A film production and entertainment project at the oceanfront Playground Pier aims to cash in on New Jersey film tax credits by turning the defunct Atlantic City property into more of a “Hollywood East” by summer 2024.
The six-person film and production group named ACX1 signed an agreement with Caesars Entertainment Inc. for the entire 550,000-square-foot, nearly-defunct mall property spanning from the Boardwalk at Arkansas Avenue over the Atlantic Ocean.
“We signed a master lease of the entire building two and a half months ago,” said Roy Koriakin, executive vice president of film production for ACX1 and a native of Swedesboro, New Jersey.
While ACX1 – an abbreviation for “Atlantic City Experiences” and the “1” for the studio’s 1 Atlantic Ocean location – plans to lure stars to film movies at The Playground, they also want to produce beach concerts, beach boxing, open a brewery, an arcade, a bar equipped with classic video games, a virtual reality center and add fast food eateries like Chic-fil-A.
They’re going to be open year-round, solve parking issues with motorized golf carts and provide the Atlantic City community with free beach movies on LED screens.
“We’re excited. We have a lot of plans. The Playground is a beautiful place,” Koriakin said. “The architecture is magnificent. And I can see that Atlantic City is changing with the events and concerts. It seems like it is making a turnaround.”
ACX1 laying roots at Playground Pier
ACX1 partners have taken over the Playground’s fourth-floor executive offices. Along with Koriakin, they include:
- Chris Aponte: executive vice president of tenants
- Dom Franklin: chief operating officer
- Rob Schwartz: executive vice president of music
- Joe Hennigan: Koriakin’s business partner who serves as executive vice president of film production and director of photography
Koriakin declined to divulge the terms of the Playground’s master lease agreement with Caesars Entertainment. But he said they’re committed for at least three years.
“It was expensive,” Koriakin said. “When I say expensive I’m talking about the amount of square footage.”
He went on: “We’re trying to go after the New York cop shows like ‘Law and Order’ with South Jersey tax credits being the highest in the country.” Koriakin cited the availability of hotel rooms at Caesars on the Boardwalk so cast and crew don’t have to commute.
“We’re pretty sure we’re going to get one of those kinds of shows,” he said.
ACX1 is also is in negotiations with a “huge cooking show to shoot the next two seasons.”
“I think we will have an answer in a week or two,” Koriakin said.
What happens to the tenants?
Some of the tenants are leaving, others are staying at the Playground.
“There are a handful of tenants remaining, like Sugar. Some smaller stores are leaving, but now we’re re-upping everyone’s leases for anyone who wants to stay,” Koriakin said.
“The goal is to fill up the first floor and on the second-floor front, maintain a couple of high-end stores and that’s it for retail. The rest is film production, music, and events, and we’re kind of leaving a lot of the building open to do conventions.”
The shuttered restaurants at the back of the pier will serve as props. But when ACX1 is not filming, the space will be available for rent.
“Those restaurants are all unique,” Koriakin said. “They’re truly like film sets. And if you have a party or event, you can rent them out.”
Overcoming parking, other challenges
Parking locations that are not within walking distance of the Playground force visitors to either walk through a parking garage or a skywalk and then the casino floor in order to gain Pier access.
Koriakin plans to overcome parking distance and price. He says the price for parking would be built into an event or ticket price.
However, he admitted it’s still a long distance to walk to the Playground from Pacific or Atlantic avenues – especially for women in heels.
“What we are doing is having transportation to the pier from the parking garage that will include a golf cart pulling another big cart with about 20 people at a time,” Koriakin said. “We are going to try to eliminate parking as a problem and we realize that was part of a failure as a nightclub in the past.”
Plans also call for outside changes to the Playground.
“We are going to do some specific things for families and digitize the side of the building so you can bring your beach chair and watch the movie preview on the side of the pier,” Koriakin said.
“We’re hoping to get sponsors and have free movies for Atlantic City. What you would do is watch the movie and listen to the sound through your phone or a speaker. We could pull a couple thousand people every night and get to have a family experience, buy a soda, a pizza, and go to the arcade.”
‘A lot of plans’ for Playground Pier
They also plan on redoing the atrium water show at the entrance to the Playground.
“We’re going to make it a really cool venue. It just needs some love,” Koriakin said. “We have a lot of plans and it’s all baby steps.”
Changes are in the development stages. And ACX1 partners have been in touch with the city about the improvements they plan.
Atlantic City Mayor Marty Small is encouraged by the new Playground agreement.
“My administration wants to see every business and industry that was shuttered for whatever reason reopen to ensure Atlantic City experiences continued development and economic growth,” Small said in a statement.
“Atlantic City has a rich history in the arts and entertainment industry and has been a prime filming location for many award-winning productions. We are excited by the prospect of ACX1 Studios giving us a fresh opportunity to keep that history alive while officially marking the rebirth of Playground Pier.”
New Jersey film tax credits
Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation in 2018 that gives film and digital companies tax credits to shoot in New Jersey. He signed additional legislation in January 2022 to bolster the New Jersey Film & Digital Media Tax Credit Program through expanded digital media production tax credits and other improvements.
“This legislation will ensure that our state remains a top destination for some of our country’s most significant film and TV productions,” Murphy said in a 2022 statement.
“The New Jersey Film & Digital Media Tax Credit Program has brought numerous productions to our state, creating jobs for New Jerseyans, and bringing in money that is being spent with local businesses. We look forward to attracting even more productions to our state with the expanded tax credits and improvements that this legislation provides.”
The program has made New Jersey a national film and television production center and has attracted projects to New Jersey such as “West Side Story,” “The Equalizer” and “The Many Saints of Newark.”
“New Jersey offers significant advantages to productions seeking a vast and diverse on and off-camera talent pool and an array of authentic sites for all sorts of productions,” Tim Sullivan, chief executive officer of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, said in 2022.
The tax credits, which are 35% in South Jersey as opposed to only 30% in North Jersey, drew ACX1 to the Playground, Koriakin said.
“The big sell is that we have the highest tax credits,” he said.
Atlantic City movie-making history
The streets of Atlantic City are no stranger to movies and movie stars like Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, Burt Lancaster and Susan Sarandon.
There have been 34 movies filmed in Atlantic City since 1929, including “Ocean’s Eleven,” “Ocean’s Twelve,” “The Godfather Part III” and “The King of Marvin Gardens.” Netflix shot two movies in Atlantic City in 2019.
One, “Army of the Dead,” starred Dave Bautista and was filmed at the Showboat Atlantic City Hotel. The other, “Bruised,” was directed by Halle Berry and shot at Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall.
There were two movies filmed in Atlantic City entitled “Atlantic City.” (One was made in 1944 and the other in 1980.) “The Cohens and the Kellys in Atlantic City” is a 1929 American silent comedy film with location shooting taking place in Atlantic City.
Don’t be fooled, however. The 2010 HBO premiere of “Boardwalk Empire,” a drama starring Steve Buscemi that, despite being set in Atlantic City during the Prohibition Era, was filmed entirely at a Brooklyn sound studio.
Filming on location and conventions
Aside from filmmaking and live entertainment, Koriakin said plans call for a brewery, seafood restaurant, an arcade and high-end stores. He said a wedding suite can also open to have parties or, if they aren’t being used, they become film sets.
He sees each as a ready-made venue for filming.
“The way we look at the brewery is that it becomes a film set,” Koriakin said, “so essentially, we have about 150 film sets and they’re all connected to the (Caesars) hotel. So, when actors and crew come for 60 days they can walk to work on the days they are here. We will be a one-stop shop.”
ACX1 also plans to use open space at the back of the pier with an ocean view to lure conventioneers.
“We could do 10,000-person conventions using the whole third floor,” said Koriakin, who has been in film production for 20 years – with 30 feature films and 100 national TV episodes including most recently “The Amazing Race.”
He also envisions a 20-foot, all-glass window over the ocean as a draw for Atlantic City year-round conventions and special events.
“During the offseason, there’s a lot of wasted space where people come to drink their coffee all day long and look out the window. So, I’m sure people are going to be upset,” Koriakin said.
Much of the Playground near the ocean will be left open for special events and conventions. The four-floor structure has picture-perfect views of the ocean and the beach along the Atlantic City coast. A “Home and Garden” convention and a “Wrestling” convention are in the works, he says.
ACX1 certainly went on a journey hunting for a studio
ACX1 began looking for a studio location in 2021.
“It was about 24 months ago after we knew the NJ film tax credit would come to fruition,” Koriakin said, “and since it was just around the corner we wanted to be one of the first people in motion to buy studios, just like Lions Gate (Newark, NJ) and Netflix (Fort Monmouth, NJ) and we started to look for properties.”
After the first offer they made on a studio was declined, they found Aponte, then the salesman trying to draw tenants into the Playground.
“We looked at the Playground and it was so incredible you would think that it hasn’t been that long since it opened. It doesn’t look old and it’s not decrepit. It’s still relevant,” Koriakin said.
The Playground’s warehouses have 35-foot ceilings which ACX1 plans to turn into a soundstage with a green screen wall for effects and animation, along with building a hospital wing.
ACX1 hopes to avoid the hurdle of the ongoing writers and actors strikes, which Koriakin believes may be settled in the next few days. In fact, the writerss union recently struck a tentative deal with Hollywood studios.
The production team anticipates shooting multiple TV shows and films at one time.
History of Playground Pier
Playground Pier is the successor to the famed Million Dollar Pier, which operated on the site from 1906 to 1981.
In its heyday, Million Dollar Pier hosted conventions and the 1925 Miss America Pageant, as well as dance marathons from 1931 to 1933.
George Hamid, a circus owner, took over operations of the pier in 1937, then bought Steel Pier but operated Million Dollar Pier until 1948.
A shopping mall pier operated there from 1983 to 2003. The Ocean One Mall was acquired by Gordon Group Holdings and underwent a major redevelopment. Ocean One was torn down to its pilings. But it reopened in 2006 as The Pier Shops at Caesars.
In 2007, Taubman Centers purchased the center. But after Taubman’s 2010 bankruptcy, vacancy problems began to plague the pier. Originally, there were over 75 stores at the Pier during its thriving period. The number fell to 59 stores in 2013.
The pier reopened in 2006, and was renamed the Playground Pier in 2015. By 2019, the Playground Pier had been much reduced to only 10 current stores.
Philadelphia developer Bart Blatstein bought the complex, which at the time was called The Pier Shops at Caesars, for $2.7 million from Caesars Entertainment. He reopened it as The Playground in June 2015. He said he invested $52 million in its renovation in the hope of reinvigorating some of the most prime but underutilized real estate on Atlantic City’s Boardwalk. Caesars retained ownership of the pier itself.
In 2020, just five years after Blatstein bought the Atlantic City shopping and entertainment pier from Caesars Entertainment, he sold it back to them so he could concentrate on his plan to return gambling to the former Showboat casino. Blatstein ultimately opened Lucky Snake and Island Water Park at Showboat.