HOW A FORMER BEER DISTRIBUTION PRO TURNED A VACANT WAREHOUSE ON THE SOUTH SHORE INTO A STATE OF THE ART FILM PRODUCTION STUDIO, ATTRACTING BIG TICKET PRODUCTIONS AND MEGA STARS LIKE DENZEL WASHINGTON AND MICHAEL B. JORDAN
BY AMANDA McCOY PHOTOS BY VIOLET KARYN PHOTOGRAPHY
It was September 2020, and Richard Ippolito Jr. was still unsure if his budding new business venture would get off the ground. After 20 years as the exclusive wholesale dealer for Anheuser Busch on Staten Island, Ippolito and his father retired from the beer distribution industry when the St. Louisbased brewing company, in efforts to consolidate certain markets, offered to purchase their distribution rights. “It was all I’d ever known,” explained Ippolito, and though the entrepreneur was eager for the next chapter he had plans to launch a string of restaurants he wasn’t sure what to do with the now empty 44,000 square foot warehouse on the South Shore. A fortuitous encounter with a local film producer in 2018 landed a pair of short term leases as a film studio for James DeMonaco’s This is The Night and season one of Hulu’s WuTang: An American Saga. But when an unprecedented global pandemic shuttered all film production, Ippolito was left wondering what the future would hold for the newly minted RiverBridge Studios. Then Denzel Washington called.
“This was my first experience in the film industry, so after COVID hit, I thought to myself, ‘What do I have here? Do I really have a business?’” recalled Ippolito, who had already invested a large amount of time and capital into refurbishing the warehouse as a level 2 certified film production facility. “Then I got approached by Denzel Washington and his crew to film the feature A Journal for Jordan, and I realized I might really have something here.”
After a site visit by Washington and the film crew, they signed a lease for eight months. “I’ll never forget when Denzel first visited to check out the space,” continued Ippolito. “He walked in, gave me a pat on the back, and said, ‘My man.’ [laughs] He’s such a genuine, hard working individual. His office was located inside the studio, and he was out and about every morning at 6 a.m. It was cool to have guys like Denzel and Michael B. Jordan hanging out in Staten Island.”
Beyond the Anheuser Busch signs that still hang outside the studio, there’s no evidence RiverBridge Studios was ever anything but a state of the art production facility. The location manager for This is The Night helped Ippolito secure the lease for Hulu’s Wu Tang series, and the show’s production company, Imagine Entertainment, came in to assist Ippolito in outfitting the space. The 25 foot tall ceilings proved advantageous for filming, and Ippolito and team created two dedicated sound stages, one stretching 18,000 square feet and the other 9,000. These stages have since been transformed into airplanes, bank vaults, and more.
Ippolito also put in dressing rooms, talent suites, production offices, mechanical offices, and a construction shop. The massive parking lot is large enough to support the scope of full sized trucks and trailers needed for major production projects.
Today, after each new project, Ippolito reinvests in the facility. In February 2021, he installed a new state of the art Carrier Weather Maker System in both stages, arming the studio with the latest technology in heating and air conditioning. Once filming concluded on A Journal for Jordan, NBC Universal came calling, signing an eight month lease to film ten episodes of the juicy crime series The Endgame. When the show wrapped in May, Ippolito took the opportunity to add larger restroom facilities and additional production offices.
“We’re investing back into the property to make it even more attractive for future productions,” he said. Now an active board member of the New York Production Alliance, Ippolito is eager to watch the New York film industry continue to pick up steam, particularly in his home borough.
“This facility is tremendous for Staten Island,” he said. “The goal of any production that’s come in is to spend locally. They hire local people, spend money at Staten Island restaurants, supermarkets, hardware stores, etc. It really stimulates the local economy. When Denzel left, he told him he felt like he gained 20 pounds because of all the restaurant recommendations I gave him. I wanted him to get a taste of Staten Island. He loved it.”
Ippolito also pointed out his pride in with no prior experience in the film industry – building the business from the ground up. “I was always partners with my dad, but he started that business,” he said. “This is something I’ve built from scratch, so to be successful and bring in all these great productions, that’s incredibly rewarding. The filming industry has never been so busy in New York, and the demand for content is at an all-time high. It’s been fascinating to watch the industry evolve before my very eyes. It’s going to continue to be tremendous, for the studio and the borough.”
Looking ahead, Ippolito said there are several expansion opportunities to build additional sound stages, and he’ll continue to invest in the facility as filming needs evolve. He no longer wonders if another major production company will come calling, filling the time between long term leases with short commercial shoots. His next dream team? “Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio,” he said, adding, “Though I’ve already realized a lifelong dream working with and getting to know Denzel.”
4865 Arthur Kill Road / 718.640.6436 / riverbridgestudios.com