming to city students.

Bill Good, a senior organizer with the Greater Newark HUD Tenants Coalition, said projects like Lionsgate Newark that are “shiny and brand-new” often ignore the true needs of the current residents of Newark.

Developers, he said, should be required to replicate the same number of low-income housing units lost when Seth Boyden closed: 530. “Newark is in desperate need of low-income housing,” Good said. “It should be one-for-one replacement.”

He stressed that he was not opposed to development or the new jobs the project could generate, but said that preserving low-income housing was equally vital.

An economic impact study done for the performing arts center estimated that Lionsgate Newark would create 500 to 600 permanent on-site jobs and bring as much as $800 million in economic activity. Much of the direct spending is likely to be spent outside of New Jersey initially, the analysis by JLL, a real estate services company, found.

But Newark and Essex County, New Jersey, “could, over time, develop the cottage industries” needed to retain a portion of that financial boon, leading to an estimated $180 million in state tax revenue over 20 years, according to the report.

At least some of the new jobs will be for production assistants — entry-level workers hustling to break in to a notoriously competitive business.

Over the last two years, Jody Brockway, a former vice president of movies and miniseries at NBC who now runs P.A. Bootcamp, a job-training company, has led seven weekend-long classes for would-be production assistants in New Jersey, often in advance of large shoots.

“You work your way in and work your way up,” Brockway said.

The pay is low, but can lead to more permanent jobs, either producing future shows or in the vast array of ancillary businesses.

“Once you have a studio,” she said, “now you’re building sets, now you’re hiring carpenters. You’re hiring painters. You’re hiring people to wire everything.”

Baraka, who grew up on the other side of nearby Weequahic Park, said he expected the project to invigorate an overlooked corner of the city.

“Bringing a project of this magnitude into Newark is a monumental victory,” he said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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