‘Love affair’ led company to propose film studio for Schenectady
SCHENECTADY When Pacifica Ventures opened Albuquerque Studios in 2007, it brought an unexpected whirlwind of economic activity and tourism revenue to both the city of Albuquerque and the state of New Mexico.
Of course, that boon had a lot to do with Walter White and his meth-related hijinks on AMC’s hit television show “Breaking Bad.”
The award-winning show is set in Albuquerque and produced at Albuquerque Studios. In the five years it’s been on television, Albuquerque has attracted intense interest from tourists and enthusiastic fans. As show creator Vince Gilligan has said, the city is now a character in and of itself on the show.
“We hope to do the same thing in Schenectady,” Pacifica Ventures CEO Dana Arnold said Wednesday, a day after the Capital Region Economic Development Council listed the California company’s proposal to build a $68.9 million studio in Schenectady as one of its priority projects in this year’s statewide competition for state funding.
It’s a grand statement but one Arnold doesn’t make lightly. There were many factors that came together to make “Breaking Bad” the success it is, and one of them was New Mexico’s financial incentives to film and television producers. Arnold knows the draw of such incentives can make or break a studio’s success, which is why he has been considering locating a studio in New York for some time.
But when his company visited Schenectady last summer to consider putting the studio here, it was more than the state’s Film Production Tax Credit that made his eyes light up.
“We liked what we saw in Schenectady,” said Arnold. “It’s been a bit of a love affair.”
The visit came in the midst of Schenectady’s moment in the Hollywood spotlight: “The Place Beyond the Pines” had just wrapped up filming and the star-studded movie’s release was right around the corner. Director Derek Cianfrance had spoken at length about the city’s grit and appeal, and Pacifica Ventures saw a desirable quality in locating here.
“We look for a number of things, but first and foremost, we want the community to be welcoming,” said Arnold. “Believe it or not, there are some places that don’t want a movie studio. They don’t want to be bothered by the trucks and the movie stars. So we look for places that want to be noticed, that want to be active. When ‘Pines’ was here, the city loved it. It was a big deal. That is something we look for.”
Pacifica first expressed interest in locating a studio in New York in 2011. The Santa Monica-based company wanted to put a studio in the former Bruno Machinery building in Troy, owned by Sandy Horowitz, formerly a local developer. Horowitz, who now lives in Montana and could not be reached Wednesday, was experiencing financial problems that came to light after Pacifica agreed to partner with him on the project.
“Sandy is a very lovely guy, but unbeknownst to us, he was having some very serious financial problems,” said Arnold. “He has recovered and done pretty well since then, but at the time, we had to say farewell.”
There were other problems, too, he added.
“Troy was not quite as excited about it as us,” he remembered. “The real estate was harder to work with. The amount of land available wasn’t enough. The site wasn’t as well-developed.”
A year later, Pacifica found a better match in the former home of the American Locomotive Company, a 60-acre tract of land along Erie Boulevard that has undergone environmental cleanup and infrastructure work to prepare for a hotel, riverfront apartment complex, office and retail space, bike path and marina. The land is owned by Rotterdam developer the Galesi Group and has been touted as the local poster child for redevelopment.
Pacifica wants to build a 200,000-square-foot television and film studio on 10 acres, along with five 70-foot-high soundstages and space for set construction, costumes, visual effects, post-production and more. The studio would create about 1,000 new jobs, with 200 to 500 being full-time positions.
The company has applied for $15 million in Empire State Development grant funds through the state’s Regional Economic Development Council process. While the Schenectady County Metroplex Development Authority showed the property to Pacifica and is encouraged by its proposal, the agency had little else to say about the plan while it’s still early along in the process.
“We haven’t committed any funding yet,” said Metroplex Chairman Ray Gillen. “The state has got to vet this project. The regional council has to submit these projects to the state and rank them and score them and prioritize them. There are lots of reviews to be done still.”
Pacifica Ventures came under fire in the late 2000s after the owners of Culver Studios sued Arnold and Pacifica Chairman Hal Katersky for “acts of fraud and embezzlement” that allegedly occurred during their time managing the historic California studio from 2004-06, according to an August 2010 article in the Los Angeles Times. While that case was settled in 2008, Pacifica was targeted in another lawsuit a year later for allegedly pushing Digital Media Group out of the plan to build Albuquerque Studios.
Company officials have denied any wrongdoing in both suits. Gillen said that while he knows of the previous lawsuits against Pacifica, he understands them as par for the course of doing business and a personal matter between former business partners.
“We vet every project,” he said. “They have a very big, successful studio in Albuquerque. They’ve done this in Philadelphia. They’re involved in a lot of projects.”
Pacifica is most well known for its Albuquerque undertaking, but it has also branched out to the Northeast on several projects. In 2011, it opened Sun Center Studios in Philadelphia, where M. Night Shyamalan filmed scenes for “The Last Airbender.” Construction will soon begin on a facility in South Windsor, Conn. That project also came about because of Connecticut’s incentives for studio construction and film and television production.
The incentives are slightly different in New York. Pacifica Ventures won’t receive any cost reductions for building a studio here, but it will benefit indirectly from the state’s Film Tax Credit Program, which offers a 30 percent credit for productions costs incurred in the state and a 35 percent credit for post-production costs incurred in upstate New York. Additional credits will be available in 2015 for labor expenses incurred in specific counties upstate.
“It’s the only reason we’re here,” said Arnold. “It’s the only reason, because without it, without the state supporting production and film, the production and film industry would go somewhere else and there would be no reason for us to have a studio. When we started about 14 years ago, there were only three states doing this; now, there are 42 states. It’s truly become an economic boon for these places.”
If the studio had been in Schenectady while “Pines” was filming, Arnold said the area would likely have seen more than twice as much of an economic boost. “Pines” would have been able to film scenes that require sets, which means local lumberyards and steel companies would have seen added business. The cast would have been in town for months instead of weeks, benefiting hotels, restaurants and shops.
“A studio becomes a true economic engine,” he said.