Filmed on Campus: St. John’s Provides Backdrop for Movies, TV Shows, and Commercials

February 10, 2020

Fueled by the growing demand for original streaming content, New York City is once again an entertainment juggernaut, attracting scores of film and television producers to the five boroughs. Similarly, St. John’s is experiencing a rise in the number of productions filmed on campus, thanks in part to the University’s prime location and its willingness to work with film crews.

“We always welcome filming on campus,” said Cheryl O’Hara, Event Manager, Office of Conference Services, who works closely with location scouts to find both interior and exterior sites on campus that suit their needs. “It provides great exposure for the University. Fortunately, we have a good presence and reputation in the industry.”

Filming on location is beneficial to both production companies and property owners. Directors often favor location shoots over studio settings, because the former offers a higher level of authenticity to a scene. It can also be less expensive to shoot on location than it is to build a set inside a soundstage. For the owner of a property, such as the University, hosting a location shoot provides additional revenue with very little risk or investment.

“Location scouts are a very tight-knit group, and they are in constant communication with each other,” she said. “Once word spreads that you are easy to work with and you have a visually appealing site to offer, they make it a point to reach out when they seek locations for filming.”

Most recently, TV crews were on campus in October, filming scenes for the FOX series Almost Family. In one scene, the exterior of St. Thomas More Church was transformed into “Sweet Serenity,” a fictitious recovery center; in another, the Great Lawn became a park setting, with the addition of some foliage, as well as a park bench. For the two scenes, series stars Timothy Hutton, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Brittany Snow, and Emily Osment made the trip to St. John’s.

A month prior, Jimmy Fallon, host of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, came to St. John’s with Eric Ripert, Executive Chef and Co-Owner of La Bernardin restaurant, to film a cooking segment inside Century Hall. There, Chef Ripert gave students a lesson on how to cook “gourmet” food in their residence halls, including delicacies such as “Dormét Cheeto Omelet” and “Leftover Cheeseburger Bolognese.”

In 2018, Carnesecca Arena’s hardwood was transformed into the home court of the fictitious Gramercy College Wildcats for an episode of the CBS hit series Blue Bloods. Costars Donnie Wahlberg and Marissa Ramirez spent an entire day filming scenes for the episode entitled “Milestones,” in which their characters investigate a crime involving a college basketball player.

“Donnie was one of the nicest people you could ever meet,” recalled Ms. O’Hara. “He was very down to earth. I asked him if the long shooting days were difficult and he shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘I could be digging ditches.’”

Sometimes timing is everything. When the producers of the romantic comedy It’s Complicated needed to shoot a college graduation scene, they filmed on St. John’s Great Lawn during the University’s Commencement Exercises.

“It really needs to be a perfect storm for a shoot to take place,” Ms. O’Hara explained. “There are so many different factors that are taken into consideration.”

For the Commencement scene in the film, production crews shot footage on campus the day of the ceremony, making certain to stay out of the way of graduates and their families. The following day, with the campus still set up for Commencement, stars Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, and John Krasinski arrived to film their scene, along with 1,000 extras. Footage from the two days were seamlessly edited together—resulting in a scene that lasts less than one minute in the film.  

 “There are times when we have to say no because a location is already scheduled for a campus event,” she said. “Most production companies shoot Monday through Friday, which is also when most of our buildings are in use for student programs.”

Producers of a Katy Perry music video explored the option of filming inside Carnesecca Arena, but had to film elsewhere because the arena was already booked on the day Ms. Perry and her crew wanted to film. Similarly, the producers of the Jennifer Lopez film Second Act were interested in shooting scenes at Jack Kaiser Stadium; however, the field was being converted from grass to turf that winter, making filming there impossible.  

TV and film crews are not the only ones who come to St. John’s to film. Through the years, many commercial shoots and promotional events have taken place on campus, as well.

In late 2017, GEICO came to campus to film a series of canine-focused commercials to coincide with Animal Planet’s popular Puppy Bowl, which airs each year on Super Bowl Sunday. In one commercial, a dachshund (sometimes known as a “wiener dog”) can be seen selling hot dogs outside of Belson Stadium. Another ad featured a boxer operating a forklift at a D’Angelo Center (DAC) loading dock.

Sometimes, students get involved behind the scenes of a shoot, as was the case when the Peace Corps filmed a recruitment commercial at both the DAC and St. Augustine Hall.  

“The producer specifically asked us for film students on campus who were willing to help,” said Ms. O’Hara. “We sent out a request to the department chairs to see if any students would volunteer their time.”

For Dramatic Arts, Film, and Television major Amanda G. Kimbo, the decision to volunteer has paid off in other ways.

“I met the producer in DAC the weekend of the shoot and worked as a production assistant (PA) and background actor for the commercial,” she recalled. “After it was over, he asked if I was available to work as a PA on additional commercials, including spots for Spotify and General Electric.”

Now a senior, Amanda has since worked with that same producer on several projects, including the Oscar-winning film The Neighbors’ Window, which earned an Academy Award® for “Best Live Action Short” at the 2020 awards ceremony. 

“I am immensely proud of this because my name is included in the credits—twice!” she said.

Students are sometimes the subjects of a commercial or promotion, as was the case when Chevrolet brought its #BestDayEver promotion to St. John’s on April 1, 2015. As part of the national April Fool’s Day campaign, Walking Dead actor Norman Reedus surprised a television production class in Marillac Hall’s Television and Film Center as their special guest lecturer. Mr. Reedus answered questions from the students about his experiences in the TV and film industry and offered career advice.

In a similar promotion, Coca-Cola pranked unsuspecting students in Marillac Hall with their Happiness Machine–a Coke vending machine that dispensed a variety of unexpected surprises including extra bottles of soda, a bouquet of flowers, and a six-foot hero. Producers of the commercial installed a false wall behind the machine, which allowed members of their team to stand inside the machine undetected and dispense prizes while filming the students’ reactions.

For Ms. O’Hara, one of the most gratifying parts of her role is seeing the finished product. “There are so many instances when a scene that was filmed here ends up on the editing room floor,” Ms. O’Hara added. “That is why it is so special when St. John’s facilities are part of the finished product.”