Astoria-based studios revel in their success

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The red Silvercup Studios sign that peers across the East River in the shadow of the Queensboro Bridge is a relic of one era converted into the symbol of another.

Today it stands for Sarah Jessica Parker and Tony Soprano — icons, real and fictional, who have propelled Silvercup into popular consciousness as home to both “Sex and the City” and “The Sopranos.”

But the new touch of glamor cannot hide the revision that put the studios there in the first place and gave the sign new life.

“It used to say, ‘Silvercup — The World’s Finest Bread,’” said the company’s president, Alan Suna, who began constructing studios in the yellow-brick former bread factory on 22nd Street two decades ago with his younger brother Stuart, the chief executive officer.

To broadcast the old site’s new name, they removed most of the bottom letters and rearranged the rest — fabricating only the “U” from scratch — to create the word “Studios.”

“We’re believers in adaptive reuse,” Suna said.

They’re not the only ones.

In much the way the Sunas transformed their sign, a multimillion-dollar film and television industry has grown up in Queens out of parts that were already here.

Its crown jewels are Silvercup and the Kaufman Astoria Studios, a production center at 34-12 36th St. used by the likes of filmmaker Woody Allen that came back to life in the 1970s out of the decaying sound stages built in 1919 by Paramount Pictures.

They are the two largest studio facilities in New York City, and their steady growth over the past decade has echoed a citywide boom in film and television production, which had an indirect economic impact on the city of more than $5.6 billion in 2000 compared to $3.3 billion in 1993.

“In ’93 we had one prime time series and now we’ve got 12,” said Julianne Cho, spokeswoman for the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting. “That’s an astronomical increase.”

Four out of those 12 television programs are filmed in Queens. Sound stages at Silvercup are used by “The Education of Max Bickford” as well as HBO’s “Sex and the City” and “The Sopranos,” while “100 Centre Street,” a recently canceled A&E drama by Sidney Lumet originally produced at Kaufman, taped its last 18 episodes at a converted warehouse in Astoria.

But the popularity of Queens as a production destination is hardly a new phenomenon. The re-emergence of the entertainment industry in Queens is like history retracing its steps, most notably at the Kaufman Astoria Studios, where Bill Cosby and Emma Thompson appear on the same stages as the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields did in the 1920s.

And while the studios may have come back for the same reasons they developed in Queens in the first place, their success has less to do with historical precedence than present-day perseverance.

Reel Estate

Anything is possible at Kaufman’s Studio E — at 26,040 square feet the largest sound stage east of Los Angeles — which has been turned into a suburban mall for the film “Scenes from a Mall” and the wonderful world of Oz in “The Wiz.”

Earlier this month director Mike Nichols even took advantage of the studio’s immense height, 40 feet from floor to grid, to make an angel fly for his HBO miniseries, “Angels in America,” based on the Tony Kushner play.

But when bare, the stage is just an empty expanse of space waiting to be leased, a piece of real estate in search of a tenant.

The film studio industry is directly tied to real estate, so much so that the line separating the two tends to blur. George Kaufman, the owner of Kaufman Astoria Studios, is a real estate developer as are the Suna brothers, who are also both architects. That they are running the city’s two largest studios is no accident because their businesses are, at the core, real estate operations.

They rent out space.

Their tenants are the television and film producers who ultimately reap the profits or eat the losses from the projects they create on the borough’s sound stages.

But on the landlords’ side, the profits pour in from the standard model of renting X number of square feet over Y length of time, a practice that sets a definitive ceiling for the amount of money the studios can collect.

“There’s only so many stages — you’re only going to get so much money for those stages,” said Hal Rosenbluth, who has been president of Kaufman Astoria Studios for the past decade. “Your revenue is that of being a studio operations person, and not the producer of a film.”

If an Alan Suna or a George Kaufman wanted to build a new studio from the ground up, the costs would be so prohibitive the project would probably die before the first shovel hit the soil. What exists now at Kaufman would cost $200 million to construct today, Rosenbluth estimated.

“It’s really dicey,” said Richard Koszarski, a Rutgers University professor currently writing a book about the history of film production in New York. “Unless you have a guarantee, how are you going to finance such a thing? It’s very, very expensive.”

Indeed, new studios planned in the city often have not materialized “because the financial models didn’t work,” according to Rosenbluth. Two years ago actor Robert DeNiro shelved a studio project in the Brooklyn Navy Yards, which recently received a boost when former Mayor Rudy Giuliani signed a deal in his last days of office to subsidize the project with $40 million.

“It costs a lot of money to build sound stages, and unless you’re a producer in the business, it doesn’t make sense to you financially,” said former Queens Borough President Claire Shulma. As the borough’s director of planning boards, she worked in the 1970s to rehabilitate the old Astoria Studios, which by then had fallen into disrepair.

“It costs money to build and then you rent per square foot,” she said. “That’s not going to really give you a great return on your money.”

Big Business

Despite the obstacles to launching a studio, both Kaufman Astoria and Silvercup have emerged as industry powerhouses in their two decades of operation by wisely building on a pre-existing foundation and offering a premium service that keeps their clients coming back.

What is crucial is that neither had to start from scratch.

When the Suna brothers opened Silvercup, they used their expertise as architects to transform part of the old bread factory, which their father had already purchased, into a single sound stage. It opened in 1983.

They had considered numerous possibilities for the site, from loft apartments to a skating rink, but the studio proved a wise investment, becoming so busy they put two more in the old factory by the fall of 1984. One of the new ones “was used in the first six months of operation every single day of the week, including Saturday and Sunday, with the exception of Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and Near Year’s Day,” Suna said.

When Kaufman assumed control of the Astoria Studios in 1983, the 60-year-old facility had already been rehabilitated by a public foundation and used for some productions in the late 1970s — a base he soon built upon by breaking ground on a $50 million expansion.

“We made a very enormous investment,” Rosenbluth said. “The reason we’re successful is because we’ve worked our tail off to become the best servicer in this industry.”

Indeed, Kaufman Astoria Studios boasts that its clients can find everything they need without even leaving the comfort of the complex.

At Silvercup it is no different. As he narrated the company’s history while sitting in Silvercup’s executive offices last month, Alan Suna recounted a conversation he had with a real estate professor from college when he and his brother were just getting the company off the ground.

“He said, ‘Alan, this is a business.’ I said, ‘No, it’s real estate,’” Suna recalled. “He was right. It’s a business. You need real estate to run the business, as you do with many businesses. But it’s a business. It’s not a real estate deal.”

Hollywood East

Silvercup certainly looks more bread factory than Hollywood, an observation that rarely escapes people as they venture across the East River or across the country for their first visit.

“The first time people are in this place, they’re in shock,” Suna said. “They don’t expect it.”

From the outside, the industrial facade is interrupted only by a red awning stretching to the curb of 22nd Street, casting some shade over the glass doorway, also framed in red.

Meanwhile, a stream of traffic emits a steady hum from the adjacent Queensboro Bridge, which extends onto an off-ramp that literally curls around the studio building, surrounding it on three sides. The No. 7 train clanks along about a block away.

The Kaufman Astoria Studios complex exudes something more of a Hollywood aura, the main building having achieved national landmark status with its columned facade on 35th Avenue. But from most other angles, it fits readily into a neighborhood that mixes factories with homes and businesses, a huge stone box like any other warehouse.

Perhaps the idea of Oscar-winning film stars walking the streets of Long Island City and Astoria sounds a bit odd, but then again, they are only a 15-minute hop on the No. 7 from Times Square and Broadway theater. And the western Queens neighborhood has established itself as an enclave of artists in its own right.

“The creative edge is in New York City,” Shulman said. “They have a creative spark here which they don’t find in other places.”

The birth of Silvercup came about almost by chance, and it realized a potential the bread bakers probably never imagined for their factory.

But the revitalization of the Astoria Studios a few blocks away was a more conscious effort, a strategic move to bring film production back to New York.

“The city film industry was never going to revive unless you had an anchor facility that has at least as good as what you could get on the West Coast,” Koszarski said.

What it accomplished was far greater. Kaufman Astoria Studios not only provided that anchor for the city film industry, it turned into a boon for the neighborhood that had been withering in the 1970s as the immense studio complex languished from neglect.

“We recognized that it was a very important project and could really bring thousands of jobs to the city of New York,” said Shulman, recalling the length of time she devoted to bringing the studios back into business. “And indeed, we were right.”

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

Posted 7:04 pm, October 10, 2011
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