Old habits are hard to change. So are old perceptions and stereotypes.
Such is the case with New York City and its role as a backdrop for film and television productions. For years the city has suffered from a bad rap. Many complained that the city was too expensive and the unions too tough to tame. Richard Brick knows all too well the perception the Big Apple has among Hollywood filmmakers.
Brick, the city’s official czar of motion pictures and television and a former film producer, has the unenviable task of breaking the stereotypes and bad information that keep some productions from New York.
In terms of location issues, New York offers producers of television, film and commercials a vast array of settings–from bustling city streets to residential neighborhoods and great park land–all within city confines and without exhausting drives. Where else could you find the Brooklyn Bridge?
Yet in recent years productions that would have shot in the city have fled north to Toronto or south to Wilmington, N. C., where productions can escape some of New York’s union confines and reduce production overhead.
The reasons for the changes were twofold. There was a well-documented boycott of the city by the major film studios when they could not come to terms with the unions. And for awhile it seemed the city government itself was putting less emphasis on the film industry. Less emphasis on an industry that has been estimated to generate $ 3 billion a year for the city.
Part of the city’s indifference came from the fact that it took many months to replace the former commissioner of film, theater and broadcasting with Brick. More than 825 people applied for the job.
“Six months ago there was a perceived indifference by the city,” Brick says, comparing the office today with the previous operation. “It was an area that desperately needed leadership and backing by the city government.”
That backing came last May when the city hired Barry Sullivan, a former banker, as the city’s head of economic development. Sullivan was one of the first people who actually started looking at jobs in the entertainment industry the same way as those in other industries had been considered when those businesses started to flee the city.
Sullivan believed it was time to start putting as much emphasis on entertainment jobs in the city as had been put on those in manufacturing. Sullivan was also charged with finding a new film commissioner, which ultimately lead to Brick’s appointment.
With the arrival of Brick has come a newfound commitment to the entertainment industry, a commitment city officials are backing up with cold cash.
Mayor David Dinkins has boosted the Office of Film, Theater & Broadcasting’s annual budget from $ 500,000 to $ 1 million, which will enable Brick to hire a deputy, secure more office staff and to upgrade facilities.
In addition, the commitment will include the creation of a printed brochure and a promotional video that will cite the good things New York offers filmmakers.
Over the past three years, the total number of films shot in the city has remained roughly the same. What has changed, however, is the budgets of the films shot during that time.
Hollywood’s biggest players kept the big-budget features out of the city while their dispute with the unions was ongoing. But, while the big guys stayed away, the smaller producers, those with budgets in the $ 4-$ 7 million range, came.
“There was more activity but of a different ilk,” Brick explains.
And, ironically, despite all of the negative publicity the unions have received over the years, it was the unions that led a resurgence of smaller-budgeted pictures being made in the city. The East Coast Council has been willing to work with producers on a picture-by-picture basis and tailoring overall costs to a production’s budget.
Getting producers and studios to believe New York is not an expensive place to work is part of Brick’s job. For years the city has suffered from the perception that it is a very expensive place to do business. Yes, some things cost more in the Big Apple, but according to Brick most of the cost estimations are based on old, outdated information.
Indeed, recent U.S. Chamber of Commerce figures put Los Angeles 35% above the cost-of-living index and New York 121% above average. Brick thinks those numbers are absurd.
Brick assures that the smaller-budgeted pictures can’t be made cheaper in another union town. Moreover, he says, producers would have a tough time proving that a recent filming mecca like Wilmington, N.C., is that much cheaper, when all of the extra costs involved are included.
He is willing to admit that on the big-budget projects, such as “Home Alone 2 ,” there is a price differential, but contends that on a film like that the upside is so large that the difference shouldn’t become a factor.
According to Brick, he’s never seen the New York entertainment industry hungrier to get work into the city. “Vendors, labs, crews…they are willing to make any deal. They’ll sit down and talk on a picture-by-picture basis.”
Most of those involved with the city’s production business cite the recent dealings with the producers of “Six Degrees of Separation,”
MGM’s adaptation of John Guare’s
Initially, director Fred Schepisi and producer Ric Kidney wanted to shoot exteriors for the film in Gotham and then shoot the interiors in Toronto. However, with a commitment from the producers that they would shoot the whole thing in New York, provided the dollars were right, Brick made some calls. By the time he finished and Schepisi and Kidney negotiated with the unions, they found the price was right to do the entire picture in the city. This was important because all involved believed that “Six Degrees” is a New York film.
As far as the majors go, however, Brick realizes he’s going to have to change the negative New York perceptions that are widely held.
“Essentially, what you have is eight or nine guys with an anti-New York mind set,” Brick says. “This mind set is out of date and inaccurate.”
Brick also cites the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which in the past has been the subject of a lot of negative impressions within the film community.
“The Teamsters can be flexible,” the commissioner says.