Small issue: Even as film industry grows in N.J., the trickle-down effect for some studios hasn’t come through yet

With the New Jersey Motion Picture and Television Commission reporting a record 2022 for in-state film production spending, which reached upwards of $700 million, crossing the half-billion-dollar record set the year before … it would seem the state’s industry is drowning in work.

Except, some studios are still waiting for that wave to reach them.

James Eustace and Keli Hernandez-Eustace of WRECK’D Productions.

James Eustace, who founded WRECK’D Productions with his wife, Keli Hernandez-Eustace, knows the industry is starting to thrive in the Garden State in the wake of the Film and Digital Media Tax Credit program’s reinstatement.

But, despite signing up to be one of the state’s registered studios for additional work, his own production company hasn’t had an impressive amount of film projects come out of that in recent years.

“And I can’t put my thumb on exactly why that is,” Eustace said. “I just hope it’ll change.”

Smaller studios aren’t knocking New Jersey’s new status as a filming hub on the East Coast. In fact, they’re eyeing a path to benefiting more from it themselves. It involves New Jersey becoming even more of a hub than the numbers suggest it already is.

Streaming giant Netflix’s bid to purchase a 300-acre parcel at Fort Monmouth for a major production base is a step toward that.

“We’re hoping — if this solidifies, which it looks like it has — when the Netflix studio is built, which is only a mile and a half or less from us right now, there’s an influx of bringing people into the state, that there will be spill-off work that will hopefully bolster that business for us,” Eustace said.

For the leaders of WRECK’D Productions, which is based in Monmouth County’s Tinton Falls, the impression they have of today’s film production scene in New Jersey is that its growth has been slower to arrive in certain geographies.

Eustace speaks only in laudatory terms of its location. And why not? As he says, it’s near the Shore, centrally located between the Manhattan and Philadelphia metropolitan areas, and, importantly for film production, it doesn’t have the permitting and parking logistics that big-city facilities would. The price is lower, too.

“So, there’s a reason the Netflix research team and all of these bright minds setting up right down the road see some viability to the area,” he said. “But, I do feel like the studios closer to New York City, like around Jersey City, probably are at an advantage for the film work because so much is done there and they might not want to deal with the logistics of having everyone come 50-some minutes out of the city.”

That doesn’t tell the whole story, however.

Le’s latest

Ahead of a career shift to film directing and producing, Khoa Le decided many years ago that a secure job as a web video engineer at Ernst & Young wasn’t enough for him. It’s safe to say that he still has some of that attitude in him today.

Khoa Le.

On top of running a pair of media, film and photography businesses with more than 100 employees, Le wants to start reinventing video games — and, in the process, how customers interact with businesses in New Jersey.

His latest project is called Beyond Borders. Inspired by what he admits is many hours playing video games with no real-life rewards to show for it, Le wants to build a gaming platform that allows people to level up and earn tangible rewards while also interacting with the world.

“A simple quest might be going into a coffee shop and buying a cappuccino,” he said. “And none of that has to be integrated on the business’s end. We’re in control of it.”

There’s no catch for the businesses helping promote the platform. The idea is that it’s consolidating loyalty programs that businesses use on an isolated basis into one platform that he expects will be far more enjoyable to interact with.

He’s beta-testing the project in Jersey City. He has sign-on from the Statewide Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey and the Northeast chapter of the U.S. Pan Asian American Chamber of Commerce, where he serves as a president. He’s even talking to the New Jersey Economic Development Authority about it.

“They’re very interested,” he said. “I’m not sure they know what’s all in my brain around it, but they’re definitely interested in the gamification aspect and the reward system.”

Khoa Le, a longtime local media guru who, among many projects, is directing the upcoming biopic film “Bezos,” is a studio owner in what he believes is the best place to be: Jersey City. His company, KVibe Studios, has a fully-equipped 8,000-square-foot studio there.

“We’re in a great position here … but the state’s offered tax incentive requires a minimum of a million-dollar spend,” he said. “So, in my mind, it’s not something that’s going to benefit small production companies.”

Le added that the largest film and TV companies, including streaming companies, haven’t always been ready to give opportunities to “new players” that are based in New Jersey. He’s also hopeful that will change over time.

In the meantime, he sees more opportunity in the small-scale projects that have existed for some time, including in viral video advertisements for companies trying to establish their brand.

The bread and butter for WRECK’D Productions continues to be in music projects. It does film shoots for music videos and live performance recordings. Its clients range from self-financed artists attempting to get in front of record label executives for the first time to celebrity artists high up on the picking order with labels.

It does a lot of that work in a dark sound-stage studio that features 22-foot ceilings. Like a Swiss Army knife, the space can be used for just about anything. But, at 2,200 square feet, Eustace said, the studio’s production space probably wouldn’t be ideal for some major film projects.

“The footprint does hinder us a little bit,” he said. “Sometimes, these companies are looking for 30,000-square-foot unobstructed space. We’re absolutely outfitted for film crews to come in here and do what they need. But we’re limited in terms of appeal for Paramount or others that might want to come in here and build a whole city in our space.”

The studio’s leaders could see that changing. They want to grow their footprint in the area.

But, rather than take a “build it and they will come” approach, Eustace said, smaller studios like theirs are waiting for them to show up first.

“So, that’s why, again, we’re looking forward to something like the Netflix facility bringing in industry professionals who are looking to have nearby locations they can push off some work to with their busy calendars,” he said. “I think it’s just a matter of more people knowing that we’re here for that, and continuing to provide the best service we can when opportunities do come up.”