“People said we were crazy to build in Brooklyn, no one would ever come to Brooklyn,” Doug Steiner said from the rooftop terrace of his biggest development in the borough. The Jersey-born builder was wearing his usual polo shirt and jeans, comfortable in the unseasonably warm weather in late February, the sun glinting off his clean-shaven head. “In those days, there were wild dogs running in the streets,” Mr. Steiner added for effect.
“But look at these views,” he continued, pointing out across Wallabout Bay and the span of the East River beyond. “You’ve got the gritty industrial underbelly of the city in the foreground, the financial capital of the world in the background.” One World Trade Center and the Empire State Building bookended the panorama.
It was 1999 when Doug Steiner brought the family development business to Brooklyn. As he and so many other fortune seekers have since proved, the decision was anything but crazy. But it was not condos or artists lofts that Mr. Steiner was selling. He was in pictures.
Two weeks ago, with the mayor standing just in front of him at the podium, Mr. Steiner opened five new sound stages at his eponymous Steiner Studios inside the sprawling Brooklyn Navy Yards, bringing the total to 15. That is halfway to the ultimate goal of 32 and, at 50 acres, the largest American film production facilities outside of Hollywood—behind Warner Brothers and Paramount, and rivaling the Walt Disney and CBS backlots.
That can be a hard thing to come by in a city as congested as New York—Steiner’s chief rivals operate out of an old bakery (Silvercup) and silent era stages (Kaufman Astoria)—but the Navy Yards, with its 300 gated acres, offers a development opportunity rarely seen even in L.A.
The unexpected success of Steiner Studios not only underscores the boom in Brooklyn but also a thriving industry in The Industry. Thanks to state tax credits and ample support from the Bloomberg administration, the city saw 188 feature films and 140 television series shot in the five boroughs, up more than 20 percent since 2004, the year Steiner Studios opened. The mayor was there, too, with Mel Brooks, to announce that The Producers would be the first production on the lot.
“I don’t have to tell you how tight real estate is in New York City,” Bruce Richmond, HBO’s executive vice president for production, said in an interview. “So much of what we’re doing now we could not do 10 years ago, without a space like Steiner.
And yet with any great production, the success is as much about the director as the story. “It’s a very fertile place to shoot for a lot of reasons, and Doug is a big one. He’s a very flexible thinker,” Mr. Richmond said. “Being newer to this, he approaches the business very differently than a lot of folks. He certainly has that development part of things down. He likes to figure out how to get things done.”
But this is not the story of a dreamer trying to break into the business, the product a youth misspent in dark theaters. Mr. Steiner sheepishly admits to watching movies no more than the average person. With his busy schedule, he is behind on his television, including Damages and Boardwalk Empire, his two marquee tenants for the past few years. When not working, he is just as likely to be found wandering Chelsea galleries as sitting in front of a flat screen.
If anything, Steiner Studios is simply more of the same for a family that has created an unusual real estate empire spanning 15 states. “We love special-purpose real estate,” Mr. Steiner said, referring to the family business begun by his father, David, after he returned from the Korean War. He worked for the Army Corps building bridges. “The more complex the better,” the elder Mr. Steiner said in a phone interview. “It cuts down on the competition.”
For the Steiners, development is all the same. Industrial conglomerates, mom-and-pop shops, Hollywood executives—it doesn’t matter so long as the rent gets paid on time.
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.
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.
Doug Steiner actually wanted to be a writer when he was growing up. “I love to read,” he explained. “But it’s a lot easier to read than to write.” After graduating from Stanford with a degree in English, he moved to France for a year to try and get his novel off the ground. It never took flight, so he flew home instead and returned to the fold. “He once asked his dad what his title was, because he did not officially have one,” Joe O’Malley, a childhood friend, recalled, “and David responded, ‘What’s your title? It’s son!’”
Doug grew up in the shadow of that boisterous, politically active father, and for a time, that is how it was in the business, as well. But he also found ways to stand out and do his own thing, like developing a number of retail outlets in North Jersey, starting with Bridgewater Towne Centre. “He brought a youthful outlook to the firm,” David Steiner said. It was that same outlook that encouraged him to move the business across two rivers, to Brooklyn, to expanding the real estate empire into new territory.
The studio facilities were designed by Mr. Steiner and built by his father, after both had toured facilities out west. What they created, with the help of Dattner Architects, is an innovative, 1,000-foot-long, three-story building, a spine with five lobbies and five giant pods, for the 16,000- to 27,000-square-foot stages, coming off of the core. Offices are on the top floor, dressing rooms are on the second, and props and storage are on the first, across the hall from the stages.
The project is only halfway there, however, with plans for Brooklyn College’s film program in a rebuilt Navy radio building, a Carnegie Mellon satellite on the old naval college site, and a 20-acre backlot. Productions come to New York for the atmosphere, but they still prefer being able to control it, and so a fake Chinatown, financial district, Midtown and brownstone streets will be recreated.
Even so, the studio already has been a huge success, part of a booming Brooklyn. “He is truly a Brooklyn character,” Marty Markowitz, the borough president, told The Observer. “He’s recognized what Brooklyn’s all about—show business.
It is part of a booming industry. “This is the dream, to be able to be in show business in New York,” said Terence Winter, the Sopranos writer and creator of Boardwalk Empire, sitting inside his Steiner Studio office, filled with gangster memorabilia. “L.A. is such an industry town. But in New York, you have everything at your fingertips. There’s just a different energy. You don’t feel so suffocated by the industry.”
It is also part of a booming Brooklyn Navy Yard, which after hundreds of millions of dollars in investment from the Bloomberg and Giuliani administrations has undergone a renaissance in the past decade, adding new artisinal manufacturers and artists alongside its old mainstays—Sweet-n-Low is still made at the yards.
“One might say, well, this isn’t manufacturing, and it’s not, in a way, the manufacturing of old, the smokestack, it’s not that,” said Andrew Kimball, executive director of the yards. “It’s still manufacturing, though, and it’s still the same good paying, local jobs that have benefits. If you go onto any of the stage, you see manufacturing going on, from acting to shooting to editing to building the sets.”
“The days of the smokestack are gone,” he continued, “but you have this new kind of manufacturing going on, and our job is, how do you maximize these opportunities.”
Soon, Doug Steiner will become a part of it all for good. “Growing up in Jersey, living in Jersey, I have some great memories, but really, it was like a frog being boiled alive,” he said.
His sleek, modern home in Short Hills—where he raised his three kids after the divorce—will be on the market as soon as he fixes it up. But Mr. Steiner cannot wait for it to sell, so he is moving to Brooklyn full-time this summer, into a penthouse in South Williamsburg. It is near 80 Metropolitan, one of those giant faux warehouses on the South Side, though quite a bit nicer than all the rest. Completed in 2009, it is Mr. Steiner’s first New York City project beyond the studio walls.
This is the real reason for Steiner Studio: it is but part of a budding franchise. In February, Mr. Steiner announced plans for another apartment building, a 52-story luxury rental tower at the corner of Flatbush and Schermerhorn avenues in Downtown Brooklyn, also designed by Dattner Architects. “We were late to Williamsburg,” he said. “But here, we were right on time. And it’s only the beginning.”
“It’s about good value, cutting edge design. Hip. Not gaudy or glitzy,” Mr. Steiner said. “Trump gets a premium for putting his name on a million different things. That’s what this is about, building a brand and using the studio, the Steiner name to do that. And to do it tastefully, I might add.”