Kaufman Astoria Studios
Queens TV / Film Production Studios
Astoria / August 11, 2010 / Queens Buzz / Continued. I returned from a visit to Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens. The studios were created in 1920 by the Famous Players - Lasky Corporation, and have been in operation for most of the past 90 years. Naturally, during this time the studios have undergone significant upgrades, including the addition of a number of large new studios - one of which was completed this year and another that we were informed is one of the largest studios in the NYC metro area, if not beyond. The photo to your left shows the Kaufman logo in the entrance of their new studio: Studio K.
Kaufman Astoria Studios: History 1920 - 1972
In 1916 Adolph Zukor and Jesse Lasky merged their two movie production companies with Paramount Pictures. Paramount Pictures was the first and largest national film distributor. The merged entity was the first company to integrate film production with film distribution. In 1920 they created a large studio production complex in Astoria which today is called Kaufman Astoria Studios. Silent film star giant, Rudolf Valentino starred in at least one of film produced at the studios, and many other stars would do the same in the coming 90 years.
In the 1930’s the ‘talkies’ caught on and the Astoria studios adapted to the times, bringing sound to the screen via upcoming actors such as W.C. Fields and the Marx Brothers. The first two Marx Brothers films, 'Cocoanuts' & 'Animal Crackers', were produced here. During my visit I saw photos of the Marx Brothers adorning the studio walls [see photo to left]. In 1933, during the Great Depression, the company nearly went bankrupt, but nonetheless films continued to be produced at the studios in Astoria until 1942.
In 1942 the U.S. Army took over the Astoria studios and used them to produce their famous ‘Movietones’ which were short news briefs about the war. The U.S. Army used the studios to produce cinema and radio announcements, training and indoctrination films, and other military related audio / visual pieces until 1970, when they returned the studios to the city.
Kaufman Astoria Studios: 1970 - 2010
LaGuardia College became the caretaker of the Astoria studios in 1970. We were told that during this time they borrowed technological infrastructure from the studios to help maintain the infrastructure at the college during difficult economic times [at the time NYC was on the verge of bankruptcy]. Toward the middle of the 1970's a few film and sound pieces were once again being produced at the Astoria studios. And in the late 1970’s the Astoria studios were designated a landmark.
One of the first major films produced following the Army occupation of the facility was the movie 'The Wiz'. 'The Wiz' was the film rendition of the first successful Broadway musical to feature an entirely African American cast. The Broadway musical ran four years and was a huge success. The movie, starring 33 year old Diana Ross as Dorothy and Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow didn't fare as well as the Broadway Show. As you can see in the photo above, Diana Ross is featured in photos on the studio walls, although we didn't happen to come across any of Michael Jackson.
George S. Kaufman - Real Estate Developer
In 1980, George S. Kaufman, an Astoria / NYC real estate developer, negotiated a deal with NYC [Abe Beam was mayor] to develop the studios along with several nearby properties that the U.S. Army had also vacated. All of these facilities had been used by the U.S. Army, which included the studios, some barracks and a lab. As we understand things, George helped facilitate the development of these other properties, which include: 1) the Museum Of The Moving Image, 2) the Frank Sinatra School Of The Arts and 3) United Artists Kaufman Astoria Stadium movie theater. All of these have grown to become important institutional anchors in the neighborhood and have contributed to its resurgence. In the photo above [to the right of Diana Ross] is George S. Kaufman.
Film TV Production Facilities - KAS Queens
In 1980 when George Kaufman assumed control of the Astoria Studios, there weren’t any other significant film or television production facilities operating in Queens. Prior to re-opening and naming the facilities, Kaufman added two large stages to the north end of the building, bringing the total stages in operation to four plus the sound stages on the subterranean level. Today these northern studios [G & H] are used to produce the popular cable television show 'Nurse Jackie'. The photo to your left shows the front entrance of Kaufman Astoria Studios late on night in the winter of 2010.
Before the year was out, Kaufman hired Hal Rosenbluth who has been with the organization ever since. Hal is currently the studio president. We had the opportunity to meet with Hal in his Hollywood-esque office in Astoria [see in fifth photo further down]. One of the first movies produced at the studios under Hal's stewardship was 'Endless Love' which starred Brooke Shields and was produced by Franco Zeffirelli. The film opened in 1981 and was a box office hit. Naturally, photos of scenes from the movie 'Endless Love' are hanging on the KAS walls [see photo to your right].
TV / Film Studios In Queens - Competition
It wasn't long before TV / Film production competition emerged in Queens. In 1983, three years after the Astoria studios re-opening, the Suna brothers converted what was then Silver Cup Bakery into a TV and film production complex in Long Island City. Today they are Silver Cup Studios, where among other productions, '30 Rock' is produced.
In 1987, the TV / film production business was doing well in New York City, and KAS expanded by popping open the roof on the southern end of the building. They built up and added two more studios one of which is Studio E. Studio E is 26,000 square feet and KAS's largest. It is currently being used for ' MIB 3'. In 2009 the remake of the film 'The Taking Of Pelham 123' was also produced in this studio [?]. The other studio built during this time is currently occupied by Sesame Street, one of KAS's most tenured clients [11 seasons].
In 2010, Kaufman Astoria Studios opened its newest studio – Studio K. Studio K is a state of the art 18,000 square feet studio with ceilings that are, in the parlance of the production house, "40 feet to the bottom of the grid". To the right is a photo of the entrance to Studio K, taken during the winter of 2010, just before it was completed.
KAS TV / Film Production Complex - Queens
KAS has seven studios, plus KAS Music & Sound. These studios are designed to accommodate all types of productions and appear to be set up in a modular fashion so that they can quickly be modified to fit the production project at hand. As I understand it, only one studio has an embedded audio / video control room. But most of the studios don’t have controls rooms, as the technology changes rapidly and production companies frequently prefer to bring in their own equipment. In the photo to your left are Hal Rosenbluth and Tracy Capune, KAS President and Vice President, standing in the embedded control room.
Two of KAS stages are being used for 'MIB 3' which I was forbidden to photograph. I found these stages particularly interesting, because they showed film sets in the middle of the creation process. Studios are essentially large empty spaces which can be manipulated to create any environment or setting required by the film. The studios come with catwalks [aka grids] high atop the rooms. From these grids sound, lighting and cables can be used to create whatever effects or stunts needed.
The studios essentially provide producers with the infrastructure they need to create: space, power and lighting. The production companies hire the talent, bring in most of the equipment, and take care of just about everything else. The carpentry involved in building sets is done on site and modified as needed.
The production companies also bring in and set up their own equipment, working through the studio to obtain adequate power and cabling. In the photo to your right is Peter Romano who has been helping production companies settle into KAS for about twenty years. As you can see by the wall in the background, he also appears to be a big sports fan.
KAS is here to help and hence in 1994 [?] KAS started KAS Lighting to provide production companies with lighting and related services and equipment. KAS Lighting provides lighting, cables and trusses, not only on site, but whereever it is needed. Today KAS Lighting fields a fleet of about 11 trucks.
Great Sound Stages In Queens / NYC
During my visit we toured KAS Music and Sound, which is located on a subterranean level of the KAS production complex. Here I saw a very well preserved, magnificently engineered, sound studio built by the U.S. Army in the 1940's. The two sound studios are named A and B: A) Studio A [see photo immediately below] is one of New York's largest live rooms and can host a 70-piece orchestra - the studio also has two isolation booths - one for vocals and one for a band, and B) Studio B is designed to accommodate voice overs and ADR [automatic dialogue replacements] which are used to dub higher quality recordings into movies and television productions. There's also a control room which carries both analog and digital recording equipment.
Studio A is well engineered for sound because: 1) the walls are not parallel and 2) the ceiling is curved. In this manner the walls and ceiling won't bounce sound vibrations back and forth, which signficantly reduces unnecessary ambient noise. There are also devices hung upon the walls to both disperse and absorb sound. But perhaps most significantly, is that the U.S. Army went the extra distance by separating each of the performance rooms. The sound stage, band room and vocals room were created as completely separate rooms, set apart by empty space so that the vibrations and reverberations being created in the next room did not affect the performance and recording occuring in any of the adjacent rooms. All of these rooms are also separated by vault-like doors designed for the same purpose.
Since Joe Castellon, the executive creative director, wasn't available; Bernard Fox guided us through KAS Music & Sound. He finished our tour of Studio A by taking us through the control room where we were informed that there are 60 microphone inputs and a plethora of various analog and digital sound recording equipment.
In Studio B he showed us several recording booths, where Automatic Dialogue Replacements [ADR] and voice overs are done. He informed us that many of the greatest vocalists of the modern era had used KAS Music and Sound for recordings, including Pavarotti, the Rolling Stones, Placido Domingo; and Diana Ross and Michael Jackson during the produciton of 'The Wiz' in the mid 1970's.
Film and TV Production Industry - KAS Clients
Hal informed me that the TV and Film production business in New York State is about a $7 billion dollar industry. He informed me that it’s a very competitive industry as it creates a number of good jobs which, according to economic theory, has a jobs multiplier effect - meaning that the jobs it creates, create other jobs.
KAS clients include production companies of all sorts, such as the national TV networks, the cable TV networks, and the Hollywood film studios. Film productions bring big budgets which can range in size from $30 million on up. TV series also bring in millions of dollars, but are generally much smaller than those in film. KAS clients include CW, HBO, Showtime, AMC, Warner Bros, Fox, Disney / ABC, Viacom / CBS, and NBC / Universal. Even some independent producers have rented office space in the KAS building.
Kaufman Astoria Studios - Offices & Ownership
Kaufman Astoria Studios' offices have a retro 1920's - 1940's look to them. They appear to refer back to the golden age of film production and the legacy of the facility's origins. There were also a couple of friendly dogs roaming the offices, which gave the studios a sort of casual LA atmosphere.
Hal informed me that he sees himself as the custodian / executor of George Kaufman's plans for the studios which began with his vision for the neighborhood. And while I understand George is still very much involved in real estate development, Hal also informed me that George continues to keep close tabs on KAS operations.
As of this post, and in subsequent efforts, we haven't been able to determine nor confirm the ownership of Kaufman Astoria Studios. We went in assuming that KAS was owned by George S. Kaufman, but after doing a bit of research, found that KAS might possibly be partially or wholly owned by a private investment company and / or NEP Broadcasting.
NEP Broadcasting is one of the largest purveyors of TV / Film production facilities and equipment in the world and they also have offices in the KAS building. We submitted a request to Kaufman Astoria Studios, through their press agent, for clarification of that information. If we ever receive a reply, because their publicist has not responded to multiple inquires, we will post the information right here in this report.
NYC Advantages In Film & TV Productions
New York has a lot to offer production companies, some of which is the city itself. The city offers production companies a wide range of location / situational venues which are difficult to find anywhere else. There’s also a deep pool of talent for TV and film projects, ranging from the actors and actresses, to producers, directors, writers, costume designers, make up, production props, sound and video technicians and editors. Many of the top talents in these positions live in the NYC metro area and many of them prefer to work close to home when possible. Most of these jobs are well paying, so there’s a battle to win TV and film production jobs, which are frequently battled for with tax credits.
NYC TV & Film Industry Economics & Jobs
Hal gave me a brief lesson about the TV / Film production business. In the 1990's the average movie budget had grown to about $50 million. Because of this potential revenue influx; cities, states and national governments began bidding down location costs by providing tax incentives and rebates. By the end of the 1990's it seemed everyone had a film commission.
In the year 2000, the U.S. joined in the melee and started providing tax incentives too. After 911, the cost differential of producing a film or TV series in NYC grew versus other cities. This growing differential was likely attributable to higher insurance and labor costs, but also because of skyrocketing real estate prices. Hal informed me that some production jobs were lost to other locations such as Austrailia, Canada and New Zealand.
The state of New York followed by providing tax incentives in 2004, offering 10% rebates on "below the line" costs. "Below the line" costs in the TV / Film production business denote all costs associated with the production, EXCEPT the salaries of the talent such as actors / actresses, producers and directors. These are "above the line costs" because these costs are likely to be the same regardless of where the production is located. The "below the line" costs include everything else, like location space, lighting, equipment, carpentry, food etc.
The TV / Film location business bidding intensified throughout the past decade. In 2006 New York state raised its rebates to 30% for "below the line costs" with cap of $350 million. NYS also structured the rebates so that NYS would make the rebate payments over the three years following completion of the film. We didn't specifically talk about how this applies to TV series, but it should be somewhat analogous.
Hal noted that during the 2008 – 2009 downturn, the unions associated with the industry were adding jobs. In 2009, a study prepared by an accounting firm, determined that TV / Film production was actually creating jobs in NYC and NYS. Hence, in the New York State 2010 budget, the line item for TV / Film production rebates was moved from the cost side of the NYS budget to the revenue side of budget. And the rebate payments were capped at $420 million per year for the next three years.
Welcome to Queens - Hollywood East ...
Special thanks for Hal G. Rosenbluth and Tracy Capune for allowing me to do this story on a Queens studio with a great past and a promising future.
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