Donald Trump, Wannabe Movie Mogul? The Little-Known Story of His Almost-Hollywood Studio

Getty Images
Donald Trump

He's put his name on golf courses, vodkas, steaks and (maybe you've heard) a university, but in 2012 the real estate developer turned Republican presidential candidate nearly became a film chief. Here's what sparked the idea — and how the plan unraveled.

The spring of 2012, Donald Trump was at a crossroads. The Apprentice, his once hugely successful NBC reality show, had been off the air for two years, while its spinoff, Celebrity Apprentice, was slumping in the ratings. He still had Miss Universe, but Trump University had folded, as had his gambling, vodka and steak businesses. Not for the first time, Trump contemplated a run for the presidency but instead ended up endorsing Mitt Romney. Then, out of the blue, a prospect presented itself that the real estate baron couldn't resist, a chance to wield the sort of raw, fearsome power mere presidents can only dream of.

How would he like to own a movie studio?

The little-known tale of Trump World Studios — the time the Donald almost became a film and TV mogul — is not one Trump is particularly eager to recount. "It was a job I was thinking of doing, but I didn't do it," he told THR recently, brushing off a question about the failed venture attempted three years before he actually did run for president. But the story begins in April 2012 in Florida, where Trump was opening his newest golf resort, the Trump National Doral in Miami. And the first spark of the idea was ignited at a dinner Trump had arranged at Mar-a-Lago, his Palm Beach property, with a new friend on the Miami-Dade planning commission named Joe Martinez, a former cop and background actor (he did some work on Miami Vice) who at that time happened to be running for mayor of Miami.

Martinez was shocked by Trump's invitation — "We lived in two different worlds," he says — but instantly recognized a once-in-a-lifetime business opportunity. Over dinner, as Martinez's wife chatted with Melania Trump about "perfume and jewelry," Martinez seized his chance. "I said, 'Forgive me for bringing up business,' then I made my pitch." He proceeded to explain how, a decade earlier, he had attempted, with $50 million in backing from an Israeli investor, to turn an airplane hangar in Homestead, Fla., into a small film studio. The plan fell apart, but perhaps Trump might be interested in developing his own film and TV studio? "His wife liked the idea," Martinez remembers, "which is always a good thing."

But Trump, being Trump, thought Martinez should think bigger. Instead of merely turning an old airplane hangar into a rinky-dink studio, Trump envisioned an entire studio city, built on 800 acres of undeveloped, government-owned land in Homestead — a rural, economically depressed part of Miami-Dade that still was recovering from Hurricane Andrew two decades earlier. In fact, what Trump had in mind was nothing less than the largest film and TV studio in the nation, twice the size of the Universal Studios Florida theme park. For Martinez, who long had looked for a way to increase development in Homestead — and who could certainly use a jobs-growing scheme to run on in the upcoming mayoral election — it was better than hitting the jackpot at an Atlantic City casino.

Architectural renderings of Trump Studio City — later renamed Trump World Studios.

Trump wasted no time in moving ahead on the project. He immediately engaged his favorite design firm, John Fotiadis Architect, to draw up plans. "He wanted a world-class facility," recalls Fotiadis. "It was really like a city, with residential, commercial, retail, restaurants. It even had a grid, boulevards and a main plaza." The massive production campus included 15 backlots, multiple sound studios ranging in size from 25,000 to 250,000 square feet (for a total of 1 million square feet of indoor space) and even a housing complex for employees. Fotiadis cranked out the plans as fast as he could — "Trump doesn't waste people's time; when he calls, we get to work right away," he says — and within two months presented the finished designs to Trump and Martinez.

On June 5, 2012 — just two months after Martinez dined with Trump at Mar-a-Lago —Trump World Studios was being pitched to the Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners. The Trump exec doing the pitching was Michael Cohen, Trump's special counsel and all-around consigliere.

But Fotiadis was there, too, with his blueprints, as was Martinez, who a bit earlier had shared the plans with director Michael Bay, then shooting Pain & Gain in Miami. "I told him, 'I need three minutes of your time,' " Martinez recalls, cornering Bay at a special proclamation ceremony they both were attending. "He said, 'Nah, I gotta get back to The Rock and Mark Wahlberg.' But I showed him the plans. He told me he could have shot Transformers [at Trump World Studios] if it were available."

Inspired by his chat with Bay, Martinez marched into a commissioners meeting and delivered a rousing, Braveheart-esque speech about the benefits of Trump building a studio in Homestead. "What does Hollywood have that we don't?" he asked the commissioners. "What does L.A. have that we don't? They are not as close to Central and South America as we are. They are not as close to the financial capital of the world as we are. They are not as close to Europe as we are. … Why can't we have an industry that even the environmentalists like — the movie industry!"

At 800 acres (10 times the size of Disneyland), Trump Studio City would have been the largest film and TV production campus in America.

The commission agreed to undertake a feasibility report — and that's when things started to unravel. The plan presented by Trump involved him leasing the 800 acres from the government for one dollar a year. In return, Trump would spend "hundreds of millions" building the facilities. But as Cohen and his team delved deeper, they discovered that they needed to deal with about two dozen different entities to get the contiguous land they desired, and some of those entities already had plans for the property. Eighty-five acres had been set aside for "homeless assistance," 35 for public schools and 213 for a park, and other acres already were being leased by the U.S. military. Plus, there were environmental concerns: The area was home to the eastern indigo snake, an endangered species. Trump dispatched another exec, Ed Russo, an "environmentalist" (and onetime Ernest Hemingway look-alike contest finalist) on whom Trump had called in the past to smooth feathers on ecologically sensitive deals (like when Trump turned John DeLorean's 500-acre Victorian estate in New Jersey into a golf club).

By all accounts, Trump was deadly serious about the project. "It was an opportunity for creating an economic development zone and thousands of jobs," Cohen tells THR. "It would have done tremendous things for a lot of people." But the obstacles seemed insurmountable, and in September 2012, Cohen told the media that the project was on hold. Still, Trump wasn't ready to give up. A month later, he contradicted his counsel, sending a letter to the County Commissioners, stating, "I want to confirm my interest in pursuit of creating this new industry in South Florida and I know it will be a spectacular success." Privately, Trump was reported to have told his lieutenants to "get it done."

But there was one problem that not even the mighty Trump could get past: noise. It turned out that he wanted to build Trump World Studios on land right next door to the worst neighbor a film studio could have — the Homestead Air Reserve Base, where military jets constantly were landing and taking off. "I actually said, 'Can you move the Air Force base?' " Trump admitted, laughing. The answer was no, they couldn't. The final nail in the coffin appears to have been Martinez losing his bid for mayor to a candidate not quite so keen on Trump World Studios. By November 2012, the project was officially dead. "The whole thing just went away," says Sandy Lighterman, Miami-Dade's film commissioner. "We offered to find other property, but Trump's people weren't interested."

Since then, Lighterman says, others have kicked the tires on the Homestead acres, imagining another film studio in Florida, but it's a tougher sell than ever since the state cut its tax-incentive program for filmmakers (it winds down completely June 30). Meanwhile, the land in Homestead remains largely vacant and undeveloped. And Trump has gone on to apply for a different job.

This story first appeared in the June 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.