Open spaces: New Jersey’s film and TV production industry needs real estate — of very specific kinds

Steven Gorelick. (Courtesy photo)

Steven Gorelick, one of the most prominent voices in promoting the state’s film industry, sometimes finds himself in the unlikely environs of realty association meetings. He’ll take any opportunity he can get to talk about the demand for film and TV production space.

The first thing to say about it, he said, is that there’s never enough. That’s true even with the now-regular announcements of brand-new studios inhabiting renovated warehouses or properties built from the ground up.

The need is getting only more intense as time goes on. But, the unique character of the film sector means the growth of its New Jersey real estate footprint is unlike any other industry’s expansion.

Gorelick, executive director of the New Jersey Motion Picture and TV Commission, described a quest he’s been on to find the right space for a company that supplies airplane props and sets to the motion picture television industry.

Props or not, finding warehouse space adequately designed to move around airplane fuselages — in a location convenient enough to transport it to filming sites in the region — proves difficult.

There’s also an unprecedented demand in New Jersey now for studio space for large productions. That requires buildings with ceilings at least around 25 feet high, few columns and 20,000 square feet or more to play with.

“Anywhere you are, there’s not a million of those spaces,” Gorelick said.

Some of the state’s major projects are settling for redevelopment on defunct sites. Netflix is reportedly making plans to build one of the largest fully integrated production facilities in the world at Fort Monmouth. 1888 Studios, expected to be the largest ground-up studio facility in the country, is slated to occupy the former Texaco site in Bayonne.

Cinelease Studios’ Caven Point facility.

The current largest film production facility in the state, Cinelease Studios Caven Point, was converted from a warehouse. The building made its debut in the background of a Pepsi commercial with Ben Stiller that aired during the last Super Bowl.

Gannon Murphy, executive vice president of studio management team Cinelease Studios, said its “prize jewel,” Caven Point, is column-free with 70,000 square feet of dedicated stage space. Importantly, there’s plenty of head room.

“There’s a big difference between a space with clearance only 20 feet high versus one that’s 40 feet high,” he said. “That’s going to determine what type of productions you can fit in there.”

Wide, tall, totally empty spaces might not strike anyone as particularly exciting.

“But the key is flexibility for productions,” Murphy said. “You want spaces that are agnostic to the production, whether it’s a western, a sci-fi or something else.”

Murphy alluded to one of the recent productions at the Caven Point studio, “A Murder at the End of the World,” a miniseries premiering on FX next month.

“They built two-story sets that are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen,” Murphy said. “It was really an example of why you need this open, column-free space to let the minds in the creative process run wild.”

With the much-touted increase in the number of productions regionally, there’s a demand for more spaces affording that flexibility.

According to studio leaders such as Jamie Payne, owner operator of Palisade Stages, the film industry is convinced enough to keep looking for it in New Jersey. Palisade Stages, which was the first major soundstage to be built in the state back in 2021, was a purpose-built facility in Kearny.

“We’re close to New York City, all the logistical infrastructure of New Jersey and we have a great landlord that appreciates what working in the film industry entails and accommodates it,” he said. “It’s a great place to be.”

Working together

There might be a number of studios moving into New Jersey, but Jamie Payne of Palisade Stages said there’s no talk of stepping on each others’ toes.

Jamie Payne. (Palisade Stages)

“We don’t look (at the local industry’s new entrants) as new competition,” he said. “Between the studios in the state’s nascent TV and film industry, there’s a lot of dialogue. We’re trying to make sure we help each other out as much as possible.”

As of this year, they’re now doing it in a more formal capacity.

Earlier this year, a number of the state’s largest studios banded together to form the first nonprofit trade group committed to the local film sector. Payne, who serves as a treasurer for the group, called the Screen Alliance of New Jersey, expressed that he and others look at the industry’s growth as a rising tide that lifts all boats.

To that end, Gannon Murphy, executive vice president of Cinelease Studios, and the group’s president, said supporting a more predictable New Jersey Film and Digital Media Tax Credit Program will be one of the organization’s mainstays.

“Our goal is to make sure we have a unified voice on the importance of the incentive and that we speak intelligently to that point to the state Legislature, to this administration and future administrations,” he said. “The state has a great incentive that’s growing, and our alliance is uniquely poised to help it grow responsibly.

“There’s a lot of other collaborative work we can do together, but that’s really our focus and our common ground.”

Murphy expects the upstart trade association to not only welcome in more studios, such as Netflix, as they arrive — but also to embrace a wider community development and education focus as time goes on.

“This is not something we only expect to pay dividends in political currency,” he said. “It’ll also allow us to do more work in the community and provide a sort of connective tissue our industry needs for those who are outside looking in and want to get involved.”