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

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Cutting the ribbon for the new sound stages with a few stars. (Edward Reed/Mayor's Office)

Doug Steiner does look the part of a certain type of Hollywood big. There is a certain belief that the less well-dressed one is, the more powerful—there is no need to keep up appearances when everyone is already impressed. At the same time, it has its advantages, as others often underestimate, even ignore you, as you go about the business of burying them.

So it goes for Doug Steiner, who never met a tie he liked. He prefers those polos but will wear a button-down shirt when decorum calls for it. This is always worn untucked over a pair of nice but slouchy jeans and either tennis shoes or boots. His childhood friend Joe O’Malley said he had send Mr. Steiner to a proper tailor so he would buy his first suit since his bar mitzah for the studio’s ribbon cutting back in 2004. It was the same one he wore to the ribbon cutting earlier this month, hanging from his 5-foot-6 frame.

While giving The Observer a tour of the studios, Mr. Steiner spoke in proud, almost paternal tones about his project. He shaves his head bald, but otherwise looks young for his 51 years, his small face free of wrinkles. “Mentally I’m 16-28,” he quipped. “Usually on the lower end.” Though in decent shape, he said the only real exercise he gets is walking to and from work over the Williamsburg Bridge, “the most underrated bridge in New York,” to his apartment in the East Village.

While the rest of the studios have the stripped down, cleaned-up feel somewhere between Soho loft and suburban office park, Mr. Steiner’s office, just off Stage 5, is chockablock with papers, building plans, models and filmic ephemera. Posters from studio productions line the walls downstairs, including one of The Producers signed by Mel Brooks and Jonathan Sanger, his coproducer, “Thanks for your support.” Alongside it are other early successes: The Namesake, Fur, My Super Ex Girlfriend.

“Doug was very dogged in those early days,” Joe Iberti, a producer of Boardwalk Empire, said during a tour of one of the two stages his show has occupied for the past three years. We were standing inside Nucky Thompson’s office inside the mock Atlantic City Ritz. Just next door was Nelson Van Alden’s apartment, complete with exteriors. A surreal experience, especially with the East River and rows of brownstones just outside the foot-thick concrete walls.

“He’s still very dogged,” Mr. Iberti continued. “Doug employs some of the best people in the business, and if you need something, they will get it done, no matter what. You can’t really operate on handshakes anymore, but this is as close as it gets.” Mr. Iberti remarked how he had brought Enchanted in, at the time the studio’s highest budget production, and then Mr. Steiner cut him a deal on Ghost Town, a personal project he was working on starring Ricky Gervais and Greg Kinnear.

While he is very understated, Mr. Steiner brings the same doggedness to his negotiations, fighting and scheming quietly for every inch. “This is a guy who went to Stanford, he’s very smart, and people should not underestimate him just because he is quiet,” Mr. Rosenbaum said. The one time he seems to truly let loose is at the now-notorious holiday party, replete with go-go dancers. Everyone from Marty Markowitz to Mr. O’Malley speaks of the parties with reverent awe.

When asked about the dancers, Mr. Steiner said they’re for his clients’ enjoyment, not his. When The Observer first met him, it was at one of these parties. After a brief introduction, he excused himself, saying, “I have to go leer at some girls.” Only after spending more time with him did we realize this was one of his typical jokes.

Besides the annual party, Mr. Steiner tends to eschew the red carpet, but he has still become an industry power.

Everyone at Steiner Studios knows Doug—his name is over the gates, after all—but he is the kind of boss people, even the talent, smile and wave at, rather than averting their eyes. That is Doug Steiner’s job. Though he has worked with almost every big name in the business now, they still intimidate him at times.

It was while walking through one of the dressing room corridors that Mr. Steiner’s smile quickly shrunk. He had been pointing out the graffiti Jim Carrey had littered all over the studio, a stencil that looked like a Polynesian wildman, when he caught Glenn Close out of the corner of his eye. He hustled us by the doorway while he went to see if the coast was clear. “They really don’t like to be bothered,” Mr. Steiner.

Still, he had the gumption to spend a whole half an hour talking to Miranda Kerr, the supermodel, at Steiner to shoot a Victoria’s Secret commercial no less. He was mortified to learn only moments later from a colleague that he had some greens from lunch in his teeth. “She’s really nice,” he said of Ms. Kerr. “Didn’t say a thing about it.”

Over lunch in the commissary, staffed by the individual productions—it was here that he likely ate the offending salad—Mr. Steiner enjoyed some roast chicken, more greens and a bowl full of olives courtesy of Damages. “I love olives,” he said. “I teach a class on olive tasting at the Learning Annex.” Sometimes it is a wonder he does not write for the shows on his lot, so sharp the Steiner deadpan.