For 28 years now, since the Paul Newman movie Nobody’s Fool was shot in Beacon and Hudson, we’ve been hearing about how the Hudson Valley was going to become the New Hollywood. The pot of gold at the end of that rainbow has been a long time coming. Year after year we’d get wind of some low-budget indie film or other being shot in our neck of the woods, prompting locals to grumble about road detours and other such inconveniences. Very few of them were seeing much added income from such projects.
My, how things have changed in the past few years: More than $58 million was directly spent on filmmaking in the Hudson Valley in 2021 – despite COVID-19. In fact, it was partly the pandemic that helped drive major production houses such as Amazon Studios, HBO/HBO Max, Hulu, NBC Universal, Hallmark and Apple TV to turn their gazes north (and not only to acquire vacation homes at below-Hamptons prices). Studios were looking for environments where their casts and crews could be protected by stringent-but-affordable testing, cleaning and contact protocols, so that work could go on despite the ever-looming public health hazard. Our exurban region was able to provide such locations, and the Hudson Valley Film Commission (HVFC) even added a couple of new categories to its online resource directory for regional film and television production: medical teams and cleaning crews.
Many factors already made our Valley appealing to independent film producers: the easy commute from New York City; a strong concentration of “creatives” living in the area; business-hungry municipal governments eager to greenlight projects; plenty of services available that wouldn’t bust the budget. What was missing, in terms of the long-promised lucrative green industry that would boost the region’s economy in a way that would create real jobs and not mere gigs, was the kind of hard infrastructure that will lure TV production that goes on for a full season or more. The Hudson Valley needed not just picturesque villages and landscapes, but big soundstages. Finally, they are beginning to arrive, and bringing the big spending with them.
The crucial turning point for this trend was reached in 2016, when the New York State Legislature amended its Empire State Film Production Tax Credit program to offer its highest level of tax incentives to productions in the counties of Columbia, Greene and Ulster. These rural counties had previously been lumped into the New York City metropolitan region, where the credit rates are ten percent lower. Suddenly, doing large-scale film and TV production in the mid-Hudson became much more feasible – and the region began to gear up to accommodate the major studios’ needs.
Among the prime movers and shakers behind that critical tweak to the film tax credit legislation was Mary Stuart Masterson, an actress familiar to many for her roles in Benny and Joon and Fried Green Tomatoes and a Tony Award nominee for Nine. Masterson and her husband, actor/director Jeremy Davidson, relocated to the Hudson Valley a while back to raise their growing family and establish Storyhorse Documentary Theater. Seeing the Hudson Valley’s potential as a filmmaking Mecca, along with the unhealed wound in the local economy left by the departure of IBM, Masterson lobbied hard for the legislative reform. Then she teamed up with Beth Davenport to found a not-for-profit organization called Stockade Works, its mission: to train locals, especially socioeconomically challenged young people, with the technical skills they need to make a career in the film and TV industry.
“We realized that film production can be a big economic driver,” Davenport says. “But we also knew that it was critical to build an ecosystem for the industry.” Passing the tax incentive was the first step in their plan; the second was finding a home for Stockade Works and funding its startup. In 2016, they began offering their first training programs in Kingston. There’s a recurring “boot camp” that gives students hands-on exposure to a broad panorama of media production skills, as well as more specialized trainings such as how to style hair and makeup for the screen. Wherever possible, the facility strives to work with locally based instructors.
According to Susie Sofranko, who took over as executive director of Stockade Works this January, 154 students have completed the boot camp program so far. Efforts are then made to connect them with upcoming productions in need of interns and production assistants. “Last year we made over 600 referrals to productions, and we estimate we have made over 150 placements since our founding,” Sofranko reports.
With the training program going full steam ahead, Masterson and Davenport turned their attention to the obvious missing piece in the Hudson Valley film production puzzle. In the middle of Saugerties, right near the Thruway exit, they found what they were looking for: an enormous light-industrial building with good bones, high ceilings and robust electrical service, hidden in plain sight behind a shopping mall. In 2021 their commercial startup, Upriver Studios, leased 101,000 square feet of space formerly occupied by Vertis Communications, a printing company that had downsized and abandoned its Saugerties plant ten years earlier, costing 150 local jobs. Renovation got underway immediately, in partnership with the woman-owned, Hudson-based architecture firm Spacesmith, LLP, Kingston-based MGI Construction + Consulting, LLC and Highland-based architectural acoustic consulting, design, and media systems integration firm WSDG (Walters-Storyk Design Group).