The Brooklyn Navy Yards are a mass of seemingly abandoned buildings, industrial remnants of an earlier era in New York City, sandwiched on the banks of the East River between Williamsburg and Dumbo. It is among these relics that Steiner Studios–the largest film studios in the U.S. outside of Los Angeles–was acquired and renovated eight years ago by Doug Steiner, a local real estate developer. The studios take up over 50 contiguous acres in the Navy Yards. 600-1,200 employees are employed at Steiner at any given time, laboring to adorn the glamorous sets of shows like Boardwalk Empire. $718 million have been invested in the studios–not counting an additional $40 million from the City of New York.
“The studio was my mid-life crisis,” says Steiner. “When I came to see the yard, I saw the history behind it, the Civil War-era building, the skyline, the waterfront, and 50-60 acres of contiguous land in the middle of NYC. It was part of the revival of Brooklyn.”
But the Navy Yards revitalization have not been only Doug Steiner’s doing. The growth of Steiner Studios has been accomplished with the help and support of the Bloomberg administration–and particularly the support of a woman appointed as commissioner of the the New York City Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, Katherine Oliver, also known as “KO.” With the city’s support, both financially and politically, Steiner was able to build the largest studio outside of Hollywood, no small feat. This public-private partnership, among many other initiatives Oliver spearheaded, has ultimately sparked the revitalization and subsequent boom of the media industry in New York City; Oliver and people like Doug Steiner have been the force behind the impressive increase of 30,000 New York City entertainment jobs since 2004.
“The city and Katherine Oliver stepped up to the plate to improve the infrastructure [of the yards]. But they also created tax credits for the [entertainment] industry, improved the permitting process, increased advertising and public relations for the content filmed in NYC, increased support via all related media industry growth, and even have supported the applied sciences,” Steiner says. “NYC is the mating ground [for entertainment and technology]. Northern and Southern California will never play together.” Ultimately, it has been Oliver and Michael Bloomberg’s multi-pronged approach that has encouraged the revitalization of the New York film and television culture, reminiscent of when the world’s first-ever film office–the Office for Film, Broadcasting, and Theater–opened in New York in the 1960s.
In 2002, the oldest office of film and television in the country was exactly that–old. Full of typewriters in an age of computers, it was in dire need of a makeover. But in a downtrodden city with a suffering financial industry, 2,462 miles away from the gleaming, spacious backlots of Hollywood, the Office for Film, Broadcasting, and Theater didn’t seem to be on track for greatness. But Bloomberg had other ideas.
“NYC is a place that competes on intellectual capital–if you want to grow corn, we’re not the place for you,” Bloomberg says. “We want jobs for the people here with salaries and benefits that let them share in the American dream. We want to attract industries with high profit margins so our employees can get paid, and media is part of that. It’s the way the rest of the world sees NYC. It was a logical thing to do.”
Bloomberg called in one of his most trusted Bloomberg LP employees, the general manager of Bloomberg Radio and Television, Katherine Oliver, who was living in London at the time. After accepting the position and moving to New York, Oliver discovered that the office was, indeed, a mess. Runaway production was, according to Oliver, a huge problem; for example, a movie about former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani was being shot not in New York City, but Montreal. Oliver went to Canada and subsequently embarked on a listening tour, in order to learn more about government and entertainment (after all, business radio, and even television, was not the same as the film industry).
Oliver asked studio heads what she could do to get them to shoot in NYC. They told her that they would need a tax credit–and that she would also have to help to mitigate the “hassle factor” of shooting in the Big Apple. With permits necessary to shut down city streets for filming and for loading and unloading equipment (not to mention controlled explosions), shooting television and film in New York City has, historically, been a nightmare. And without the expansive backlots like those found in abundance across Los Angeles, where any city street can be replicated sans permit, the hassle of a New York shoot grows.
And then there’s all the people. In cities like Montreal and in states like South Carolina, there just simply aren’t as many people around to interrupt filming. New Yorkers are everywhere–and nosy. Managing people and avoiding non-union actors or paid extras in New York City is a beast of its own.
As Sundance award-winning director Taika Waititi (who is originally from New Zealand but often in New York City), points out, “The main barrier [to continued growth in entertainment in New York City] seems to be bureaucracy and location restrictions. That and hipster fashion, which makes it difficult to tell the difference between crew, extras, and general populace.” Those shoots in Williamsburg are indeed harder than the average shoot…no thanks to people like me who frequent Berry Street, where The Good Wife loves to set up shop and pretend that my block is Chicago.
Oliver didn’t just focus on solving New York’s hassle factor; she also set to work creating programs like the Production Assistant Training Program, which for five weeks trains at-risk youth to work in the industry. Oliver also introduced vendor discounts to encourage crews to frequent local businesses near their sets. To increase transparency and manage expectations, Oliver started a street sign system that would help New Yorkers know when and where a shoot will be taking place. She took the system one step further by consulting with local community boards. And, perhaps most noticeably, she introduced a marketing credit that has allowed films and television shows shot in New York to advertise on city bus shelters and on the buses themselves–for free.
“Even though it was easier to say no, instead, we went out of our way. We let the industry shoot at the UN and on the Brooklyn Bridge. We tackled logistical issues and were proactive. We were there every step,” Oliver says, summing up the fervor of her revolution.
“During a blackout a few years ago, KO took an old typewriter and a chair and a table and continued to issue filming permits,” reminisces Mayor Bloomberg. “She understands that you don’t give [the film industry] everything they want, but they want to know that [city officials] have their back.”
That’s why folks like Steiner and the likes of HBO are happy to work in New York City–and invest in its future. 130,000 people are employed directly and indirectly in New York City’s film and television industry now, making it one of the fastest-growing sectors in the city. Bloomberg is proud that “most of those [130,000] people are not talent–they may be set designers, makeup artists, but they are also local carpenters, electricians, bodega owners, material stores selling and delivering plywood and equipment.”
Oliver’s initiatives are working so well that some industry veterans have started migrating across the country to participate in New York City’s revitalized scene. Stefan Sonnenfeld, an award-winning digital intermediate colorist and president of both post-production house Company 3 and Deluxe Content Creation Group, has been working for the last three decades across film and television, and in advertising. Originally from Los Angeles, Sonnenfeld recently made the big decision to move to New York City. “It’s nothing short of shocking how much production has increased due to the incentives [that Oliver introduced],” he explains.
While Oliver has been in office, she has not only turned the entertainment industry around but also placed major emphasis on growing media and technologies in general across the city. It was Oliver who came up with the idea of a chief digital officer for New York City, and Oliver who helped identify the need for a new city website. Oliver pushed to create the Made In NY Media Center opening today in Dumbo, and the Brooklyn College Graduate Program In Film And Television that will be situated at Steiner Studios. She also actively runs career panels around the city to encourage New Yorkers to learn how to work in the film and TV industry. Although she came to New York to rejuvenate an office, what Oliver has really done is rejuvenate an entire industry, helping to grow New York’s content economy. Fittingly, she’ll be receiving a Gotham Industry Tribute Award this upcoming December.
For the city’s economy, the continued success of the local entertainment system definitely matters, according to Steiner. “New media can be the 4th economic pillar in NYC. Our mission at Steiner is to create a media and content district, similar to the idea of the financial district.” As part of his plan to build a state-of-the-art backlot replete with replicas of recognizable New York City neighborhoods, Steiner hopes to create even more jobs. And with the Graduate Film and Television School of Brooklyn College planned for the Steiner lot, talent will be readily available. That talent might be able to connect with just the right partners at the new New Media Center nearby.
So how will this rejuvenated entertainment office continue after Mayor Bloomberg leaves office? Oliver and Bloomberg both emphasize the importance of keeping up with outside relationships and of retaining some of the office’s existing staff after a new mayor is sworn in. Mayor Bloomberg also believes that safety is key to the success of the city’s entertainment industry. “I think NYC has all of the things in place, but regardless of the industry, if the streets of the city aren’t safe, nobody will come here to work. I hope the next mayor does an even better job than this administration has done.”
It looks like Oliver and Mayor Bloomberg have already left a lasting impression. 2,462 miles across the country, newly elected Mayor of Los Angeles Eric Garcetti announced plans to hire a film czar to tackle Los Angeles’ runaway production problem, right after he was sworn into office. And with the second season of Netflix’s hit show Orange is the New Black shooting, again, entirely in New York City, the future is looking bright for the world’s first-ever film office.