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

Doug Steiner, studio chief. (Matt Chaban)

“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.

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