It sounded like — well, like an old-fashioned Hollywood fantasy come to life. Utopia Studios — as detailed in Adam Bowles' feature "A Giant Plan" in September 2006 — promised to take a blighted plot of land in tiny Preston, Conn., and transform it into a hub of movie magic. There would be studio space for making A-list films. And not just the studios, but a performing arts college, too. And a theme park – no, four theme parks! And hotels for all the tourists! And tens of thousands of jobs!
It was the stuff dreams are made of, all right, and it was hard not to at least want to believe in it. But if it all sounded too good to be true, of course that's because it was: Within months of this story's publication the project collapsed. The music stopped, the lights came back up and the Hollywood dream was over.
In the mid-2000s many states situated closer to New York than California made a major push to boost their local economies by attracting film and television projects. Tax credits and other incentives created a temporary surge in East Coast-based movie making, but most of these attempts to draw a permanent industry presence ultimately met with limited or temporary success. North Stonington Studios, headed by Frank Capra Jr. (who died in 2007) in partnership with the Mashantucket Pequot tribe (see the sidebar at the end of this article), also ultimately fell apart. In 2008 film producer Allen Christopher tried to turn a vacant aircraft manufacturing plant in Stratford into a studio complex he called Hollywood East, but after years of internal infighting and legal trouble, that project, too, collapsed.
This article is being posted to the web in April 2021 as part of Connecticut Magazine's 50th anniversary celebration.
A Giant Plan
Are you ready for Utopia? That’s the name of a project taking shape in tiny Preston that’s so big it hardly seems real. But it is real. And it might even happen.
By Adam Bowles
If all goes according to plan (and that is a significant “if’), sometime around the 4th of July, 2009, Utopia will at last arrive in Connecticut, and the first visitors will walk through the gates of four theme parks. At about the same time, a family will check in to one of Utopia's more than 4,000 hotel rooms overlooking a bend in the Thames River and Mohegan Sun, one of the worlds largest casinos Additionally, some 6,000 students will begin to matriculate at Utopia’s performing arts college, learning trades that will earn them places on the lists of credits that roll at the end of movies Hollywood stars—A-listers, Utopia says—will be on hand for the opening celebration. A few Utopia Studios family and animated movies will have been released by then, and characters from those films will be walking the streets of Utopia, Disney style.
All this on 419 acres that until fairly recently was the campus of a state mental hospital, where state employees cared for thousands of residents. And all this—the theme park, the hotels, the school, the studios—in rural Preston, a town with about 5,000 residents where cows peer over stone walls and corn stalks sway in the breeze If built, Utopia Studios will be like nothing the state, New England or the nation, for that matter, has ever seen. Its many critics once decried the $1.6 billion plan as the fanciful, far-fetched dream of an overreaching New York developer, Joseph Gentile, and his actress wife, Cathy Moriarty-Gentile, best known for her Oscar-nominated supporting role in Raging Bull in 1980. But now the region—and the state—is preparing for the impact.
“Shock and awe,” Utopia’s chief financial officer Joseph Gentile says, laughing, of the first impression visitors to the entertainment complex will have. “It will be eye candy. It will be sensory stimulation at its best. You will also learn, because it will be an educational place. You are going to grow as a person. It will be like the World’s Fair used to be—when you saw things you never saw before. You will see it through the eyes of American history, American culture and American experience. It is very important to me that it's not just a commercial venture. It also will have soul.”
Perhaps moved by similar visions, Preston voters in May approved a development deal with Utopia by a vote of 1,330 to 1,023. Opponents of the project had waged an 11th-hour campaign, warning residents that Utopia would end their small town way of life. First Selectman Robert Congdon, who supported the deal, said some people felt as if “the sky was falling."
Gail Rigney, who joined the Preston Residents For Responsible Development, a political action group formed to rally people against the project, says her biggest fear remains the uncertainty of it all.
“Preston is an agricultural town," she says. “It's a small town we all know and love, and we don’t want it to change drastically. It’s a big project—big money, big attorneys—and there will be a lot of pressure on the town to hurry up and build. Our fears have gotten worse instead of better.”
But supporters, led by a voting block of about 500 union workers, focused instead on Utopia’s promise that the project would eventually create an astonishing 22,000 union jobs and generate millions of dollars in revenue to the town and state. Susan Sampson helped form a political action group in town called “Preston Residents for Utopia" after negotiations between Preston and Utopia collapsed in the summer of 2005, when the two parties clashed over how much information Utopia should be required to provide the town. Sampson says she favors the project because it will lead to the clean-up of a large contaminated site that was just wasting away. She says Utopia came at just the right time, as Electric Boat began laying off hundreds of workers at its submarine building facility in Groton. She says Utopia revenues will help the town hire teachers the schools need and pay for services that will enhance the town’s quality of life.
“I feel like we're a little bit more in control of our future,” she says. "The bottom line in this world is that if you have money, you're in the driver’s seat.”
The complex, 300-page agreement features dozens of conditions Utopia must satisfy before it can acquire the land and build on the property that borders the city of Norwich It also guarantees millions of dollars to Preston in various development related fees.
But it does not provide feasibility studies that show whether the project is truly viable, nor does it show proof of financing, a major concern shared by supporters and opponents. Bear Stearns, a worldwide investment banker, has said it would work with Utopia to secure the money. Still, even if the project fails, Preston is guaranteed $35 million to $50 million to clean up the contaminated site.
The next deadline comes in November, when Utopia must complete a $1 million environmental study of the land, place into escrow $34 million for the town and provide a $9.9 million letter of credit to cover tax payments for years two, three and four.
Gentile first appeared in the region in the summer of 2003, joining Congdon and another town official for lunch. Right off the bat, Congdon thought the proposal sounded too good to be true, but he really liked Gentile's concept. For the next three years, Gentile spent hundreds of hours at town and state meetings and took scores of ferry trips from his Long Island home to the region to promote his protect. He was a fast learner, quickly getting to know state and regional leaders on a first-name basis. His New York attitude—he likes to talk big—rubbed some people the wrong way, including Mohegan tribal leaders. He drives a Rolls-Royce and is often accompanied by several associates But he impressed others with his seeming sincerity, his generosity toward charities—he recently pledged $500,000 to the reconstruction of Otis Library in downtown Norwich—and his ability to talk on the same level with people from all walks of life.
Personalities aside, leaders here are coming to terms with the scope of the project that would make it the largest one-time development in the region’s history.
State Rep. Tom Reynolds (D-Ledyard) says if municipal officials don’t call a regional forum on Utopia, he plans to organize one sometime in the fall. He says people need to understand that Utopia poses as many risks as opportunities. On the one hand are the jobs and revenues, on the other are the traffic problems, environmental issues and a housing shortage that could grow to a crisis once Utopia is built.
Utopia already has the attention of the state, which failed to successfully market the land after the hospital closed in 1996 and then rejected Utopia's original submission before offering the property to the host towns of Preston and Norwich in 2004 Utopia remained the property's most determined suitor and in October 2004, Gov. M. Jodi Rell relaxed several property-transfer requirements to speed up the process.
Then Speaker of the House James Amann (D-Milford) came out in support of Utopia after Preston voters in March 2005 approved an agreement designed to provide the basis for a development deal. He first heard about the project while he was watching TV news.
“I’m sitting there scratching my head, saying, 'Utopia? Twenty-two-thousand jobs? Preston, Connecticut? What’s this all about?'"
He soon learned that the building trades, many of whose members were out of work, strongly supported the project. Then, at an unrelated meeting, he discussed the proposal with Howard Baldwin, former owner of the Hartford Whalers hockey team and producer of the 2004 movie Ray. He asked Baldwin why Connecticut made sense as a place for film production. The answer: Many people in the industry live on the East Coast and would rather work here than in California. Also, for years the United States had lost production to Canada and other foreign countries where it was cheaper to film. But the American Jobs Act of 2004 and new incentives in some states were cutting the cost of production in this country.
In short, it was a game Connecticut could join and perhaps even lead. Before too long, Amann introduced a bill that features, among other incentives, a 30 percent tax credit for productions of $I million or more. Once the bill was passed and became law July 1, the floodgates began to open for movie making, says Amann.
Kevin Segalla, president and founder of the Connecticut Film Center in Stamford, is proposing a $100 million production for the state that has the interest of the actor Brad Pitt, Amann says. Baldwin is working on a possible $60 million movie about Jackie Robinson that would include filming in New Britain. And Disney is reportedly planning to move a $60 million film project from Massachusetts to Connecticut.
The bill will help Utopia greatly, too, although the project was first conceived without factoring in the new incentives. As it sought to gain credibility, Utopia submitted hundreds of letters of support from Hollywood figures, including Billy Crystal and John Travolta. Ron Perlman, who starred in the movie Hellboy, is expected to work as an executive for Utopia, and already is helping to screen scripts for productions. Marc Lipsky, who managed Eddie Murphy, is also on the Utopia team. The actor Danny Aiello, whose credits include Do the Right Thing, Godfather Part II and Moonstruck, recently held a meeting in Norwich with Gentile to discuss collaborating on a film project.
Utopia officials say their content will be family-based—or, as Utopia puts it, like Disney films used to be. The company will not produce R-rated films, they say.
Most leaders in town and in the region are comfortable with the idea of the movie studios, performing arts college and entertainment-retail plaza proposed for the site. It's the four theme parks that have them wondering whether Utopia can really be serious about the whole thing. Utopia has claimed the parks would attract 22 million visitors a year, which is more than both casinos combined.
The indoor, all-season theme parks are to include a water park, a "generations" theme park that would re-create several time periods from U.S. history, a world villages theme park that would feature re-creations of various cultures, and an adventure theme park that would feature Utopia characters and attractions such as a cartoon castle.
“There’s still skepticism about whether he's going to pull it off," Congdon says. “Our job is to remain skeptical. [Gentile] has a contractual list of things to do, and we need to make sure that he does them. We also have a contractual obligation that provides him the opportunity to succeed. We need to be ready to hit the ground running."
SIDEBAR: Hollywood East — If Utopia isn't quite enough for you, how about this: a billion-dollar film studio in North Stoninqton.
While Utopia Studios moves forward with its massive entertainment complex in Preston, a group led by Frank Capra Jr. is already in the master planning phase of a $1 billion project that features similar components in the neighboring town of North Stonington.
Eastern Connecticut has already seen a dramatic change from a defense-based economy to one dominated by two of the world's largest casinos, Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun. Now, it seems, the region is poised to become Hollywood East.
North Stonington Studios wants to build a multimedia entertainment complex on nearly 500 acres near Interstate 95 and Route 49 that is owned by the Mashantucket Pequots, operators of Foxwoods and a partner in the proposed new business. The project would boast at least three movie studios, a motion picture and television academy of arts and sciences, a high-end retail village with 20 to 30 shops and restaurants, one or two hotels, a large-screen theater, such as an IMAX, and a media center.
North Stonington Studios comes to town with a proven track record. Capra, son of the noted director of films such as It's a Wonderful Life, is the president of EUE/Screen Gems Studios in Wilmington, N.C., the largest movie studio east of Hollywood. The studio has been home to WB's Dawson's Creek, among other productions. Capra attended public hearings in North Stonington on a text amendment to the town's zoning laws that his group successfully proposed.
"We're making very good progress," Capra says. "I'm working on the 'studios' part of it." He says he expects to submit plans to the town sometime in the fall.
Capra thinks the state's new tax incentives for TV and movie productions are going to make Connecticut extremely attractive to industry executives, including those who are interested in producing TV series.
"We're getting there at exactly the right time," he says, adding that North Stonington is an ideal site for the project. "The countryside is beautiful. You have the water, you have the beaches. You have old communities, you have new communities. You have hills, farms. There is just a wealth of locations there. It's a real bottom-line business these days and a lot of those protects that would have gone to Canada or Europe, we are now able to keep."
First Selectman Nicholas H. Mullane II says North Stonington Studios appears to have a solid business plan and credible people to support the project.
North Stonington has suffered the loss of some businesses and has struggled to attract new development, so the studio protect, with its potential for well-paying jobs and property tax revenues to the town, has appealed to residents here, according to Mullane. Still, people are concerned about how the project would affect traffic, particularly on Route 2, where even now visitors travel between the shore, Foxwoods and Hartford.
"This is far from commonplace in the Northeast, so we can't really relate to it yet,” Mullane said. "This is not just another shopping center."
Stories about Connecticut and the movies from the Connecticut Magazine archives:
Go to Redding for a behind-the-scenes look at the filming of The Stepford Wives. ("Stepford's Mechanical Wives," November 1974)
Meet some independent filmmakers who preferred working in Connecticut over New York or California ("Connecticut Filmmakers," June 1983), like Friday the 13th producer and Westport resident Sean Cunningham. ("Fade to Black," March 1981)
A professor of cinema takes a critical look at the (not always flattering) ways Hollywood sees us ("Connecticut in the Movies") and a quick overview of Connecticut's history as a filmmaking location. ("Everything But the Sahara," May 1987)
Take a stroll through a timeline of notable movies either filmed or set in Connecticut. ("Lights, Camera, Connecticut!," February 2017)