NEW YORK — Three years into a production boom, Gotham is learning to live with its role as Hollywood’s backlot.
The city’s crusty natives begrudgingly tolerate the detours and delays created by filming on their streets. They pretend to ignore the likes of Mel Gibson, Al Pacino and Barbra Streisand. But a production assistant who cuts off a tree branch or takes a coveted street parking space risks provoking a scene out of “Dog Day Afternoon.”
“No matter how well you warn the neighborhood, someone is going to be upset. But that one person can cause problems for a production,” says location manager Mark Kamine. “On the set of ‘Sleepers’ in Greenpoint (Brooklyn), there was a guy who was intent on getting that film out of the neighborhood.”
No one is expecting Hollywood to solve the city’s mental health problems, but the unions and government want to make sure that lensing doesn’t push normally sane New Yorkers over the edge. The Directors Guild of America/East has been holding seminars to educate current and future members about how to handle the public.
Meanwhile, the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting has adopted new rules to limit the amount of time parking is tied up by crew members.
“Locations should be treated like stars,” said production manager Paul Zulkowitz. “And production companies should act like guests. They should never stay more than three days.”
Zulkowitz and Ken Golden of the DGA/East organized the Streets of New York committee several months ago because they were concerned about the deterioration in the reputation of Gotham’s production community.
In March, the cameras of every Gotham TV station were rolling as a protest by Hasidic Jews shut down the set of Miramax’s “A Price Below Rubies” in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The protesters were upset that Orthodox Jews would be portrayed in a negative light by the film, which stars Renee Zellweger as a rabbi’s wife who defies him by taking a job in the diamond district.
More recently, Nicholas Hytner’s “Object of My Affection” was called on the carpet by New York magazine for the havoc the production caused while lensing at Manhattan Comprehensive Night and Day School.
Sometimes the scale of a production is enough to create a stir. Such was the case with the 21-day New York shoot for TriStar’s $90 million remake of the Japanese monster epic “Godzilla.” Following the Hollywood invasion of tanks, helicopters, wind generators, rainmaking equipment, huge lighting equipment and 500 extras, the delis in the Flatiron District got into the spirit by offering “Godzilla” iced coffees.
Although the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting received only two complaints about the “Godzilla” shoot, the production prompted Community Board 5 to form a subcommittee to study the impact of filming on the quality of life in its district, which covers Midtown Manhattan.
” ‘Godzilla’ did an enormous amount of community outreach,” said Lola Finkelstein, chair of Community Board 5. “They were shooting with very bright lights at midnight in Madison Square Park. It created a wonderful spirit in the neighborhood. It was an event that added to the color and texture of living in New York.”
Still, the DGA wants to make sure Hollywood doesn’t wear out its welcome in Gotham, where the number of location shooting days rose 40% to 21,286 during the past three years. “It’s a partnership,” said Roni Wheeler, chair of the DGA/East’s assistant director and unit production managers committee. “Filmmakers want the uniqueness and vibrancy of New York. But you have to give to get.”
No one can accuse Hollywood of not giving to New York. According to Patricia Reed Scott of the Mayor’s Commissioner for Film, Theatre and Broadcasting, direct expenditures from film and TV production rose 11% in 1996 to $2.2 billion. The indirect economic impact last year was up by the same amount to $5.1 billion. “As the volume of shooting days increases, we have to be ever more careful to co-exist peacefully with neighborhoods,” Scott said.
Government officials say the perception of the film industry is worse than the reality. “We used to get complaints about trees being destroyed and residents not being allowed into buildings during interior shoots, but we don’t hear them as much anymore. I give a lot of credit to the film office. They’ve been stressing the importance of working with neighborhoods,” said Victoria Caramante of Community Board 7, which covers Manhattan’s Upper West Side.