New Jersey: The new film capital of America?

If you’re a movie fan, you should know that films are being made all over New Jersey, with prominent directors, well-known actors and seasoned crews crisscrossing our state. If you were thinking of going to Hollywood for a studio tour, sit tight: There is probably a new film studio opening in your neighborhood. 

A photo from 1915 of the Triangle Film Corporation Studio in Fort Lee, which was the birthplace of American film. Photo courtesy of NJ Advance Media

Where It All Began 

When Thomas Edison and William Kennedy Dickson invented the movie camera or, as they called it, the kinetoscope, in West Orange in 1891, New Jersey became the birthplace of American film. Then, the action moved to Fort Lee, where some of the greatest silent films with the greatest actors were filmed; and, for a time, Fort Lee was known as the “movie capital of the world.” That all started to change in 1921 when filmmakers headed to California, lured by the temperate climate, cheap land and because it was “where nobody could reach them and they couldn’t be prosecuted for patent violations,” according to Steven Gorelick, executive director of the New Jersey Motion Picture & Television Commission. 

After that, New Jersey sightings on film were rare for many years and, except for occasional disparaging remarks, the state was wiped from Hollywood’s vocabulary until the classic “On the Waterfront” was filmed in Hoboken in 1954. Its after-effects lingered in Hoboken for decades, illustrating the lasting power of cinema magic. When I worked there in the ’70s, there was an older dockworker everybody called “Marlon” because he was an extra in the film. 

Things changed when Gov. Brendan Byrne established the New Jersey Motion Picture & Television Commission in 1977 with the idea of boosting the economy (there was a recession) and bringing the film industry back home. There were skeptics. “It seemed very poetic, and pie in the sky. Nonetheless, the poets won,” Gorelick said. Some of the films shot here after that include “The Amityville Horror,” “Annie,” “Stardust Memories” and “Atlantic City.”  

‘Army of the Dead’ was partially filmed in Atlantic City’s Showboat Hotel, the site of a former casino that closed in 2014, as well as in the empty former Atlantic Club Casino Hotel. Photo courtesy of New Jersey Motion Picture & Television Commission

Incentives Pay Off 

Gorelick has been with the commission since 1980. His first assignment was to visit the set of Milos Forman’s “Ragtime” in Spring Lake and make sure things were going well. That day he knew he would love his job. Still consistently upbeat, the New Brunswick native has an evangelist’s fervor for his mission. The commission’s smart, user-friendly website is worth exploring. 

Playwright Sidney Kingsley, who lived in Oakland with his actress wife Madge Evans, was the founding chairman of the commission, and his job was to entice filmmakers back to New Jersey. Kingsley (“Dead End,” “Detective Story” and the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Men in White” are his best-known plays) used his showbusiness savvy and moxie to get the commission off the ground. Filming in-state continued at a slow and steady pace until filmmakers started heading to Canada, which was offering lucrative incentives, and Toronto became New York City’s unconvincing body double. Filming flowed at a trickle until 2006, when the state began offering a 20% tax credit on expenses incurred while filming here, with a $10 million cap annually. When the incentive program ran out of money in 2018, Gov. Chris Christie chose not to renew it, and filming languished. 

‘The Many Saints of Newark’ movie was shot in Newark as well as other New Jersey locations, such as Bloomfield, Jersey City and Paterson in 2019. Photo courtesy of New Jersey Motion Picture & Television Commission

Fade Out, Fade In 

Enter Gov. Phil Murphy, who actively supports film making in New Jersey. “We’ve got an incredible diversity of look and feel — urban, suburban, rural, shore, mountains, everything in between,” the governor has said. Another plus is that you can traverse the state in a couple of hours. 

Murphy has met with studios in California, and the dynamic New Jersey State Film Commission has been luring filmmakers back to New Jersey at an incredible rate. Michael Uslan, its current chairman, is a native and film veteran who has produced every “Batman” movie so far. 

Today, for productions with a budget of more than $1 million, the New Jersey Film and Digital Media Tax Credit Program provides a transferable credit of 30% of qualified film production expenses against the corporation business tax and the gross income tax. For any project under $1 million, the credit can be used if at least 60% of the production expenses are in New Jersey. In addition, there is a diversity incentive of 2% for hiring minorities and women; 5% more is tacked on when production is within the state’s eight southernmost counties. The current system is in place through 2028. 

In 2018, the New Jersey Economic Development Authority approved a program, the Garden State Film and Digital Media Jobs Act, which provides up to $75 million per fiscal year to film and television projects. There is a $10 million yearly cap per project/series. On Jan. 21, 2020, the incentive was extended until 2028. In yet another smart, pay-it-forward move, the state has been working with NBCUniversal on production assistant bootcamps from which graduates are able to leap straight into a production. 

Gorelick said that, since the incentive was enacted last July, it has worked brilliantly. 

“We’ve been flooded,” he said. 

New Jersey has made filmmakers an offer they can’t refuse.  

Steven Spielberg shot his 2005 version ofWar of the Worlds” in Bayonne, Newark and southern New Jersey. Thanks, in part, to the film commission’s incentives, Spielberg returned in 2019 to shoot many scenes of his acclaimed “West Side Story” here, with Paterson and Newark doubling for Manhattan. (Take that, Toronto!) 

Steven Spielberg shot many scenes of his acclaimed ‘West Side Story’ in New Jersey, with Paterson and Newark doubling for Manhattan. Photo courtesy of NJ Advance Media

Landscape Is A Draw 

New Jersey Motion Picture & Television Commission has a smart and engaging short film on its website, hosted by Neptune’s Danny DeVito. It features clips of the many films shot here and includes interviews with industry pros, like producers and location scouts, touting the advantages of shooting in our state and the commission’s extreme user-friendliness. “You can scout New Jersey without having to leave your computer,” Gorelick said in the film. Producers talk about the variety of New Jersey’s landscape, proximity to New York City and Philadelphia, and the talented technicians and artists who live in the state. 

In the film, Paterson’s charismatic mayor, Andre Sayegh, rhapsodizes about the charms of his city. “We’re known for our beautiful bones,” he said. For Al Pacino’s “The Hunters,” “We turned the front of City Hall into Warsaw, Poland. The back was Zagreb, Croatia and the side was London, England.” Now, that’s versatility. The video makes it all seem so enticing that you’re tempted to grab a camera and start making your own film.  

I live in photogenic Montclair, where a lot of filming happens. William Macy and Diane Keaton were just here filming “Before I Go.” A few years ago, I found a note in my mailbox from a location scout who was interested in my house for a film. I was thrilled. When I called back, some other home had gotten the part, dammit. The commission has a section on its website with photos of prime New Jersey locations in various categories (cities, suburbs, farmland, etc.) to attract filmmakers. If you think you have or know of one, you can upload a photo and submit it to them. 

Boasting 70,000 square feet of state-of-the-art production facilities, Cinelease Studios Caven Point is the first purpose-built facility of its kind in New Jersey. Photo courtesy of Cinelease Studios

State Seeing Plenty of ‘Action’ 

Those pie in the sky poets gambled back in the 1970s, and, eventually, the gamble paid off. But leaving the poetry out of it, the surest sign that movies are back in the Garden State and here to stay is real estate. Filmmakers may love our exotic locations, but one way to keep them coming back and potentially sticking around is to have studio sound stages for all aspects of film production at their fingertips. “You want to build brick-and-mortar businesses that can support, long term, the industry by creating permanent jobs. That means attracting studios, equipment houses, post-production facilities, all of which we’re getting now,” Gorelick said. 

In August 2021, Gov. Murphy cut the ribbon on the largest film studio in the state (so far), Cinelease Studios Caven Point, in Jersey City. Boasting 70,000 square feet of state-of-the-art production facilities, it’s also the first purpose-built facility of its kind in New Jersey. In its scope, dimensions and functionality, it is gorgeous. 

Newark is poised to follow in Cinelease’s footsteps with the recent announcement of a $125 million state-of-the-art film and television studio leased by Lionsgate. The studio is planned for the former site of the Seth Boyden Court public housing complex in the city’s heavily industrial South Ward.

Now, there are studios all over New Jersey, most of them concentrated in northern sections of the state, including places you might not imagine, like Moonachie and Passaic. Palisade Stages and 10 Basin Studios are two, new, state-of-the-art studios in Kearny with 50,000 square feet of studio space combined — just 15 minutes from Midtown Manhattan. Palisade Stages just completed filming on its first production, “Bros,” cowritten by and starring Billy Eichner and Luke Macfarlane. It’s the first rom-com from a major studio about a relationship between two gay men. Now filming there is “The Best Man,” a limited series based on the popular films that featured Taye Diggs and Morris Chestnut. Palisade was created by Jamie Payne, who was born in the UK, where he worked in film. When he came to the United States 20 years ago, he was surprised that there were no soundstages in New Jersey, so, taking a giant leap, like the poets and gamblers before him, he built one at the peak of the pandemic.  

Hill Theatre Studio has 6,000 square feet of studio space just across the river from Philadelphia in Paulsboro. Photo courtesy of Hill Theatre Studio

All the studio action isn’t only in northern Jersey. Paulsboro in Camden County has Hill Theatre Studio 6,000 square feet of studio space just across the river from Philadelphia. The new South Jersey Film Cooperative was created to benefit both the communities within Camden and Gloucester counties. Commissioner Director Lou Cappelli said, “Camden County has a unique geography that can serve as the setting to a variety of film projects. Whether it’s the urban backdrop on the Delaware River or the rural terrain in the Pine Barrens, Camden County has much to offer. More permanent facilities could be on the way in South Jersey; studio developers are looking at locations in South Jersey’s Cumberland County, the Atlantic City area, and Malaga, near Rowan University in Glassboro. 

Netflix has been eyeing historic Fort Monmouth (and its hundreds of acres) in Monmouth County as the potential headquarters for its East Coast operation. Nothing could be confirmed at press time, but its addition to the state’s current and planned movie production soundstages makes Warner Bros.’ measly 62 acres in Burbank, Calif. look like a parking lot. 

And, to bring it all back home, Fort Lee, the birthplace of American film, will have the Barrymore Film Center, a 21,500-square-foot, 260-seat cinema, museum and movie archives building, scheduled to open in October. When an interviewer called New Jersey “Hollywood East,” Steven Gorelick countered that he preferred to think California as “New Jersey West.”  

“These are historic times for the state’s motion picture and television industry,” he said. “Our amazing diversity has made New Jersey a highly desirable place to work, and the financial incentives that Gov. Murphy signed into law opened the floodgates for production. Revenue from production work in 2021 soared to half a billion dollars, an all-time high, and we expect to exceed that in the years to come. New Jersey has become one of the busiest states for production overnight.”  

Take that, Hollywood!

Manuel Igrejas has worked in the theater as a playwright and a publicist on and off-Broadway. He was the publicist for Blue Man Group for 15 years, and his other clients included Richard Foreman, John Leguizamo, Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding, STREB, Julie Harris and Peak Performances. 

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2022 issue of Jersey’s Best. Subscribe here for in-depth access to everything that makes the Garden State great.

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