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New YorkBy Benjamin Reeves

Thanks to smart and enduring investments by the state, cutting-edge facilities and a broad talent base, New York is positioned to shape a diversifying film and TV industry. Heads up, Hollywood.

  • Greta Gerwig and Ethan Hawke in Maggie’s Plan (2015), filmed in various places in Brooklyn and Manhattan. © Jon Pack/Hall Monitor Inc
  • Students work on projects in one of Feirstein’s post-production labs. Photo by Jeremy Bales
  • The view of Manhattan from Brooklyn College's Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema. Photo by Jeremy Bales

It’s late afternoon, somewhere in New York City, and on the upper floor of a derelict apartment building a sleazy realtor wearing a red tie of Trumpian proportions is lying to his clients, a Chinese couple, both blind. The apartment is covered in graffiti and looks as if a street gang has been squatting in it. The realtor talks a big game though, telling his vision-impaired guests that the apartment is beautiful, with views of Central Park and brand-new appliances. He asks if they’re hungry—he is, he ordered a pizza already, in fact—and makes a lascivious comment about the wife’s appearance. He doesn’t realize that his first bite of pizza will be his last. As soon as the realtor sits, the wife springs into action, garroting him as he tries to fight back and knocks over the table. The husband and wife, revealing that they’re not blind but are actually skilled assassins, leave the body and the building to go to a steak dinner in midtown. Cut.

This scene is the dramatic high point of a short film written by screenwriter and director Amos Poe, the kind of film that is typically made with a low budget and creative production values. Instead, it’s being shot on an elaborate set, with two constantly rotating camera rigs, by students in Poe’s directing workshop at the City University of New York’s Brooklyn College Barry R. Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema.

The Feirstein School opened its doors in the fall of 2015, becoming the first public graduate film school in New York. Former hedge fund manager and Brooklyn College alumnus Barry Feirstein put up $5 million of initial funding, and the New York City Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, the state of New York, private donors and the borough of Brooklyn raised the total to $30 million. “The project reminded me of a great investment,” Feirstein says. “It had features that made it sustainable and gave it advantages, and a lot of people were interested in it.” Actor Ethan Hawke joined the school’s advisory council, as did director Steven Soderbergh. “This city should be ripe with film schools,” Hawke says. All that money and industry know-how has created a high-tech film center with state-of-the-art visual effects, sound and animation technology, screening facilities, soundstages and magnificent views of the East River and Manhattan.

“Obviously in 2015, you weren’t going to be using film anymore,” says the Feirstein School’s founding director, Jonathan Wacks. “We wanted to have, from camera to finishing in post, a seamless work flow, all digitally based.” Students at Feirstein can access their projects at any stage of development from anywhere in the world. “By any standard it is one of the best facilities I’ve ever walked inside of,” says Soderbergh. “I certainly never set foot in anything like that until I started working for studios.”

Another of the school’s advantages is that it is housed within Steiner Studios, a massive, 580,000-square-foot production lot—the largest outside of Hollywood. Students attending Feirstein arrive each day beneath the “Steiner Studios” sign. “It’s the only graduate film school in a film studio. That seemed to me an obvious advantage in an industry where your connections are important,” Feirstein says.

Blockbusters such as Trainwreck, Bridge of Spies and The Wolf of Wall Street and TV hits including Boardwalk Empire, Girls and Gotham were all shot at Steiner. Feirstein students are virtually guaranteed to rub shoulders with producers, directors and actors in some of film and TV’s biggest productions. Between its technological edge, lack of bureaucracy and colocation with Steiner, the Feirstein School feels “like a startup,” says Poe. “It’s got a whole Brooklyn vibe. Brooklyn is the new Manhattan. And then you’re on a studio set, so you also have this whole professional Hollywood feeling too. You get the best of both worlds.” But Feirstein may be something more than the best of two worlds. The school is quietly aiming to help transform the film and TV industry in a uniquely Brooklyn kind of way. In the wake of the 2016 #OscarsSoWhite campaign, which protested the dearth of people of color in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominations for the Oscars, the Feirstein School is making a special effort to recruit students from diverse backgrounds. “Given that we’re part of the City University of New York (CUNY), we felt a strong and abiding need to have as much diversity as possible,” Wacks says. “The film industry is kind of in crisis. We made a commitment that we would try to have as many of our students be women and minorities as possible.”

While other top film schools are often as much as 80 percent white men, about half of the Feirstein School’s students are from those traditionally underrepresented groups. “Since we were starting from scratch, we didn’t really have to deal with a legacy of not being diverse,” Soderbergh says. That attracted the city’s Office of Media and Entertainment, for example, which earmarked $5 million last year to be administered over five years to female film and theater makers to help them complete their projects; one such project is a pair of TV pilots written by female screenwriters that will be produced by Feirstein students. Hawke says he hopes that Feirstein’s emphasis on diversity can help combat what he sees as the corporatization of an art form. “Young people need to try out their skills when they’re not in the corporate world,” he stresses.

  • Steiner Studios, home to Brooklyn College’s Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema. Photo by Jeremy Bales
  • Amos Poe and directing students using a rolling camera rig at a workshop at the Feirstein School. Photo by Jeremy Bales
  • Steve Buscemi in Boardwalk Empire, much of which was filmed in New York. © HBO

Part of Feirstein’s early success with diversity has to do with its location. Brooklyn is one of the most diverse places in the world, with residents hailing from every state in the union and 130 nations. “Brooklyn is perceived as somewhat more egalitarian and diverse than Manhattan,” says Soderbergh. “I don’t think the school would feel the same if it weren’t in Brooklyn.”

The school’s other advantage in attracting a diverse student body has to do with price. A year of tuition at the Feirstein School costs in-state students just a hair over $18,000 per year for a three-year MFA program ($27,000 for non-New York residents), whereas tuition at a similar program at a leading film school such as New York University can run almost $60,000 per year. And the majority of Feirstein students receive at least a partial scholarship, plus up to $10,000 to produce their thesis films. For aspiring filmmakers from low-income backgrounds, the difference in cost can be the deciding factor in whether they attend school or not. Kaitlyn Cortes, a post-production student, says that after studying film and studio art at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, she wanted the more rigorous experience of an MFA.

“I wanted to go back to school. I really wanted to get that experience,” she says. “But I needed something that was cost-effective.”

Amanda Reyes, a Mexican American directing student from Texas, specifically chose to attend Feirstein rather than a school in Los Angeles, where she was working as an actress, because of its embrace of diversity. “I was constantly auditioning for stereotypical Latina roles—the gangster’s girlfriend or the pregnant teen or the maid. I was looking at these films and these scripts thinking, I can write a more honest portrayal of my people.” Her stories are drawn from her own life, and they’re not your typical Hollywood fare. “I have older brothers who have been in and out of prison my entire life, and so I write a lot about being a part of an inmate family and dealing with the incarceration process,” Reyes says while communing with fellow students during a rare break in a common area. “Also, immigration—I was heavily involved as an activist in Texas. With everything going on and the political climate the way it is now, it’s so necessary for us to comment on it in media and films.”

All of this could seem like merely an earnest attempt by academics and industry to solve a social problem, and on one level that’s true. But the Feirstein School also represents a hard-nosed economic calculation by the city and state of New York. Millions have been poured into the school because New York’s civic leaders believe Feirstein is a smart economic investment for the future.

“There are three elements that go into making a decision about where you’re going to shoot a TV show or a movie,” says Vans Stevenson, senior vice president of state government affairs for the Motion Picture Association of America. “Cost, convenience and creativity,” and New York is now second only to California in volume of movies and TV shows being produced in state.
Overall, the film and TV industry in New York City generates $9 billion locally and supports an estimated 130,000 full-time jobs. In 2016, 56 television shows were shot in New York City, a record, an 8 percent increase over the previous year and the seventh consecutive year of record growth in the TV production industry in the city, according to Julie Menin, the commissioner of media and entertainment for mayor Bill de Blasio. At a time when most of the creative energy is in TV, not film, New York is competing well. “New York is the greatest backdrop in the world, and the diversity of the city’s locations is unparalleled as is its skilled workforce,” says Menin. “This provides enormous revenue to the city’s small businesses, as well as thousands of well-paying jobs.” And it’s a trend likely to continue, as 17 pilots were also shot across the city’s five boroughs during the 2016-17 TV season, another record.

  • Clive Owen, Eve Hewson and Steven Soderbergh seen on location in Brooklyn for The Knick in 2013. © Alessio Botticelli/Filmmagic
  • Set of a Vitaphone short film at the Vitagraph studio in Brooklyn, 1925. John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images
  • Screen still from the upcoming film, Ocean’s Eight, filmed in part in New York and produced by Steven Soderbergh. © Warner Bros. Pictures/Village Roadshow Pictures/Barry Wetcher

Productions have been drawn to New York in part by long-running state-level tax breaks for movies and TV shows that film in the state. “There’s been explosive growth in New York because of the production incentives programs,” says the MPAA’s Stevenson. The state first introduced incentives in the early 2000s, and they’ve become more robust under governor Andrew Cuomo over the past six years. “Governor Cuomo initiated a five year, $420 million per year rolling cap program, originally budgeted at $2.1 billion,” says Stevenson. “This year they extended it by another three years through 2022.” The multiyear nature of the tax cuts has given production companies and studios a reliable barometer of costs in New York and made the state highly competitive against other leading locations such as Georgia, California and Canada.

To handle all of this activity, the city’s film production companies are on a near constant building and hiring spree. For instance, Silvercup Studios, where much of HBO’s hit The Sopranos was filmed, already had more than 400,000 square feet of production space in Queens when it built a third 120,000-square-foot expansion in the Bronx last year. And the city itself is backing the construction of a 100,000-square-foot production center along the waterfront in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood.

“We’re at the busiest time that we’ve seen in New York in a long time,” says HBO executive vice president of production Bruce Richmond. “You’ve seen the advent of major tent-pole series in New York, whether it’s [HBO’s] Boardwalk Empire or something else, and once you start doing those it really starts growing the ability of other networks to come in and do tent-pole shows.” (HBO, of course, is headquartered in midtown Manhattan.)

  • Sivercup Studios in Queens
  • Brooklyn College Barry R. Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema

It’s a virtual cycle: Each new production requires an expansion in facilities, technology and the workforce, which then incentivizes new productions drawn by those resources, and on and on. The city has also streamlined permitting for productions, according to Stevenson, cutting the cost and paperwork necessary to shoot. And ultimately, “New York has always had an incredible character as a location, and that’s something that people have always come to New York for,” says Richmond.

Once questions of cost and labor have been resolved, movies and TV shows are shot in New York because there is an aesthetic here—independent, artful, more diverse—that stands in contrast to big-studio Hollywood. Today’s growth is really about the industry coming full circle. The first movies weren’t filmed in California until 1910, but starting in 1907 silent films were being cranked out at a rate of as many as eight per week by the Brooklyn-based Vitagraph Company of America.

Vitagraph doesn’t exist anymore—it was acquired by Warner Bros. in 1925 and absorbed—but a dusty smokestack, more than a century old, still stands in Midwood, Brooklyn. When a developer considered tearing it down, community opposition stayed the wrecking ball, and earlier this year the developer announced it would keep the smokestack, making it a monument to the borough’s filmmaking past. And now, 100 years later, New York is still innovating, still pushing the industry forward.

  • Cityscape

    WHERE TO WORK, INVEST AND PLAY IN NEW YORK

MAYOR’S OFFICE OF MEDIA AND ENTERTAINMENT

MOME is the starting point of many productions in the city. The office can help coordinate permits and locations and connect productions with local labor. 1697 Broadway, 6th Floor, Manhattan, 212.489.6710, nyc.gov/film

BROOKLYN COLLEGE BARRY R. FEIRSTEIN GRADUATE SCHOOL OF CINEMA

The Feirstein School is breaking new ground in film education, and with its location at Steiner Studios in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, it’s a great starting point for producers exploring their options. 25 Washington Ave., Brooklyn, 718.237.3410, feirstein.brooklyn.cuny.edu

SILICON HARLEM

This nonprofit aims to foster tech entrepreneurship in Harlem by bringing in gigabit internet infrastructure, providing coworking spaces and sourcing capital for startups in the neighborhood. The group also hosts a monthly MeetUp of entrepreneurs and investors working in Harlem. info@siliconharlem.net, siliconharlem.net

LOWELL HOTEL

The historic Lowell Hotel provides a peaceful home base for visitors who seek a residential neighborhood and an easy stroll from Central Park and the East Side’s world-class museums. The hotel’s new Majorelle French restaurant is itself a draw. 28 E. 63rd St., Manhattan, reservations@lowellhotel.com, 212.838.1400, lowellhotel.com

WYTHE HOTEL

The Wythe oozes Williamsburg hipsterism, but there’s a sophistication beneath the surface. Set in a renovated waterfront factory, the hotel has one of Brooklyn’s best rooftop bars. And its new American restaurant, Reynard, is a study in wood-fired technique. 80 Wythe Ave., Brooklyn, hello@wythehotel.com, 718.460.8000, wythehotel.com

THE WHITBY HOTEL

The new art and design-centric Whitby takes its cues from the nearby Museum of Modern Art in everything from its wallpaper to its deck furniture. The hotel’s amenities include a 130-seat screening room and afternoon tea service. 18 W. 56th St., Manhattan, whitby@firmdale.com, 212.586.5656,
firmdalehotels.com/hotels/new-york/the-whitby-hotel

JAMES

This neighborhood spot is one of Brooklyn’s best kept secrets. Its seasonal, farm-to-table menu features simple, delicious new American dishes. Monday burger nights are legendary. Call ahead for reservations as space is limited. 605 Carlton Ave., Brooklyn, info@jamesrestaurantny.com, 718.942.4255, jamesrestaurantny.com

THE GRILL

Occupying the space that was once the legendary Four Seasons restaurant, the Grill has big shoes to fill. Opened in May for dinner, it already has attracted celebrities from Martha Stewart to Nas. If you want to savor steak tartare and lobster Newburg in a gorgeous and authentic period space, this is the spot. 99 E. 52nd St., Manhattan, reservations@thegrillnewyork.com, 212.375.9003, thegrillnewyork.com

CHINESE TUXEDO

Eateries in Chinatown are typically pretty basic. Enter Chinese Tuxedo. Housed in the first Chinese theater on the East Coast, it serves up a tasty Chinese diaspora menu in a hip, polished environment. 5 Doyers St., Manhattan, nihao@chinesetuxedo.com, 646.895.9301, chinesetuxedo.com

NEW YORK YANKEES

There’s nothing like an early fall outing to see the Bronx Bombers. The best experience in Yankee Stadium is in the Delta SKY360˚suite, complete with a private lounge, wait service and an outdoor patio to watch the game. 1 E. 161st St., Bronx, 718.293.4300, m.mlb.com/yankees/tickets/info/delta-sky360

BROOKLYN ACADEMY OF MUSIC

Nestled in the heart of Brooklyn’s artistic community, BAM is a top venue for live music, opera, theater, dance and cinema. The performance center can be counted on for both underground hits and A-list stars. Its lineup is always packed and constantly changing, so be sure to check the online calendar before scheduling a visit. 718.636.4100; bam.org

MUSEUM OF THE MOVING IMAGE

From exhibits about GIFs and video games to screening series of Jim Henson classics or films made in rural settings, MoMI, in Astoria, has a reputation for pushing the boundaries of what counts as art in a provocative but always interesting way. 36-01 35th Ave., Queens, 718.777.6888, movingimage.us

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