Films Rise Where Bread Once Baked
Silvercup West will have office space to the North, apartments to the south, and studio space in between
By Matt Hampton
The people at Silvercup Studios in Long Island City already know the fate of Tony Soprano. The closely guarded secret, the source of years of speculation, is becoming a reality this week at the Main Lot of Silvercup, as the last episode of the fabled program shoots.
The program, which has been in production for HBO at Silvercup for eight years now, has made Silvercup its home for the duration of its tenure, housing sets and renting stages in the former bread factory in six-month chunks since 1999.
“The Sopranos” is just one of many programs that call Silvercup Studios home. In the last year, Silvercup has also served the new NBC comedy “30 Rock,” as well as the now cancelled ABC sitcom “the Knights of Prosperity,” and a phalanx of television commercials.
Over the years, films like “When Harry Met Sally,” “The Godfather, Part 3,” and “Romancing the Stone” have also shot in the Long Island City soundstages, adding to the reputation of a company that has grown into one of the largest production facilities on the East Coast. Amenities like in-house lighting and carpentry equipment only heighten the sense that Silvercup is just a Hollywood Studio displaced.
Alan Suna with the Sailvercup sign behind him.
Baking Up Films
The studio itself has been around since 1983 when the Suna family, including brothers Alan and Stuart Suna, purchased a hollowed out bread factory.
Alan Suna, now the CEO of Silvercup, said the deal was originally a “real estate play.”
In his office, Alan looks over a diagram of the Silvercup Studios Main Lot, the original site of a collection that will, by 2010, comprise three separate sites in Long Island City.
Originally, when Alan, his father, and his brother, bought the remains of the Silvercup Bakery, the Main Lot housed a construction business and one small soundstage. As Silvercup gained a reputation, two more soundstages followed.
“Stage 9 [one on-site soundstage] for the first six-months, was busy every day with the exception of Christmas Day, Thanksgiving, and New Year’s Day,” Suna said.
It was that moment, he admits, that he knew they were on to something.
“I took it to a former professor, showed him the model and the plans and he said: ‘That’s a business you’re creating.’ I said, ‘No it’s not.
It’s just a real estate deal.’ He insisted ‘That’s a business, you’ll see.’ He was right.”
The plans included the ability to expand into the vast unused empty space inside the former bakery, in the event that demand was high enough.
It was. After an initial expansion in 1985, the studio expanded further nearly 10 years later, opening much larger studio spaces to accommodate larger productions.
In 1999, when another purchasing opportunity cropped up a few blocks away, the Studio expanded again, opening Silvercup East, with even larger soundstages. It was around this time that “Sex and the City” and “The Sopranos” came knocking on the door.
TV Loves NY
“Television has changed our complexion entirely,” Suna admitted. “‘Sex and the City’ came in and proved to be a success. ‘The Sopranos’ came shortly after, and as they became more successful they had more sets, they’ve grown over time.”
The HBO series, on this day in particular, has taken over more than half of the studio space on the Main Lot. On other floors of the studio, wardrobe experts inventory costumes from the first season of “30 Rock.”
Alan Suna is an architect by trade. When his family purchased the abandoned bread factory, he was working as one in a Boston architectural firm. The purchase, he admits, was a ploy on the part of his father to get him to move back to New York City.
“We’re not film buffs,” he admitted. “People might be disappointed to learn that.” While Suna may not be Samuel Goldwyn, he knows a fundamental rule of commerce that has allowed Silvercup to flourish.
“When it comes to customer service, we have no equal in New York,” Suna said. “We have clients, and we know how to service them…Our goal is that the customer spends less money, but leaves happier.” The difference between a bakery and a film studio is that the customer is a multimedia conglomerate, not little old ladies and neighborhood families.
Though there may not be any great love of film as an art, Suna insists that Silvercup takes a vested interest in the projects that films under its respective roofs.
A Logical Offshoot
“We take a very significant interest in terms of trying to understand their needs,” he said. It was this interest that led to Silvercup Lighting, a facet of the company that has been incredibly lucrative. It should come as no surprise that Silvercup entered that realm of the film world as another happy accident.
After the rental house that served Silvercup closed, other businesses in the area started to blackball them.
Alan and Stuart Suna at Silvercup East.
“By that act, we had no choice,” Suna said. “We created the lighting company by necessity. It really proved to be one of our most lucrative endeavors, so we have to thank that person who decided not to rent to us.”
Suna said that in the 20-plus years that Silvercup has been working in Queens, the client base has fluctuated substantially.
Originally, Silvercup was a one-stop commercial shop, helping ad agencies crank out commercials over the course of two days of shooting. Then, when agencies and TV stations started leaving the city, Silvercup catered to the big studios, lending its soundstages to films that needed the flexibility of a New York location with all the comforts of their Hollywood homes.
$1 Billion To Go
The future of Silvercup Studios, like the present, is tied into the fate of Queens and increased cooperation between the city and the business.
Silvercup West, the $1 billion pending construction project just south of the Queensboro Bridge, represents a substantial investment, combining the passions of both the Suna family and the needs of New York City. It will be a mix if residential towers and 1 million square feet of soundstage space.
The Studio also recognizes that it’s New York itself that has contributed to its success, and it, in return, is active within the community, a staple of the Long Island City workforce.
“We keep everybody here, we have a very low employee turnover,” Suna said. “We hire people from the local community. We’re really a sustainable business.”
The family is active in the arts community in Queens, as well. Both Suna brothers are members of the board on multiple players in the Queens art community, including the Queens Museum of Art and the Museum of the Moving Image.
It will house both office and residential towers, with a combination of condos and affordable housing units, as well as a restaurant and, of course, studio space for Silvercup to utilize.
“Building new studios alone doesn’t make any money,” Suna said of the new development. “But we found a way to cross-subsidize it…In L.A., expansion of office space onto studio lots is becoming more prevalent, so we thought we would take a cue from them.”
The tarra cotta office building will remain intact in the new “Silvercup West.
The plans, Suna said, originally included only condos. Plans have been revised recently, to add affordable housing.
According to previous reports in the Tribune, members of City Planning and Community Board 2 were concerned that having exclusively condominiums on the site would make the area a “playground for the rich.”
In response, Silvercup went back to the drawing board and included 150 units of affordable housing in the structure, a concession that made the entire project more amenable to the Western Queens community.
Suna said that the Silvercup business strategy evolved slowly, with things like affordable housing and hiring policies that choose to keep members of the Long Island City community involved.
Edic Falco relaxes on the set of “The Sopranos”
“We really take nothing for granted,” Suna said. “They say that luck is something that passes in front of you, and wisdom is the knowledge to recognize and use luck as it passes. We like to think of ourselves as both lucky and wise.”
With the three separate lots in Western Queens, and a veritable stranglehold on studio space in New York City, Silvercup has turned a real-estate gamble into Hollywood East.