My Image Studios Aims to Be Filmmaking and Cultural Hub of Harlem

By Jeff Mays on January 25, 2012 6:44am 

Roland Laird, CEO of My Image Studios LLC, after inspecting construction progress on the $21 million film screening, performance space and restaurant that will be dedicated to the culture of the African and Hispanic diaspora.
Roland Laird, CEO of My Image Studios LLC, after inspecting construction progress on the $21 million film screening, performance space and restaurant that will be dedicated to the culture of the African and Hispanic diaspora.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

HARLEM — Decades from now, Roland Laird wants My Image Studios LLC to be mentioned in the same breath as legendary Harlem venues like the Apollo Theater.

Scheduled to open in June, the $21 million film screening, performance space and restaurant will be dedicated to African and Latino culture.

"We want to be the premier space for culture and entertainment for the African and Latino diaspora," said Laird, CEO of My Image Studios or MIST. "We want it to be Harlem's living room."

The three separate theater spaces with stadium seating can be transformed into one 250-seat area for plays or spoken word performances. It can also be configured into a 320-person banquet hall.

There will be a fully equipped editing room and a 132-seat restaurant featuring world cuisine with outdoor seating at a $20 tp $25 price point. At capacity, the entire space, located at the Kalahari Condominiums at 40 West 116th Street between Lenox and Fifth avenues, will hold up to 800 people.

Between hospitality staff, projectionists and ushers, MIST will create up to 65 jobs. The group plans to hire locally.

Laird, and partners Walter Edwards and Carlton Brown, see black film festivals with red carpet premiers as well as neighborhood residents coming to check out an independent film and grab a meal or drinks in the lounge.

Bringing in top and emerging talent is Alexa Birdsong who will serve as MIST's director of programming. She is one of the founding producers of the Essence Music Festival, a former founding associate director of Jazz at Lincoln Center and former executive producer of Central Park SummerStage.

"There is no place in New York or America that 365 days per year shows film about the African and Latino diaspora," said Brown who, with Edwards, owns development firm Full Spectrum of NY and co-developed the Kalahari.

After hours, the many film productions in the city could use the space.

"Our business plan looked at the deficits. You see lots of film crews in Harlem but none of them are able to screen their dailies here," said Laird.

Neighborhood kids will learn how to edit in the fully-equipped digital editing suite in conjuction with local non-profits.

"We want this to be a training facility where young people will learn to tell their story through film," said Laird.

The project will also serve as a way to build up 116th Street which has seen several new condos and co-ops over the past several years, but which many long-time residents remember as a more bustling strip.

"There's not a lot of critical mass on 116th Street. That's why we aren't just a restaurant, we plan to be a destination," said Laird.

The response from artists, filmmakers and event planners has also been overwhelming, said MIST's marketing officer Taneshia Nash Laird, Roland Laird's wife. Everyone has their own vision for the space.

"A lot of event planners say they have to go downtown," said Nash Laird. "When you talk to musicians and filmmakers, the discussion is about controlling their own distribution.

"Traditionally, there is a compromise that has to be made if you want to tell your own story. We want this to be a no compromise space."

Even with such grand plans, the project almost never got off the ground. Financing collapsed after the 2008 economic meltdown. It wasn't until recently that the group received tax credits designed to spur development in urban areas.

Goldman Sachs Urban Investment Group is one of the project's investors.

Over the last three years, Laird said he, Brown and Edwards looked for "small wins" to stay positive and stick to their vision for the project.

"We were taking a big risk. If we weren't committed this could have been a bank or a drug store," said Laird. "The way we are looking at this is as a chance to build on our own culture."

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