Making Movie Magic
Meet Bruce Heller and Kevin Segalla—two college buddies reeling in the entertainment business and making Stamford into Hollywood East
Photograph by Kit Noble
So what’s Robert DeNiro like? “He’s famously reserved but likes Connecticut,” says Kevin Segalla, founder and president of the Stamford-based Connecticut Film Center.
What about that Titanic-sized star, Leonardo DiCaprio? “Private, which makes sense if you’ve been chased since you were a kid.” And John Travolta? “Fun. And good at the whole celebrity thing. He doesn’t mind posing for a picture or signing an autograph.”
Kevin indulges questions about the celebrities he’s met while establishing a film and television industry here, but the whole tell-me-about-the-celebrities-you-know thing seems to bore him. Save for one star-struck moment: “When I met DeNiro and Bruce Willis together, that was kind of cool.”
Otherwise he’d rather talk business about the movies and stars that are his clients with business partner and friend Bruce Heller. The former Syracuse University buddies have been around them most of their adult lives. Which may explain why ex–movie producer Kevin is more forthcoming and animated touring the massive soundstage the CFC has created on Stamford’s Progress Drive than dropping the names of celebrity acquaintances. Actress Laura Linney just happens to be in the vicinity of this cavernous stage, making preparations for her new Showtime series The Big C, which is currently filming here. Yet Kevin is hoping to avoid her because he doesn’t want the Oscar-nominated actress thinking he’s showing her off to impress the media. “When we are around these people, we are working,” he explains. “It is, ‘Hi. Great to see you. Let’s get down to business.’ ”
What Kevin is excited about is showing off a small room outfitted with thousands of dollars’ worth of electrical upgrades to accommodate the adjacent sets. “Now the electrician who did this was local. He was from Stamford. And he made thousands of dollars doing this work. And to me, that’s the cool thing about what we’re doing here. We’re giving jobs. We’re making work.”
Pumping dollars into the economy is kind of a mantra for Kevin and for Bruce, the CFC’s managing director. Together they have spent the past four years trying to convince big studios, independent filmmakers and, most recently, television producers and gaming companies that Connecticut is the best place to set the scene for their coming attractions.
Never mind their glamorous résumés, Hollywood connections or the fact that Bruce, who used to run actor Billy Bob Thornton’s production company, knows Angelina Jolie well enough to casually refer to her as “Ang” (and get teased by Kevin for the name-dropping).
It is Stamford, where Bruce and Kevin also live, that is the true star of the CFC show, and often the landscape for many of the film projects that ultimately come here.
The most outstanding supporting actor in this scenario is the inviting but sometimes controversial 30 percent tax credit Connecticut has offered since 2006 to productions based in the Nutmeg State. Tax credits are the primary reason that major television productions like The Big C or small independent films such as the BBC’s What About Kevin? (which filmed here earlier this year with Oscar winner Tilda Swinton) chose Stamford— or anywhere else in Connecticut—to set up their cameras.
Kevin is largely credited for lobbying for the inception of tax credits here. “He was the guy who gave us this incredible insight into the film industry and what it could mean for the state,” says State Representative Carlo Leone of Stamford, one of four state legislators who drafted the tax credit legislation.
“I told them, pass tax credits and I will bring you more movies than you know what do to with,” Kevin says. And for a while, that’s exactly what happened.
Getting the Pictures
Before there were tax credits, movies were made in Connecticut about once a decade: The Ice Storm (1997), Mystic Pizza (1988), The Stepford Wives (1975) and Valley of the Dolls (1967). Now there’s a dry erase board in Kevin’s office cluttered with the names of productions that have been active in Connecticut during the past few years: Revolutionary Road, Confessions of a Shopaholic, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2, Righteous Kill, College Road Trip, What Just Happened, Old Dogs, Everybody’s Fine....
Kevin relocated here from New York City in 2003 the way many urbanites do, a bit reluctantly and at his wife’s behest. After settling into Shippan, he immediately got the appeal. Here was a place where he could live by the water, coach his son and daughter’s weekend soccer games, and still feel an urban vibe. “For someone who loves cities and appreciates their diversity, Stamford has that,” he says. “As much as we appreciate all of the surrounding towns, Stamford felt more right.”
It was also a place where Kevin saw an untapped market for the movies. For a dozen years, he had been an independent film producer and president of Platonic Films Inc. His credits included music videos; commercials; projects for HBO, MTV and Nickelodeon; and feature-length independent movies. His most heralded project, The Testimony of Taliesin Jones (aka Small Miracles), was also among his most frustrating ones. The 2002 film was nominated for five BAFTA Awards (the British equivalent of the Academy Awards) but got little attention stateside. “Which is the problem with the whole film industry,” Kevin says with a sigh. “You can do great work and sometimes it doesn’t get noticed.”
In tax credits Kevin saw a new creative outlet and about as soon as these passed, he persuaded Bruce to move his young family from Los Angeles to Stamford.
The two had not worked together since they created a Jekyll & Hyde–themed film as their senior thesis project at Syracuse, but Bruce was also anxious to try something new after falling into a similar creative funk as filmmaker. He jokes that he is known for a couple of “not very important movies you’ve never seen.” He produced the screen adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, starring Matt Damon and Penélope Cruz, as well as Thornton’s crudely amusing remake of the sandlot comedy Bad News Bears. Both were critical busts and Bruce admits they kind of deserved it. “A lot of things can go wrong with movies,” he says. “Which is why the business can be so frustrating.”
Although he was intrigued by Kevin’s business plans, Bruce was not sure about Stamford. “I resisted it,” he says. “But I was tired of the Hollywood scene and needed to slow down.” After buying a house in Shippan (“I resisted that too”) he quickly assimilated. “We love the neighborhood, we love the school (his children attend Rogers International School). We could not be happier.”
In the City That Works
One of Stamford’s greater selling points, says Kevin, is its location. “Actors can come here and take the train home. There are union crews in the area. It’s convenient.”
The state is also rich in scene-setting possibilities. “We don’t have one look. You want inner city? We’ve got it. You want coastline? That’s here too. Blue-collar towns? Got it. About the only thing we struggle with are deserts and big mountain ranges.”
Their business functions as a sort of clearinghouse for the film and television industry. The CFC buys and sells tax credits, offers financial services and location scouting, and even functions as a kind of concierge service to visiting crews. “Once the credits were in place, these guys really hustled,” says Frank Fedeli, the director of Stamford’s Citizens Services Center. Frank also acts as the liaison between the city and film productions that come to town. “I think we had like nine major movies in play in Stamford at one time. It was like a turnstile; one would stop shooting, another would start.”
Kevin and Bruce “seem to see Stamford as a kind of pearl they want to polish,” says Jack Condlin, president of the Stamford Chamber of Commerce. “There is a real belief in the community and what it offers.
“There is a business synergy that happens whenever a movie comes to town. The impact is in the related businesses that support the industry. Movies need crews and performers. They need car services. They need meals. They need tradespeople. It’s a domino effect.”
Carlo Leone says studies of tax credits suggest a state gets back $1.20 for every $1 spent because of them. Perhaps the most significant symbol of the CFC’s local impact is the sleek and modern interior of Stamford’s Holiday Inn Select, which spent millions on renovations to accommodate visiting film crews. Kevin got to swing the sledgehammer at the wall breaking, thanks to the 60,000 room stays the film industry is credited with bringing to town. To hear him talk about it, that moment seems cooler than meeting Robert DeNiro and Bruce Willis at the same time.
The Next Scene
Movie making has gone the way of the economy. Projects have stalled as financing, even for big studios, is hard to come by.
Kevin, who registered as a lobbyist in Hartford to protect tax credits, says Connecticut has lost some projects because the financial incentives are perceived as vulnerable.
Leone and other local legislators, including Stamford-based State Representative Gerry Fox, say the credits will remain precarious as long as the state runs a budget deficit. “There’s a vocal minority that perceives credits as bad just because they think all credits—for any industry—are bad,” explains Fox, who is an enthusiastic supporter of keeping them intact. “It’s not that they have a problem with this industry or what Kevin and Bruce are doing. It’s just the idea that when times are tough we shouldn’t be giving people breaks.”
Adds Leone: “It’s frustrating for all of us involved with the tax credits because we’ve seen the potential. But things are not happening at the pace we anticipated.”
Stamford, where only one, low-budget movie shot this year, is emblematic of the slowed pace. Which is why the CFC has turned its sights to television and video gaming.
Laura Linney’s The Big C is being filmed on the same stage used earlier this year to film the TBS series Are We There Yet? based on the 2005 movie starring rapper Ice Cube.
The filming of the Jerry Springer, Maury Povich and Steve Wilkos syndicated talk shows at the Rich Forum has helped the CFC convince other television productions of Stamford’s appeal, says Bruce.
Condlin adds: “I see television as more stable for Stamford. Movies come for six months, set up shop and leave. It’s great when they are here, but a series can go on for years.”
Also intriguing are the CFC’s still-in-development plans for the former Clairol property on Blachley Road, which it purchased for $16.75 million in March with two local real estate investment partners. Will the property eventually house more soundstages or become the permanent home of a series in development?
Are the partners positioning Stamford to be the next Hollywood? Kevin points out that Stamford’s appeal is that it’s not Hollywood. “But if we could be just a little Hollywood.... That would be great.”