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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Douglas Steiner

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-05-18

Douglas Steiner invented Brollywood.


Some 120 years after an entrepreneur named H. H. Wilcox bought an area of Rancho La Brea in Los Angeles that his wife then named "Hollywood," Mr. Steiner has converted a 15-acre lot in the Brooklyn Navy Yard into Hollywood-in-Brooklyn. No surprise, then, that the end-product has got the moniker of Brollywood.

"This is an attempt to design a community for the arts that will inject fresh vitality into the city's economy and culture," the chairman and CEO of Steiner Studios said.

His attempt has involved spending more than $120 million to build five sound stages for film and television production. The studios occupy 280,000 square feet. From the get-go - which is to say since December 2004 - Brollywood has been a success.

Mr. Steiner was able to persuade the makers of films such as "The Producers," and "Inside Man," to use his studios. Three films are currently being shot at his studios, including an $80 million production that represents the first time Walt Disney Pictures is filming a feature in New York City.

The 45-year-old Mr. Steiner has also persuaded several TV producers to tape programs in Brollywood, including Tina Fey's new comedy series for NBC.

"I consider it magic," he said. "It's amazing all the things that go on behind the camera."

His reference was to the assembling of technical talent that is essential for any film or television production. More than a thousand men and women work in Brollywood. Soon there will be more as editing and screening rooms that Mr. Steiner is building become operational.

"It may be premature to say it, but I see New York offering vigorous competition to Hollywood - and to foreign locations," Mr. Steiner said.

He is right about sounding premature. About $5 billion is spent on film and TV production in the city each year, according to the state's film office. The figure for California - mainly Hollywood - is $35 billion.

Mr. Steiner is also right about his reference to vigorous competition. Both New York and California are facing it from 29 other states, most notably Pennsylvania, Louisiana, South Carolina and Florida, all of which offer significant tax and financial incentives to film and TV producers. (When Louisiana introduced financial incentives in 2003, production spending in the state jumped to $335 million in 2003 from $20 million in 2002, according to USA Today.)

Incentives are also offered by Australia, Britain, Canada, Czechoslovakia, India, New Zealand, Morocco, and Romania, among others. Moreover, the cost-of-living in these countries is generally lower, so American film makers have availed themselves of production opportunities abroad. For example, it reportedly costs $250,000 less to produce a TV show in Toronto than in New York.

Mr. Steiner is unhappy about this.

"We have all the talent in the world in America - and the best crews are in New York," he said. "Establishing Steiner Studios is my way of creating opportunities for that talent."

The idea of creating Brollywood came to him in March 1999 when a friend called to say that unused portions of the Brooklyn Navy Yard might be available for leasing. At that time, Mr. Steiner, who majored in English at Stanford University, had been working in his family's real estate company, which traces its roots to 1907.

"I had always wanted to follow in my father's footsteps," Mr. Steiner said, noting that his parents, David and Sylvia Steiner, always urged their four children - Ellen, Nancy, Douglas and Jane - to "aim high."

"We became a family of overachievers," Mr. Steiner, adding that Ellen became a lawyer and bond trader; Nancy, a physician; and Jane - as Jane Hoffman - served as the city's commissioner of consumer affairs under Mayor Giuliani.

Under the tutelage of his father, Mr. Steiner flourished in the real-estate business. He oversaw construction in 15 states, and focused on retail facilities.

By the time he received that call from a friend concerning the Brooklyn Navy Yard - which the government stopped using in 1966 - Mr. Steiner was raring to do something dramatic.

"It wasn't as though the city did not have movie studios," he said, alluding to the Kaufman Studios in Queens, Silvercup Studios in Long Island City, and the Chelsea Piers Studios in Manhattan. "But Brooklyn had an allure for me. The history of the navy yard was part of that."

The history dates back to 1637, when Walloon Jansen de Rapelje bought 335 acres of Native American land from the Dutch West India Trading Company in the area of Brooklyn that became known as Wallabout Bay. Then in 1781, revolutionary fighter John Jackson and his brothers purchased a parcel of Rapelje land where they built the area's original shipyard on muddy marshlands. And in 1801, the United States government bought the Jackson property for $40,000.

"Thomas Jefferson built the first dry dock," Mr. Steiner said. "Great American naval ships such as the Arizona and Missouri were built at the yard. Almost every major naval ship in American history came to the yard at one time or another."

These days, the vessels that come to the yard are mostly ferry boats that need repair. Mr. Steiner said that he's no less fascinated with seeing repair work being done on those boats.

"When you think about it, what a lively community the yard is - a working dry dock, a movie studio, fire-rescue teams," he said.

He is confident that Brollywood will become livelier. Needless to say, that's because of his indefatigable efforts to woo producers. But recent efforts by the state and city to enhance financial incentives have also seemed to encourage makers of films and TV programs.

"I'm confident that these tax breaks will increase movie and TV production in New York City by $5 billion in the next five years," Mr. Steiner said. Films and TV shows that undertake to film 75% of their production in city studios are eligible for the tax breaks, he added.

"At the moment, Brollywood is more like running a boutique hotel than a big mass-market facility, which Hollywood is," Mr. Steiner said. "But it's no less demanding."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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