Hollywood Along the Hudson: Can Doug Steiner Turn the City’s Largest Film Studios Into an Urban Real Estate Empire?

The studio, nestled (at right) into the Brooklyn Navy Yards. (Steiner Studios)

The genesis of Steiner Studios reads like the treatment for a Steven Soderberg film, full of money, spurned lovers and politics, a scrappy David versus the insider Goliath. East River 11. Robert DeNiro could play himself, a mellow Philip Seymour Hoffman would make a good Doug Steiner. Rudy Giuliani as the love interest, no drag necessary.

Hollywood got its start in New York, as many in the business, particularly those living here, like to point out. Ever since it moved west in the 1920s, New Yorkers have been fighting to get it back. The Giuliani administration began casting about for ways to revive the Navy Yards in the mid-’90s, and among them was an idea for movie studios. It so happened a pair of dreamers, Corey Dean Hart and Louis Madigan, a set designer and software entrepreneur who worked out of the same building at the yards, had the same idea, and they signed an agreement with the city in 1998 to develop their plan.

When the project stalled, the city brought on Mr. DeNiro and Harvey Weinstein, who were eager to run the studio. The Hollywood heavies teamed up with another New Jersey developer, Steve Roth of Vornado Realty Trust, then just an upstart who has since become one of the biggest landlords in New York City. A skirmish broke out inside City Hall between competing deputy mayors, some of whom felt Messrs. Madigan and Hart were being brushed aside.

A call went out to Doug Steiner one evening, through a friend of a friend. “As we got to know their work, we realized these were serious guys, with serious building potential,” Marc Rosenbaum, the director of the Navy Yards at the time, told The Observer. Mr. Steiner got the job, and the mayor’s office did not even bother to notify the movie stars until the press conference on Oct. 13, 2000, was already underway.

“What makes it all the more amazing was Doug was in the middle of a very messy divorce,” Mr. Rosenbaum recalled. “I don’t know how he did it.

Mr. Steiner agreed. “If it weren’t for the divorce, I never would have been crazy enough to do this.”

Still, there were more delays, inevitable delays, as the local Chasidic community sued, fearing for the sanctity of its neighborhood from the Hollywood heathens. The suit went nowhere, but it wrapped just as 9/11 hit, delaying the project further. It would be two more years until Steiner Studios finally broke ground.

“We need these stages, that is a critical component of the entire industry’s success,” said Katherine Oliver, commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, which oversees the industry. “For the industry to keep growing, we need more stages, good stages, modern stages.” This not only accommodates new and better productions with a wider range of demands, it also takes stress off the city’s sometimes overburdened streets.

Even Mr. Steiners rivals look favorably on his expansion. “Competition is good for the business,” said Stuart Suna, who founded Silvercup Studios with his brother in Long Island City three decades ago. Never again will they have to shoot Seinfeld or NYPD Blue in LA. We’re not the financial capital of the world just because we have one or two really good banks.” Mr. Suna said that he is looking at expanding his operations, as well, the better to compete with the upstarts.

Hollywood Along the Hudson: Can Doug Steiner Turn the City’s Largest Film Studios Into an Urban Real Estate Empire?