The actor and his son hope to join the city's exploding film and television production industry with a $400 million facility in Queens.
Steiner Studios opened along the Brooklyn waterfront in 2004 as the largest film studio outside Hollywood. Television and movie productions had fled New York City for cheaper locations, and the new studio was trying to ignite a turnaround.
Nearly 15 years later, the industry has exploded.
Steiner, which started with five sound stages and one movie in production, now has 30 stages, a back lot about to start construction and multiple shows and movies filming simultaneously. In Queens, Silvercup Studios has added two new production outposts, including one in the Bronx.
And several weeks ago, Netflix announced a significant expansion in New York, creating a new corporate office in Manhattan and a production hub in Brooklyn with sound stages to feed its booming streaming service.
Now actor Robert De Niro is jumping on board. A group of investors, including De Niro and his son, Raphael, are buying a 5-acre parcel in Astoria, Queens, with plans to build a sprawling production and film studio.
The studio, which will be called Wildflower Studios, aims to grab a piece of the surging television and movie business that is turning New York City, once the film capital of the world, into a new Hollywood.
Propelled by a soaring demand for original streaming content and a generous state tax incentive program, New York has become an entertainment powerhouse, attracting major feature films and award-winning television shows.
Last year, 332 movies were filmed in New York City, officials said. In 1980, there were 121. Films and shows have spent nearly US$2 billion so far this year in New York State, nearly surpassing the US$2.1 billion spent for all of 2013.
Since the beginning of film, producers have used the city as a backdrop, filling commercials, films and television shows with scenes of the soaring Manhattan skyline, the iconic Brooklyn Bridge and the majestic Statue of Liberty.
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Everything else involved in the production process, however, was typically done elsewhere.
But at least four major studios now operate in the city, returning New York to its roots as a production nexus, similar to the 1920s and '30s before Hollywood took over.
"Whether it's in film, TV, augmented and virtual reality, or gaming, there is an exploding opportunity to tell stories to people across the globe," said Adam Gordon, an investor in the Astoria film studio and the president of Wildflower. "The demand for original content creation is exploding, and with its talent pool and creative energy New York City is a natural home to that evolution."
Wildflower expects to spend roughly US$400 million to buy the property in Queens and to build a nearly 600,000-square-foot facility designed as a one-stop shop for movies and television shows, offering space for everything from preproduction to post production services.
The site is part of a larger strip in Astoria that has long been owned by Steinway & Sons, the renowned piano manufacturer. The parcel that Wildflower is buying has been used as storage for finished pianos, Steinway said. The sale will not disrupt manufacturing, the company said.
Gordon said he and Robert De Niro conceived of Wildflower Studios after discussing the state of film studios in New York City and in other places where De Niro had made films.
"We toured studios in New York, on the West Coast and in the South to understand the landscape of current filming spaces," Gordon said. "We saw the need for a true destination film campus."
As with movies, the number of television shows made in New York is increasing significantly. Over the past year, 67 television shows were shot in the city, an increase from 29 during the 2013-14 season, officials at the mayor's Office of Media and Entertainment said.
"We are thrilled by this growth because it means more jobs and opportunities for New Yorkers in a thriving creative economy," said Anne del Castillo, commissioner of the mayor's Office of Media and Entertainment.
The surge in entertainment production has been fueled by New York state's program of production credits, about US$420 million annually, which can offer savings of 30% or more on some production costs. Productions have collectively spent more than $33 billion and filled roughly 1.8 million jobs in New York since the credit program was introduced in 2004.
More than 50 television shows have sought credits so far this year, including two that will be released on Apple's upcoming video service, an untitled puppet show and another called Sterling, as well as a new crime drama on Showtime, City on a Hill.
"We have had an explosion," said Hal G. Rosenbluth, president of Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, "and that explosion was called streaming services."
Kaufman Astoria Studios was one of the country's first studios, opening in 1920. It later became Paramount Pictures and eventually moved to Hollywood. The studio in Queens is adding two more sound stages, for a total of 12, Rosenbluth said.
"We have a show for CBS, a show for the new Warner Bros. streaming service and a show for Apple that's in the house now," he said. "In the old days, it would have been ABC, NBC and CBS and maybe Fox."
The revival of television production in New York can be traced to the mid-1980s with Bill Cosby's decision to base the Cosby Show at Kaufman Astoria, Rosenbluth said. It spurred producers to consider New York and not just Los Angeles as a place to shoot.
But business faded in the 1990s as other cities, states and countries dangled lucrative incentives to attract productions. The production credit program helped lure the industry back, said Doug Steiner, who started Steiner Studios. (Amazon's The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel, which won an Emmy Award last year, was filmed at Steiner.)
Without the credit, he said, New York City and the state would largely be a destination for filming scenes, while the production is done elsewhere.
"These productions will go wherever it's least expensive to produce," Steiner said.
Cities in Canada, particularly Toronto and Vancouver, British Columbia, are major competitors because of generous production credits and a favorable exchange rate.
Beside the production credit, the state has helped the film industry in other ways. For its Brooklyn studio, Netflix is eligible for US$4 million in tax credits under the same incentives that were offered to Amazon to build a campus in Queens. Wildflower Studios has not sought a tax credit, state officials said.
The Astoria project marks a return for Robert De Niro, who unveiled a similarly ambitious effort two decades ago when he and Harvey Weinstein, the movie mogul since disgraced, formed the Hollywood-based Miramax Films. In 1999, they announced a $150 million deal to turn a 15-acre site at the Brooklyn Navy Yard into a dozen television and movie sound stages.
That project, however, collapsed in spectacular fashion. Shortly after Mayor Rudy Giuliani appeared to embrace the plan, the city abandoned it, citing legal and financial concerns. De Niro and Weinstein were stunned, saying that the mayor had agreed to their vision and that they only needed to "dot the i's and cross the t's."
Another group swooped in and took over the deal, creating what became Steiner Studios.
How the new studio will compare to what the actor pursued 20 years ago has not been revealed.
Gordon said it was too early to say how many sound stages would be built. But De Niro, who has his own production company, TriBeCa Productions, will certainly use the studio for his own work, Gordon said.
"That will be the preferred option," he said, "so long as it's not booked."
Written by: Matthew Haag
Photographs by: James Estrin and Todd Heisler
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES