For years we’ve heard that Buffalo will become a film mecca, due to its wealth of intact historic architecture, its inexpensive nature, film incentives, help from the Buffalo Niagara Film Commission, etc. But in the end, a city’s film health can mostly be gauged according to a different set of criteria. The criteria that I am referring to is labor force, access to equipment, the availability of professional sound stages, green screens, and the like. Until this point, many films have bypassed Buffalo because this city just couldn’t compete against other film cities. While we have had our fair share of films produced here, there’s a lot of room to grow.
Did I say the word “grow”, as in potential to grow the local film industry? Yes I did. And guess what? We’ve just hit paydirt when it comes to film assets that will, almost overnight, turn Buffalo into a super competitive film city. If I had not seen it with my own two eyes, I still would not believe it. If you’ve been rooting for Buffalo’s film industry, it’s time to start cheering!
Last week, I met up with three members of Buffalo Film Works who are, all of a sudden, in the driver’s seat when it comes to the future of film in Buffalo. Kevin Callahan (CEO), Jennifer O’Neill (CFO), and George Pittas (COO) – along with Julia Fleming (coordinator) and Mark P. Lazzara (consultant) – have happened upon the ever elusive pot of gold, found under Buffalo’s cinematic rainbow.
It all came about when O’Neill and Pittas purchased a series of interconnected warehouse buildings at 370 Babcock Street in South Buffalo. This particular portfolio of buildings was formerly a manufacturer of Buffalo car and rail circa 1890 – The American Car & Foundry Co. Overall, the complex is 175,000 square feet of virtually empty space (85 percent empty to be exact). At the time of the purchase, the new owners had a plan to sell the complex to another interested party. But after they picked it up, the purchaser opted out. That meant that O’Neill and Pittas were in possession of a huge, mostly vacant property that they had not intended on owning for long. To that end, they reached out to Callahan, who had picked up the former Buffalo China plant a few years ago (see here). Callahan, who is fairly connected in these parts, had made some friends in the film business, and began to ask around if there was a need for anything of this size or nature in Buffalo. The immediate response was “YES!”
It turned out, that if the trio was willing to build a large green screen, there was an immediate need by filmmakers. Once they had received the word to “build it and they will come”, they got to work building Buffalo’s, by far biggest, “cyc wall” or cyclorama wall aka green screen. Before long, Callahan, O’Neill, and Pittas were standing in front of a 24 foot tall, giant green wall soundstage, and BFW was born.
Once the wall was built, the film crews came a callin’… not just from around the region, but from around the country. Suddenly, word was out that Buffalo was seriously in the business of film production. Not only was the soundstage built, based upon outlandish dimensions that were (in hindsight) handed off to the building owners by producers who felt as if they were akin kids in a candy shop, plans were also in the works to build up the rest of the complex in phases (or stages).
The greatest aspect of the BFW complex is that it became operational right away. Once the cyc wall was built, it was being booked. Over the summer, a film crew of 175 was occupying the building. That meant that funds were coming in from film companies, which allowed BFW to get to work on the rest of the space… and there’s a heck of a lot of space. For example, the final phase (Stage 4) of the buildout is a building that is three football fields long. It’s long enough to stage an entire city block!
Next up, BFW is working on soundproofing the Stage 1 and Stage II buildings, constructing a sub floor that sets can tie into, and building out offices and dressing rooms. This is all part of the initial stages that will get the complex up and running with all of the needs of the producers. Another important aspect is the ample parking around the buildings (the studio lot), which can accommodated the film trucks, which are also used as operational bases. The necessary infrastructure is being built into the buildings, which will allow the trucks to simply “plug and play”.
The BFW complex will not only allow film production crews to call Buffalo a one-stop-shop, it’s also going to allow workers to keep busy all year long. Buffalo will no longer be limited as a seasonal film city. Pittas told me that he went to Brooklyn recently, and the ultimate BFW vision is bigger than anything that he came across while he was there. He also said that a number of people in the film industry that he met were talking about Buffalo as if it was “an up and coming film city.” And they didn’t even know that Pittas was from Buffalo! “Even if Brooklyn did have a soundstage of this size, it wouldn’t be available,” said Pittas. “We have a big advantage here. People can fly into Buffalo, or drive here, and it’s easy to get around, it’s inexpensive, and we will soon have everything that they need from us.” Callahan and O’Neill agreed, by saying that that there will be an in-house painting shop, transportation services, conference rooms, catering, set decorating, prop and equipment rentals, and everything else on hand to accommodate productions, including centralized heating and air conditioning.
“It’s the right place and the right time,” said Callahan, who has already seen a ton of progress with his own Buffalo China complex venture, which is located nearby. O’Neill noted that having the space is one thing, but acquiring the finances to build it out is another. “Alden Bank has approved our funding for first two phases,” she said. “This type of project is not one that any bank will finance. This takes a certain type of bank that understands the nature of this business, and is willing to invest in a venture that should be monumental for Buffalo.”
Pittas and Callahan pointed to Wilmington, NC – a city that experienced a filming boom due to investments of this nature. Almost overnight the Wilmington economy came to be dependent on the large scale films that were coming into town. The BFW complex will allow large films and even TV series to film under one giant roof. The site in question is ideally located in a part of town the is centrally located to Kaisertown, Larkinville, and even the Central Terminal. It’s actually kind of funny – I never even knew that this complex of buildings existed. Now it’s going to be another piece of the Buffalo resurgence puzzle.
Contact: George Pittas | 716-440-6364
Lead image: (L-R) Kevin Callahan, Jennifer O’Neill, and George Pittas