I am Mary Stuart Masterson. I am an actress, a filmmaker, a mom and now an entrepreneur.
I was born into a show business family. As a child, I spent my weekends backstage in Broadway theaters watching my parents work hard at what they loved to do. At age 7, I appeared in my first film, The Stepford Wives, a dystopian feminist thriller in which my father was cast as the creepy bad guy who was easily convinced to turn his cool wife into a robotic bigger-boobed version of herself. I played his daughter.
During my senior year in high school, I was cast in my first lead role in, Heaven Help Us. Over the next 20 years, I appeared in 30 films including Some Kind of Wonderful, Fried Green Tomatoes, Chances Are and Benny and Joon. I was married to Antonio Banderas and John Stamos in the same year—or at least my character was in the Broadway revival of the musical Nine. I met my real-life husband on the stage of the Kennedy Center when we played opposite each other in Tennessee William’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
In 2013, pregnant with our fourth child, we couldn’t manage being in New York City anymore—financially or logistically. So, we moved two hours north to the Hudson Valley. The plan was to take television work to survive the early years of four children under the age of 4.
We had just unpacked and settled into our new house when I was offered a TV series. Seemed like things were going according to plan. But there was a hitch. The series shot in Vancouver. CANADA. (After Los Angeles and New York, Vancouver is the third most popular location for shooting television in North America.)
I had been hoping for a shoot closer to home. But New York City was too expensive, and the series needed a regional location. So I suggested the Hudson Valley. Kingston, New York. 20 minutes from my front door, first capital of New York State. Perfect!
They suggested Baltimore, even Boston. Both cities where there is a film production crew base and some history of television production. Kingston, didn’t have either. I respectfully passed, and they based the series in Vancouver.
Bringing Work Home
But the seed was planted. How could I make my new home—the Hudson Valley of New York State —attractive to large-scale TV production? I knew what was required. I knew the Hudson Valley had all the attributes—I knew it could happen. I just needed to figure out how to make it happen. When I started to look at the problem, I realized the region was desperate for a new economic engine, and the industry in which I had spent my life was ready for women in leadership positions.
Creating a film/TV/media hub from scratch is not as crazy as it sounds. Ten years ago in Georgia, there was a coordinated effort to increase motion picture production. A tax incentive was put in place to attract projects to the region. Degree tracks were added to the community colleges and vocational schools to train local people to do crew jobs. (The “crew” are all those names in the end credits that play when they throw the lights on and sweep the popcorn off the floor: electricians, dolly grips, gaffers, best boys, carpenters, caterers, accountants, seamstresses, dog wranglers.) There was a targeted investment in film production facilities. As a result, the economic impact in the state of Georgia went from $250 million in its inception in 2008, to an astonishing $7 billion in 2016.
This is because folks working on a production rent and buy houses, eat in restaurants, shop locally, buy a car, buy gas, put their kids in school, attend church. They are part of the community for the 3-6 years a TV series typically stays on location. 500 TV series are being produced in North America this year. If the Hudson Valley lands just one broadcast network TV show, it will create 150-200 jobs, making an economic impact of more than $70 million on the region annually.
I believe this is possible in the stunningly beautiful Hudson Valley. With the Catskill Mountains to the west and the rolling foothills of the Berkshire Mountains to the east, it inspired the Hudson River School of painters: Frederick Edwin Church, Thomas Cole, Eliza Pratt Greatorex and many others. The region with its rivers, forests and small towns, farms and historic mansions is a popular tourist destination, with over 5 million visitors a year. It’s home to Vassar College, Bard College, the Culinary Institute of America, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. There is Route 87 for a quick 2-hour drive from Manhattan; Amtrak for a scenic train ride along the Hudson River; airports in Newburgh, New Windsor, Albany and a dozen other towns.
The Hudson Valley also has something Georgia did not: A-list celebrities who have homes in the area like Julianna Margulies, Paul Rudd, Vera Farmiga and Daniel Craig.
They all want to see the Hudson Valley become a viable filming location. If Paul Rudd could shoot “Ant Man 5” in Kingston, rather than Georgia, he—and his New York-based family—would be much happier with the commute.
But to make the Hudson Valley a truly viable shooting location, we need to do what Georgia did: make it financially attractive, ensure there is a trained local crew base, and build state-of-the-art sound stages and post-production facilities. And we have started that process:
In November 2016, working with local politicians and Hudson Valley creatives, we got the state to increase the motion picture tax credit to 40% from 30%. This fully refundable credit for labor performed by production crew makes the Hudson Valley an attractive place to film a TV series. There has already been a 300% increase in local economic impact in the 18 months since the tax credit was put in place.
In 2016, along with Executive Director Beth Davenport, I founded Stockade Works, a nonprofit organization dedicated to inclusive economic development in the Hudson Valley through training the local workforce to do film and TV jobs. We have developed a Crew Boot Camp to train diverse cohorts of local residents, place them in paid internships, provide ongoing mentorship and referrals for work.
Most folks on the crew make about $30 per hour plus benefits and average about 70 hours per week, with 30 hours paid at time and a half. So, the person carrying sandbags, raising and lowering lights, and loading and unloading the trucks makes, on average, about $80,000 each year. The heads of departments make twice that. If they use their own equipment and rent it to production, they make still more. These are great jobs.
Bringing the work to the Hudson Valley will not only create jobs for newly trained crew but will also benefit union members already living in the region. Over the past five years, there has been a steady influx of top-notch union crew moving to the Hudson Valley from New York City in search of a better quality of life for their families. They are commuting 6 hours a day on top of a 14-hour day of work because NYC is where the union work is. Moving the work into the region will be a real boon to them.
While there are 23 local certified sound stages in the Hudson Valley, none are soundproofed to the standard that would attract network TV production. To address this gap, I am founding Upriver Studios, a state of the art sound stage, and post-production facility. Upriver Studios will be woman-led and committed to bringing diversity, equity and access to the media sector. It will be a certified B Corporation, a for-profit business that meets rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency. And we will build and operate these new facilities to the highest possible environmental standard, featuring green roof sound attenuation, solar panels, and LED lighting grid.
That’s why I’m an artist starting a values-driven for-profit business. I am not seeking gifts or grants or donations. The future I am building can’t be built with philanthropy. It has to be built with investment capital that shares the values of diversity, equity and inclusion. It has to be built with investors who see the potential of media and entertainment to transform a community in good ways. Investors who, like me, are radical optimists.