EXCLUSIVE: As New York City battles through COVID-19, enduring more cases (200,000) and deaths (20,000) than anywhere in the world, the film and TV production sector appears to be a long way from resuming its previously brisk pace.
A new option for producers is now poised to open two hours away, however: Upriver Studios in Saugerties, a town along the Hudson River about 10 miles from Woodstock. Upriver will offer about 104,000 square feet of sound stages and other production space in a former manufacturing facility retrofit by a group led by actress and director Mary Stuart Masterson.
“As crazy as it seems to be launching a business in a pandemic,” Masterson said, “it turns out Upriver Studios is the right place at the right time for productions who need to find a safe haven.”
Outside of the city and its suburbs, the effects of the coronavirus have not been nearly as severe. Ulster County, where the complex is located, is on track to fulfill all of the requirements imposed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in order for more non-essential activities to resume. The Hudson Valley region is expected to reopen for the first phase of post-COVID activities by the end of May, joining areas like the Finger Lakes region and greater Buffalo. As of Monday, Ulster County reported 1,604 COVID-19 cases and 69 deaths, with the numbers in the town of Saugerties 35 and 2, respectively.
Upriver had already been close to completing construction when the pandemic hit, and final touches expected once crews are legally allowed to resume work. In an interview with Deadline, Masterson (whose partners in the project are Beth Davenport and Diane Wheeler-Nicholson) said the site has fielded numerous calls from producers. Most are looking to book time there as early as July, though most have shoots planned for September.
Backers did not provide estimates for the total cost of the project. Comparable projects recently have run into the millions, though incentives and grants are likely to minimize the out-of-pocket total.
Safety features, not surprisingly, will be a central focus once construction resumes. Among the offerings expected by August, Masterson said, will be touch-free bathrooms, anti-microbial surfaces and properly spaced hair and makeup bays.
In terms of practices on set during the pandemic — a topic Deadline has been exploring in its Reopening Hollywood series — Masterson said productions, unions and insurers will play the most central roles. “From the facility’s perspective,” she said, “you have to think about common space – ingress, egress, who goes in and out — in different ways. How will packages be accepted? Will they be disinfected? Where do crews stand?”
Signage, she said, is one of many details that is getting a new focus. Noted designer and architect Jane Smith, who recently moved up to the Hudson Valley, is helping advise on Upriver’s public spaces.
Film and TV producers have long benefited from a 30% tax incentive offered by New York state. In 2016, seven counties outside New York City added an additional 10% (which currently is split between shooting and post-production).
With overall production spilling out of the city, talent has been creeping ever northward. Major titles like Paramount’s A Quiet Place 2, HBO’s I Know This Much is True and Netflix’s Things Heard and Seen were shot in the Hudson Valley in 2019, part of $46 million in direct spending, according to the local film commission. The Woodstock Film Festival teems with notable names each fall. Upriver will join Lumberyard Studios in nearby Catskill, NY, which opened in 2018.
Masterson is known for roles in films like Some Kind of Wonderful and Benny & Joon, and recently appeared on ABC drama For Life. She also has directed films like The Cake Eaters. Long before the pandemic forced a complete re-think of production (not to mention exhibition and distribution), Masterson moved to the Hudson Valley with her family and the seeds were soon planted for the studio.
The idea was fed by Stockade Works, a non-profit she and Davenport started in 2016 as a vehicle for fostering industry activity in the region. The organization provides workforce development and professional programs for mainly low-to-mid income residents. It will partner with Upriver to ensure residents gain access to production jobs through its Crew Boot Camp and mentorship program.
Environmental responsibility is another goal, with plans calling for Upriver to use 100% clean, renewable energy used by 2030.