Long before the sun rises over Hollywood, there is activity at the Brooklyn Navy Yard overlooking Manhattan. Hundreds of people are already at work, setting up cameras, putting on makeup and adjusting lights. There is a new production studio in town, giving Brooklyn a new nickname—“East Hollywood.”
Opened in winter 2005 on a 15-acre site at the historic Brooklyn Navy Yard, the 280,000-square-foot Steiner Studios provides New York City with its first Hollywood-style production and support facility on the scale of its West Coast rivals. Filming of Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” began as soon as the first soundstages were completed.
ADCO Electrical Corp., Staten Island, N.Y., was the electrical contractor on the project. The company has experience in wiring Fortune 500 companies as well as major commercial interests in New York City, but the Steiner Studio project was unique. ADCO had installed wiring in theaters in Manhattan, but had never taken on a production studio.
“We’ve never done anything quite like this,” said Phil Altavilla, project manager.
Touted as the largest and most sophisticated production studio complex and support facility outside of Hollywood, Steiner Studios offers five soundstages for movie, television and commercial shoots. One of those, at 27,000 square feet, is the largest soundstage built for filming on the East Coast. In addition, the studios come with office and support space, and parking for 1,000 vehicles.
The Brooklyn Navy Yard has rich, but hardly glamorous, history. For more than 150 years, the Navy Yard was one of the nation’s most active military facilities. For Altavilla, there is some family history at the site as well. Both his father and uncle served there during World War II.
Today, the Navy Yard, which stretches between the Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges, is an industrial complex spread out over 300 acres along the Brooklyn waterfront. The shipyard accommodates more than 220 primarily industrial businesses, many of which specialize in light manufacturing and design. The businesses employ 4,000 workers.
The 40 rentable buildings have 3.5 million square feet of space that is 97 percent occupied. The Navy Yard is also home to the 167-year-old Naval Hospital, a designated landmark. Alongside are four operating dry docks and five active piers.
Steiner Equities Group, Roseland, N.J., had good reason to look at New York for its new investment. Filmmaking in New York City is a $5.1-billion business that employs more than 100,000 people and drives 5,000 production businesses, according to the Boston Consulting Group. And Steiner Equities Group has designed and built more than 10 million square feet of commercial property already, including some of the largest build-to-suit office and laboratory projects in the United States.
The project began in the late 1990s when the Steiner Group began exploring New York locations for a production studio and site for Steiner Studios. The Steiner Group awarded ADCO the $12 million electrical job in September 2003. By the time ADCO electricians reached the site, the precast building—consisting of sections assembled off-site—had been pieced together at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. ADCO’s task was wiring the five interconnected soundstages in time to start production on at least some stages in less than 18 months. The final work would take place on the north end, as filming began on the other stages.
Each of the stages needed to function independently with its own 20-by-28-foot “elephant door” for loading equipment, changing sets and stage access. Studio 3, at 150-by-200 feet with 60-foot ceilings, was the largest of the stages.
Soundstages, stretching to a 45-foot grid height, needed to be column-free, sound-insulated and offer unsurpassed loading and staging areas. They would be built to accommodate film, high-definition television (HDTV) and digital camera productions. Each stage is 120 feet wide, wired with a minimum of 9,000 amps of power and between 150 to 200 tons of cooling.
The stages needed to be attached to production and support space, including makeup, hairstyling and dressing rooms; green rooms; storage areas; conference rooms; and offices. In addition to the enclosed building areas, there is ample assembly and secondary areas for laying down of materials and equipment used in large-scale film projects.
On the site’s north end would be a full commissary with dining and catering services, a 90-seat screening room, and grip area for testing lighting as well as a pantry, kitchen and rooftop lounge from which visitors can see the Manhattan skyline.
To begin, ADCO ran new feeder lines. Con Edison had already provided 27,000-volt lines specifically for the studio’s use, so ADCO installed three sets of feeders to the building. Inside the massive staging areas, electricians worked with heavily insulated panels.
Flexibility for production companies was the most important element of the job. To provide this, they installed disconnect switches that feed through a flexible SJ cord for the production companies’ equipment.
ADCO also installed five rooftop transformers on isolation pads seated on steel plates, which were both 1,500- and 1,000-kilowatt powered. The walls, Altavilla noted, were insulated with Insul Quilt, an insulation that absorbs sound. Workers also installed a spring-charged device that acts as a vibrations eliminator with a steel plate about 18 inches from the roof.
The company ran a power line through the upper level of each studio with a suspended wooden catwalk to allow for adding more power when needed. The wooden catwalk absorbs sound better than steel for when workers travel along its length during production. ADCO installed a fire alarm system for the entire studio and enough power that the company can add another building in the future.
Production companies began using the studios by the beginning of 2005 while ADCO was still wiring the north side of the facility. “The Producers,” starring Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick and Uma Thurman, began filming in February 2005, using four of the studios’ five stages.
In addition to soundstages with state-of-the-art air conditioning and power infrastructure, there is 180,000 square feet of office space with access to satellite uplinks and a high-speed data backbone.
Designed to the specifications of producers and facility operators in Los Angeles and supported by top New York artistic talent, Steiner Studios is a full-service, state-of-the-art “production factory.” It is equipped for start-to-finish production of major motion pictures, independent films, television, music videos and broadcast commercials.
Steiner Studios will provide a range of production equipment and services on-site, including a complete inventory of film and television lighting and grip equipment, scenery and props, design and fabrication services and post-production facilities.
It fits well in the Navy Yard setting, which offers a historic backlot, with buildings preserved from the Civil War and World War II, and an open campus environment with winding drives, expansive fields and abundant landscaping.
The Navy Yard already offered 24-hour security monitoring, secure access and parking. There is space for future growth, and the entire complex is conveniently linked to airports, Manhattan and the greater metropolitan area.
New York City provided $28 million to upgrade waterlines, valves, sewers and electrical conduits, largely because the infrastructure had deteriorated since the Navy Yard’s shipbuilding days came to an end in the mid-1960s.
According to legislators, the production studio is good for the economy. To make it easier for production companies to work in New York, the city is offering tax incentives. Producer Mel Brooks received 15 percent tax credit from the city and state on the $45 million cost of “The Producers,” excluding salaries of the actors, director and writers.
With all that was going on at the site, there were numerous changes throughout the project, Altavilla said. This is due, in part, to the nature of building a studio whose users require flexibility. And, for Altavilla, it was not just a unique project, but also a fun one. EC
SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.