Netflix at Fort Monmouth: What bringing film production back to NJ means for us (2023)

Most days, Lance Phox, a studio electrician from Long Branch, would set his alarm at 3:30 a.m. to driveto work in New York City by 6 a.m. and grindaway sometimes for 12hours before returning home, going to sleep, and doing it again.

When he heard that Netflix had its eye on building a giant studio at Fort Monmouth, cutting his commute to less than fiveminutes, Phox could only wish it had happened sooner in his career.

"We love the fact that they're really considering coming here because it will make a difference in thousands of people's lives," said Phox, 62.

Netflix, the giant streaming service, said last week that it had bidon a289-acre parcel at Fort Monmouth known as the Mega Parcel, potentially turning the abandoned Army post into anentertainment production hub.

Also:Fort Monmouth historic Barker Circle will become 75 apartments, restaurant

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It's not a done deal; bids remain open until Jan. 12, 2022. But if it comes to pass,Netflix would give Monmouth County a leading part to play in an industry whose companies are racing to produce attention-grabbing movies, television shows and documentaries in a fight for viewers' free time.

Netflix's arrivalwouldn't be without costs. The company could receivemillions in tax breaks. And it could lead to more traffic from a work force that by its nature is transient.

But Netflix could giveFort Monmouthwhat it has been waiting for since the post closed 10 years ago:the chance to attract a major tenant that can help replace the5,460 jobs that were lost.

"It's a proud tradition (in New Jersey)to have quality media production," said John Pavlik, a professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, noting Thomas Edison built the world's first movie production studio in New Jersey in 1893.

"I think it's a great thing if we can bring it back from the early days of the 19th century, and now put us right inthe center of it in the 21st century," he said.

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The return of NJ film studios

Phox is one of about 6,500New Jerseyans who work in film production, from electricians to costume designers, the eighth most nationwide, according to the Motion Picture Association, a trade group.

The workersoften trek into Manhattan, but Phox said they have had more work closer to home since 2018, when Gov. Phil Murphy expandedtax credits to film producers shooting in New Jersey.

The industry in 2019 filmed 825 projects in New Jersey, ranging from web programs to feature films, generating$420 million for the state's economy,said Steven Gorelick,executive director for theNew Jersey Motion Picture and Television Commission.

Producers are on pace to exceed those levels this year, filming both on location and at newsound studios across the Hudson River from Manhattan. Among them areKearny Point,which opened in January on a former Hudson County shipyard, and Cinelease Studios – Caven Point, which opened in August in Jersey City.

In Monmouth County, the activity has created a Hollywood buzz. Ben Stiller and Kevin Smith set up shops earlier this year in Holmdel and Middletown, respectively, to shoot their newest projects. Meanwhile, arow of production trucks was spotted recentlyon Ocean Avenue in Monmouth Beach, filmingBilly Eichner's new movie, "Bros."

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But real estate developers saidthe industry needs more space.

"There's just been alack of supply of Class A studio space in the region for a bunch of years," said Michael Meyer, director of development for Hugo Neu Corp., whichowns Kearny Point. "If you talk to some of the location scouts, you talk to the industry,they will lease up subpar places because they have no choice."

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'Moments of truth'

Joining the mix? Netflix.

The Los Gatos, California-based company was founded in 1997 selling or renting DVDs to subscribers through the mail, saving them a trip to Blockbuster and potential late fees. The company provided customers an envelope to return the movie whenever they liked.

Netflixbegan streaming videos directly to customers through the internet two years later and searched for ways to grab viewers' attention. In 2006, it offered $1 million to programmers who could build an algorithm that would recommend content based on personal preferences.

The company now is the world's biggest streaming service, with 204 million subscribers in more than 190 countries, who payon average $10.91 a month. In 2020, it generated $25 billion in revenue in 2020, up 24% from the previous year, and a net profit of$2.8 billion.

Netflix has been aided by a pandemic that shuttered movie theaters and sent consumers to quarantine at home, where they caught up on their showsat their convenience.

The Netflix model, however, also has no shortage of competitors. Amazon, Apple, Disney and others have launched their own streaming services, battling each other forviewers' attention and money.

It is a contest that Netflix calls "winning moments of truth."

The most effective way to win, researchers have found, isto create original content to attract viewers—and more original content to keep them coming back, saidJeffPrince, professor of business economics and public policy at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business.

"The driverof people's subscription decisions seemedto be not so much the breadth of the catalog, especially in the case of content you can get elsewhere," said Prince, who studied viewers' habits."It seemed to point to original content that was driving people's decisions."

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Netflix originals

Netflilx's original content has soared. In 2019, it released 371 new televisionshows and movies in the U.S., up 54.6% from 2018 and more than the entire television industry released in 2005, according to Variety.

Sometimes, the shows win accolades; "The Crown" won an Emmy Award for best drama. Sometimes, they don't; comedian Dave Chappelle was criticized bythe LGBTQ community, including some of Netflix's own employees, for his commentary in "The Closer."

Yet Netflix in financial filings said it is devoting more resources to original programming to differentiate itself and help its brand.

To that end, it is building its own sound studios. Among them: afilm and TV production facility with eight sound stages in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and a 170,000-square-foot studio in Brooklyn.

Last week, Netflix said it planned to bid on Fort Monmouth's Mega Parcel.

Netflix didn't provide details about its plan, or disclose how much it offered, leaving it unclear what a studio at the former post would look like.

Also unclear is if the company would receive subsidies from New Jersey. In New Mexico, the company received $24 million in state and local funding, along with property tax abatement and other tax relief for20 years, according to the New Mexico Economic Development Department.

In exchange, Netflix said it would spend $1 billion, creating hundreds of construction jobs and 1,000 production jobs in New Mexico over 10years.

Netflix in a statement said Murphy and state lawmakers created a business environment that is conducive to film and television production. "We’re excited to submit our bid to transform Fort Monmouth into a state-of-the-art production facility,” a spokesperson said.

Saving on the commute

It is unlikely a studio would be home to lots of permanent jobs. But it would attract a revolving door of film crews whowould work on set for weeks or months at a time, providing awindfall to local restaurants, hotels, caterersand florists.

And Netflixwould give Monmouth County an industry powerhouse. It wouldjoinKevin Smith's SModcastle podcast studio, which opened this year in Middletown, and helplaunch anecosystem centered around digital media.

"It's a freelance business, unfortunately," saidMark McDevitt, 50, a screenwriter from Fair Haven."But if it does happen, it's a wonderful thing. Local crews are going to get absorbed,and you're within shooting distance from New York, which is fantastic. It can't (do anything) but help, is my view of that."

"For me, it's actually very good, because hopefully they're looking for local areas to go film," said Moshe Gross, 36, who owns Reset Locations, a Lakewood company that scouts for film locations.

Netflix wouldn't come to Fort Monmouth without conflict that comes with the emergence of a new industry.

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Lance Phox's union,The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, recently reached a tentative agreement with streaming services on a new contract, but not before it had authorized a strike.

For Phox, though, a sound studio virtually down the street from him would be a relief. He has lived in Long Branch for 21 years, spending much of the time rising early to drive to studios in New York for his next job.

The emergence of studios in New Jersey "not only allows me to save a Port Authority toll on my E-ZPass and that sort of thing, butit really makes a difference in my quality of life," he said. "It saves me at least two hours a day, just on the commute."

Michael L. Diamond is a business reporter who has been writing about the New Jersey economy and health care industry for more than 20 years. He can be reached at mdiamond@gannettnj.com.

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