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Will a Film Studio Grow in Brooklyn?

The Industry: Plans call for turning part of a decaying New York shipyard into a production site.

May 04, 1999|PAUL LIEBERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, actor Robert De Niro and Miramax Films co-chairman Harvey Weinstein on Monday unveiled plans to transform part of the decaying Brooklyn Navy Yard into a $150-million film studio, the largest effort yet to enable movie and television productions here to avoid having to use facilities in Hollywood or overseas.

The project, which would create up to 12 sound stages on 15 acres of the historic site--the birthplace of the Missouri and other famous battleships--would make it easier for companies such as De Niro's Tribeca Productions and the influential Miramax, a virtual Oscar factory in recent years, to do their interior filming and post-production activities near their Manhattan headquarters.

"I may have to title the sequel 'Shakespeare in New York,' " Weinstein joked after an earlier quip from Giuliani suggesting that the characters in Miramax's recent best picture winner, "Shakespeare in Love," might have had Brooklyn accents had the proposed studio been in place.

The project still has several hurdles to clear before it is a reality on the waterfront across the East River from Manhattan.

The gathering Monday in the cavernous hangar where World War II work crews built the Missouri was to announce the signing of a "letter of intent" among the principals.

The project still needs environmental studies and final financing. But Giuliani and others expressed confidence that ground will be broken within a year and construction completed 18 months after that.

Already in place are commitments of nearly $70 million: $35 million from the two film companies and developer Steven Roth, head of the Vornado Reality Trust; a $25-million low-interest loan from the city of New York; and $8 million from the city's Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corp., the agency trying to revitalize the sprawling property that was decommissioned in 1966.

Project officials said they hope to get much of the rest of the financing from the Union Labor Life Insurance Co., a union-supported pension fund.

Although there have been many other recent proposals for the construction of new sound stage complexes around New York--including one on the Hudson River expected to serve two soap operas--none of those has been large enough to support major film and television production needs, according to Patricia Reed Scott, head of the Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre & Broadcasting.

"We do television series here on the strength of a Bill Cosby or Michael Fox wanting to do them," Scott said. "But with films, we do a lot where we do the hard stuff--I have to shut down bridges or streets--and then when they go inside [for filming] we don't have the stages, the critical mass of big sound stages with 45 to 60 feet of height . . . where you can build, say, a suburban house."

Even so, various types of filming--on everything from feature movies to music videos--was credited with generating $2.57 billion around New York's five boroughs last year. A record 221 films used New York in one way or another, while 7,680 days of television production shooting were recorded, Scott's office said.

"All we would like to do with respect to Hollywood is to see our percentage of the movie business here, and to see that grow," Giuliani said.

'There's No Better Place,'

Says Actor De Niro

"I love New York," said De Niro. "There's no better place to have a studio. You know, movies started in New York. There are great studios in London and L.A., of course . . . but when I saw the Brooklyn Navy Yard, I said there would be no better place."

Jane Rosenthal, De Niro's partner in Tribeca Productions--whose credits include "Marvin's Room" and "A Bronx Tale"--recalled that when she moved from Hollywood 10 years ago, "everybody thought I was absolutely crazy because the movie business is in Los Angeles. . . . Now it's going to be right here in Brooklyn."

The idea of using the Navy Yard began more than two years ago with a pair of young entrepreneurs already operating businesses--an Internet company and a set-design firm--elsewhere in the 264-acre site.

Those two, Lou Madigan and Cary Hart, called their venture New York Studios and actually signed a 70-year lease with the Navy Yard corporation last June. But that was contingent on obtaining financing and--despite reports that Sony Corp. was considering a role--the project appeared in jeopardy until De Niro expressed an interest earlier this year.

Only in recent weeks, participants said, were the last critical players enlisted--Weinstein and developer Roth.

De Niro and the Miramax chief executive met with Giuliani last week in the mayor's residence, Gracie Mansion, to work out the details.

Weinstein, like many others putting together the deal, noted that he is a native of Brooklyn and that he viewed the project as a way to "truly transform this borough and have a major impact on moviemaking around the world."

It was obvious that many details remain to be worked out, however. Participants estimated employment from the project at anywhere from 2,000 to 7,000 jobs. And they said it was too early to say which of the partners would run the "Hollywood-style" studio.

Also to be determined is the role of the two local businessmen who first thought of putting a studio here. "We're confident we will fit in there somewhere," said Madigan.

Both De Niro and Weinstein, however, said their companies will commit to doing as much shooting and post-production work as possible at the site.

"Everything we do we will do here," said De Niro. "That's the whole point.

"I keep saying it will be great. I could be wrong a little bit here and there," he added, drawing laughs, "but . . . we have this great land, this great area. We cannot fail in this."

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