In a potential windfall for New York’s film industry, Lionsgate Studios is now open for business. And when the $500 million Yonkers, N.Y., operation expands to a million square feet and 12 soundstages by mid-2023, it will become one of the largest production facilities in the East Coast.
Great Point Studios (GPS), which is building and managing the production campus it owns for Lionsgate Entertainment, is also partnering with S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University to create a hands-on filmmaking course. “We’re bringing in cinematographers and other professionals for one-week rotating seminars this spring,” CEO Robert A. Halmi says. “Students will learn how to work in grip, electric, wardrobe, catering, security and other departments. They’ll get to watch films being made and assist in making them.”
Four students from each class will earn internships as production assistants, moving between sets in Los Angeles; Buffalo, N.Y.; Atlanta; Wales, U.K. and other locations where GPS and Lionsgate have business relationships.
The new program is just one of several ways that GPS and Lionsgate — buoyed by unprecedented demand for New York City-area production from streamers and cable outlets — are investing in the future of filmmaking in the northeast. Ahead of its official Jan. 11 opening, crews have begun moving sets onto the first three soundstages, situated on a half-million square feet of production, office, support and mill space.
“It was pretty clear when we started our U.S. fund that there was an acute shortage of infrastructure for this fast-growing industry,” Halmi says. “I think we spent three days fundraising to raise $500 million. On the third day, [private equity firm] Lindsay Goldberg came in and said, ‘Whatever you want, you have it.’”
Halmi and GPS chairman Fehmi Zeko, former vice chairman of Bank of America, gave Lionsgate Entertainment naming rights to the complex in exchange for an initial investment and a commitment to long-term leases on three stages. Nine other companies will be joining them with 10-year leases soon.
Hallmark Channel founder Halmi drew upon his on-set experience with hundreds of productions to design the studio. “The concept was built around having more of an L.A. workflow,” he says. “Where does the crew want to be? How do you get the props into the warehouse? What are the needs of the talent? Where do the Winnebagos and trucks park? It’s just easier to work when the trucks can be right next to the studio.”
One of the greatest appeals of its spacious offices, dressing rooms, two commissaries and 200,000 square feet of parking lies in the fact that it’s all just a 35-minute drive, or 25-minute train ride, from midtown Manhattan. The train station is just a few steps away from the studio and new residential apartment buildings, all with an unobstructed view of the Hudson River.
Two years ago, GPS began retrofitting three Otis Elevator factory buildings built around the turn of the 20th century on the site. It was temporarily halted by the pandemic, but the pause gave them time to incorporate state-of-the-art production and security systems and room for COVID zones into the design. “This construction is bulletproof, and we’ve reclaimed the old brick and steel,” he says.
But Halmi’s biggest trip down memory lane is the course he’s creating with his alma mater. “I was actually thrown out of the Newhouse school with only six credits to go,” he recalls, after the dean learned he was paid for a Miller Brewing Company film using unpaid students from a filmmaking class he taught as an elective. “They asked me to do a lecture, and after a few years doing them, I had lunch with the [new] dean. I told him the story and he started laughing. He said, ‘That’s not even legal!’ So they gave me my degree 27 years later, and now they have a Robert Halmi Jr. Auditorium. It all worked out.”