Great Point Studios is developing a 300,000-square-foot studio complex at 164 Dayton St. in Newark, the site of the former Seth Boyden Court public housing complex, as depicted in this rendering. — Courtesy: Great Point Studios
By Patricia Alex
Plans to build a $125 million television and film production studio in Newark’s South Ward are expected to help cement efforts to build a durable infrastructure for the industry in New Jersey.
They’re also the culmination of decades of wishful thinking in the city and, more recently, years of complicated deal-making that involved some of state’s biggest players, including Gov. Phil Murphy, as part of an aggressive push to attract productions and studio operations.
“You need bricks and mortar to create an industry that will endure … (and) take root in New Jersey,” said Steven Gorelick, executive director of the New Jersey Motion Picture and Television Commission. He signaled that other studio projects may be revealed shortly, following a high-profile event in mid-May where public officials announced the new ground-up Lionsgate studio complex in Newark.
Work on the facility, to be developed by Great Point Studios, is slated to begin within two months and be complete in 2024. The site is now being cleared of rubble left by the demolition a vacant public housing complex. The 300,000-square-foot studio complex will cover 12 acres of the site, which is owned by the Newark Housing Authority, with another three to four acres set aside for development of 200 units of affordable housing.
The property will house production stages ranging from 20,000 to 30,000 square feet, offices, support space and parking for 400 cars and 65 trucks. The development is projected to create more than 600 long-term jobs in the production trades and attendant services, like catering, and generate more than $800 million of annual economic impact, principals said.
Advocates also hope the project will extend downtown Newark’s successful redevelopment into the South Ward. The studio complex will front Dayton Street, which runs along the golf course at Weequahic Park, while the site’s western boundary is Frelinghuysen Avenue, abutting access roads to Newark Liberty International Airport.
“Whenever you build a facility, especially one of this size, people wind up migrating to it,” said Robert Halmi, CEO and founder of Great Point Studios, a media-focused investment group. “It will really be a shot in the arm for this area. We’re part of a bigger plan, we’re just one piece of the revitalization of that area.”
Thanks to generous tax credits begun in 2018, there has been an uptick in filming in the state, including popular films like Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, shot in Paterson and Newark. Like other recent studio developments in Kearny and Jersey City and a pending proposal in Bayonne, the Newark facility will help accelerate the flow of television and film production, allowing for more shoots involving longer-term series.
The project is the product of a multifaceted deal that involves public, private and nonprofit partners.
The New Jersey Performing Arts Center downtown long had a vision of complementary studios, executives say. When a deal for space in Kearny failed to materialize, NJPAC Board Member Marc Berson, a real estate investor who is chairman of the Fidelco Realty Group, said he suggested the former location of the historic but blighted Seth Boyden Court housing project. Berson owns other property near the site, which was home to 530 units across 12 buildings before the housing authority razed the complex earlier this year, eyeing redevelopment.
Thus began a process that stretched out over many months, said Tim Lizura, NJPAC’s senior vice president for real estate and capital projects:
- NJPAC collaborated with the city to have the site designated a redevelopment area and rezoned to include the studio use. The arts center created a limited liability corporation to lease the site from the housing authority for 75 years and act as redevelopment agent.
- The arts center LLC in turn signed a 35-year lease agreement with Great Point Studios, which will spend $125 million to build the complex in partnership with investment firm Lindsay Goldberg. Matrix Development Group will be the project developer, while Gensler will spearhead architecture and master planning and Gilbane’s Newark-based New Jersey office will serve as construction manager.
- Great Point then signed a 10-year sublease with Lionsgate Entertainment Corp., a prominent film and television production company, which will use the facility.
Still with us? The housing authority will still own the land but Great Point will own the improvements to the land, which is expected to generate millions in annual property and city payroll taxes, Lizura said.
“It’s a really complicated deal but it’s a coalition of the willing,” he said. “It was not without challenges since there are a thousand details, but at every step of the way, the city was very supportive and shared the vision.”
Lionsgate is eligible for tax credits from the state, but Great Point is not receiving any tax incentive, Halmi said. Still, he sees Newark as a great location.
“We have a program to build film studios in major markets and we think the most important market for us is the Northeast, because there is an acute shortage of film infrastructure,” Halmi said, adding that “there is an incredible demand for space.”
Great Point recently opened a massive $500 million studio project with Lionsgate as the tenant in Yonkers, New York. Halmi said he was contacted by Murphy — with whom he has mutual friends — about the prospect of coming to Newark.
“(The governor) talked about tax legislation and how New Jersey is going to be an important destination for filmmakers,” Halmi said. “We want to create a mini-Hollywood in Newark.”
While the economic activity generated by a film shoot generally lasts a few months, the studios are a “10- to 20-year commitment” to the area, Halmi said. In announcing the deal, Murphy said the state “will cement its position as a hub for television and film production with its proximity to all forms of transportation and access to more than 14,000 qualified union members in the region.”
Halmi said the project will be the first ‘purpose-built” studio in the state, meaning it is not a retrofitted warehouse like others. The complex will have steel infrastructure to hold heavy sound and stage equipment and clear sight lines.
Lionsgate, meantime, would be eligible for a “studio partner” designation from the state Economic Development Authority, a program designed for companies that occupy 250,000 square feet of studio space. That designation would allow for a tax credit for up to 35 percent on labor, goods and services and deductions for some additional salary and wages, said Darryl Isherwood, senior adviser for economic development communications and sector lead for film and digital television at the EDA.
A proposed development that would create as much as 1.5 million square feet in studio space at the former Texaco refinery site in Bayonne would also be eligible for the designation, Isherwood said. That plan received site plan approval from Bayonne this spring.
NJPAC will manage public affairs and community relations for the Newark studios and create educational programs and internships for high school and college students in Newark.
“This is one of the most exciting projects I’ve been involved with,” said Lizura, a former EDA president. “It will generate new taxes for the city, internships and jobs. And the panache of having a world-class studio in your city — you can’t undersell that.”
Patricia Alex is a freelance writer based in Cherry Hill and the founder of Silk City Communications.