Recent prod'n growth only raises expectations
Though the New York production community is galvanized around a need to rebuild and prove once again to the world that New York still deserves its reputation as the most photogenic city in the world, its travails lie deeper than the tragedy that gripped the globe Sept. 11.
And while Patricia Reed Scott, commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theater and Broadcasting, followed the mayor’s mandate that businesses should move ahead — she only briefly stopped issuing filming permits in the wake of the disaster — by Sept. 19 her office was almost fully operational. She hoped that police officers, busy at ground zero and other locales, would be available for production crews by month’s end.
But with the economy hit hard and many of the larger film projects shot prior to threatened Writers Guild of America and Screen Actors Guild strikes, getting back to normal in the Big Apple may not be easy. Soho Audio’s Larry Loewinger wrote in a memo to Gotham industryites: “Make no mistake, for the immediate future the prospects for film and video production in New York City are in grave peril.”
On Sept. 20, Scott joined Pat Kaufman of the Governor’s Film Office, reps from all local Intl. Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees unions, a smattering of producers, and reps for Silver Cup and Kaufman Astoria Studios for an ad hoc meeting that focused on the future. Chaired by Feature Systems’ Bob Bailin, the group put luring production back to Gotham on the top of its agenda.
While discussions are ongoing, the Assn. of Independent Commercial Producers prexy and CEO Matt Miller says the room was filled with incredible pride for how well the Gotham community responded to the tragedy: IATSE Local 52, the grip and lighting union, officially donated its services. KAS Lighting, Panavision, Feature Systems and other companies volunteered equipment to help rescue efforts.
Glass half full
Recent events might have rallied the city’s leaders and citizens in ways that are no less than inspiring, but the challenges that existed prior to Sept. 11 remain: Chiefly, shooting in Gotham isn’t getting any cheaper. And while the entertainment business has flourished during Rudolph Giuliani’s tenure, the threat of a setback under a new mayor operating in a tighter economic climate is real enough to worry some in the local film community.
To be sure, Giuliani repolished the Big Apple, making it a more desirable place to live. New neighborhoods have sprung up where lynx-eyed prostitutes once lurked. A bike and running path connects Battery Park to the George Washington Bridge. And often you could see crews — whether students or Woody Allen’s seasoned professionals — huddled around a camera, waiting for the director to cry “Action!”
In comparison with the early 1990s, the state of Gotham production is indeed rosy. According to a study conducted by the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting (MOFTB), is this different from the Office above? overall production shooting days have increased 115% since 1993, while the number of features has ballooned from 69 in 1993 to 201 this year. Broadway receipts are up 87%. Revenue from film, TV and commercial production has risen to over $5 billion annually.
But numbers tell only part of the story. Over the past several years, the commercial strike and the cost of doing business in Gotham has driven what one source estimates to be 60%-70% of commercial production out of town. And as the infrastructure to shoot in other U.S., Canadian and European cities increases, New York is falling behind.
“The idea of runaway production is something of the last century,” says Miller. “It’s not runaway, it’s competition. We need to think about how we are going to make the film industry here competitive on the worldwide canvas.”
Moreover, the City Council has pending legislation that could curtail the MOFTB’s power and leave film-crew permitting a fragmented process, partially controlled by community boards. While this scenario does not appear imminent (the council has yet to hold a second hearing on the topic), it underscores a fact of life in New York: As production increases, so does the ire of residents whose neighborhoods become producer’s backlots.
Victim of success
Four years ago, former MOFTB head Richard Brick delivered a talk to members of the Gotham film community.
“We are witnessing a new, well-articulated and organized backlash to the record production activity,” he said. “Recent structural changes in city government for the first time have made possible that which was unthinkable 10 years ago: legislative curtailment of the MOFTB permitting process.”
Brick detailed how citizens in the most abused neighborhoods had lobbied their local community boards and City Council reps.
“Now we’re a victim of our own success and it could collapse,” said Brick. “The change would be draconian.”
As an acknowledgment of the threat from community boards, Giuliani and Pat Scott established Gotham Hot Zones — desirable shooting areas where production is tightly monitored so that the locales are not used repeatedly in the same year.
Brick, Scott and others say that the conduct of crews in neighborhoods varies widely — with the worst offenders usually out-of-towners. Skilled indigenous crews for pics by Woody Allen, or shows such as “Law & Order” and “100 Centre Street,” are viewed as paragons of good behavior, rarely abusing parking privileges or causing great disturbances in a neighborhood. And there’s mutual respect between the MOFTB and the producers of these shows.
Still, observers of the Gotham production scene call for a larger MOFTB budget (so that the office runs more smoothly), a greater outreach effort by the city to create tax incentives to shoot locally and a strictly enforced code of conduct for production crews.
Mayoral outcome key
Some see the upcoming mayoral election as a pivotal moment: A proactive force in hizzoner’s officer would have the power to encourage plans to build soundstages, mobilize a “Shoot in NYC” publicity campaign, and appoint a new commissioner — whether a merit appointee from the industry or a political choice.
Mayoral candidate Mark Green tells Variety that he would love to see the MOFTB do away entirely with its existing system of filling out permit requests in triplicate.
“All of that business should be done online by now,” says Green.
He also lambastes Giuliani for putting the kibosh on Miramax and Tribeca’s planned involvement with stages at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Due to open in 2003, the Brooklyn Navy Yard still reps an important step toward bridging the gap between Gotham and L.A. But most observers say it is not enough.
“Many people choose to do location work in New York,” says Lynn Harris, New Line’s bicoastal exec veep of production, who has overseen some of the studio’s local productions. “But it’s still more economical to do stage and interior work elsewhere — such as L.A. and Canada. It would be great to have facilities in New York that were more economical. That way you don’t have to split up a production.”
Outside of the Silver Cup Studios and Kaufman Astoria Studios, which is finally breaking ground on its seventh soundstage in the fall, there’s slim pickings in the Gotham environs. No wonder Miramax and Tribeca are continuing to pursue building space of their own.
But for the moment, Scott and the MOFTB are proud of what has been accomplished under Giuliani.
“There have not been so many primetime TV shows being shot in New York City since the 1960s,” says commissioner Scott, seated in the cluttered mid-Manhattan office from which she runs the MOFTB.
During the first six months of the year, as the threat of WGA and SAG strikes loomed, Scott’s office was a hectic place. And with the destruction and carnage in the financial district the week before last, Scott is both proud of the achievements of the Giuliani era, and cognizant that perceptions might have changed.
“We’re a $2.5 billion industry and we don’t want to see that change,” says Scott. “New York is working at top speed to get back to business as usual, and we’re open for shooting in all boroughs except in Manhattan.”
Scott adds that the city should be fully operational by Sept. 30 at the latest, and that the message from Mayor Giuliani is: “We want you here and we will be ready for you.”
“We spend a lot of time in the development of good will,” she adds. “We cultivate local talent, film school talent. And we are the only city in the country where you can get free parking, free locations, free police. We are fulfilling Mayor John Lindsay’s original vision of making everything readily available to film crews.”
The producing community appears to be behind Scott and Giuliani.
“I think the city did a remarkable job making everything work in the past six months,” says “100 Centre Street” producer Steve Rose. “The first six months (of 2001) couldn’t be a better commercial for how wonderfully the Mayor’s Office and the city have worked together.”
Woody Allen’s producer, Helen Rubin, agrees, noting, “All in all, I think we’re pretty lucky here. I am all for us to work together to keep everything as easy as possible.”
“Law & Order” producer Lou Gould says Scott knows the problems and is “doing a pretty good job juggling things,” though he claims it’s tougher to shoot in New York than it was five years ago.
“I wish there were a way for there to be a public relations effort made to explain the benefits of shooting in New York. It’s a huge business here.”
“The first thing you can do to keep production here is make the city safe and clean,” says Republican mayoral front-runner Michael Bloomberg — sounding like he’s working on Giuliani’s campaign team, rather than his own.
But some Gothamites feel Giuliani has taken too much credit for the boom in production over the past decade, contending he was the beneficiary of these changes, not their implementer.
Real progress came late in 1991, just after a seven-month boycott of New York production staged by the studios. The unions had priced themselves out of the market and some of Gotham’s top crew members migrated west to find work. As a result, the unions felt the pressure to lower their wages and production slowly returned.
Now, despite the boom, and in light of recent events, the question remains: Can the production community match the resilience of Gotham’s citizens and truly bounce back?