March 12, 2021

The CEO of Kaufman Astoria Studios on $2 billion mixed-use development plan, filming during Covid-19 and more

via New York Business Journal

As people have hunkered down at home during the Covid-19 pandemic, many have turned on Netflix, HBO Max and Amazon Prime shows and movies as a way to pass the time.

That’s prompted the film and TV industry to jumpstart production at sites like Kaufman Astoria Studios in Astoria, Queens, using strict protocols to get new content out safely.

Shows like PBS’s “Sesame Street,” Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black,” and HBO’s “The Undoing” — along with movies like “Ocean’s 8” — have previously filmed at the campus.

Hal Rosenbluth, the president and CEO of Kaufman Astoria Studios, has watched the return to filming firsthand. As he’s observed the changes in protocols for production companies, he’s also been busy planning for the post-pandemic world by proposing a big new project.

His company, alongside Silverstein Properties and BedRock Real Estate Partners, plans to develop a $2 billion project to transform part of Astoria into a mixed-use creative district.

The project would include 2.7 million square feet of ground-up development, with mixed-income housing, retail, office space and more.

Rosenbluth and I spoke recently about how the film and TV production industry has been operating amid the Covid-19 pandemic and about the creative district he has planned.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

What has the film production industry’s recovery in NYC been like so far? Have you had TV shows and movies filming at your sets? I’ve seen some streets shut down again for filming.

Yes, the industry is back. We are fully booked on our stages right now. Our colleagues are in the same position.

I think it’s a statement to how strong New York’s industry is and the confidence the industry has in New York.

You’ve put some intense Covid-19 protocols into place.

We test our crew on a weekly basis. The productions do the same. The shooting crew is tested three to five times a week.

The industry is spending millions. It’s created a whole new department [focused on Covid-19 safety]. They recognize the importance for them to get product into the distribution pipeline so you can watch a new show.

I walked a producer through our new building that just opened. The Covid security officer was there, and then the outside Covid consultant was there.

When I say the protocols are strict, I really mean the protocols are strict. When doing a production, they’re spending tens of millions, in some cases hundreds of millions. They can’t afford to be shut down because someone wasn’t being careful.

This is really where you have seen labor, industry and government come together to figure out, “How do we do this? How do we create a protocol that works?”

Are streaming services like Netflix driving demand for filming space?

Let’s call it original programming. There’s more original content being required because streaming services have come on board.

You’ve been expanding Kaufman Astoria Studios, including recently with two new soundstages, an underground garage and 66,000 square feet of office space at your campus.

What we were seeing, the example I use is … an executive director said to me, “We’re going to move out of Manhattan. Is there any space at the studio?” And I said, “Are you sure?” And she said, “Yes, everyone who works for us lives in the borough.”

That’s one of the reasons we believe in commercial office space.

Any development in today’s world in terms of the political wind is a little bit uphill. We still believe in it.

Speaking of new development, you’ve proposed building a massive mixed-use creative district called Innovation QNS. Why is the time right for this plan?

Innovation QNS will, I think, end up being this thoughtful program by the developer that incorporates what the community believes they need. [We are working to] try and make it as much of a live, work and play environment as we can. What I’d love to see is a little bit heavier position on the commercial side so you have more people able to go to work there.

We think the production business is going to be around in New York for a long time to come. I think New York has realized for a long time they’ve got to diversify their economic base, and the production industry has become one of the pillars.

On Innovation QNS, we are asking the city for zero, nothing, no incentives. We’re asking for a [floor area ratio, or FAR] that makes sense, that allows us to create the open spaces and the other things the community needs.

[At this time] economic drivers are absolutely essential, and a community like Astoria, it’s going to need more than just ours. Even prior to the pandemic, Steinway Street … was seeing record numbers [of available spaces].

There’s a mayoral race this year. How could the outcome impact proposals like yours?

I have grave concerns about the political winds and where we are going forward, and I think we have to take a hard look at ourselves and the decisions we’re making in order to help this city continue to thrive and grow. It will impact the production industry and impact every industry.


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