Searchlight blazes in N.Y.

Famuyiwa pic 'Brown' first prod'n to shoot in Gotham since tragedy

As the Gotham film industry begins its cautious return to normalcy, Fox Searchlight is leading the charge with a pair of projects that will shoot in the city this month.

With five productions slated for the remainder of 2001, Fox Searchlight, which is Fox’s arthouse shingle headed by Peter Rice, probably ranks as the industry’s single busiest production unit.

On Oct. 10, Searchlight began principal photography on “Brown Sugar.” Skedded for a seven-week shoot, the second feature from director Rick Famuyiwa will use locations in four of Gotham’s five boroughs; it’s the first feature-length pic to shoot in New York City since the tragedy. (Several other films have already returned for reshoots and additional sequences.)

On Tuesday, Jim Sheridan’s “East of Harlem” will begin two weeks of exterior sequences in Manhattan; all interiors for the immigrant drama, set entirely in New York, were filmed in Sheridan’s native Ireland. Pic stars Samantha Morton, Paddy Considine and Djimon Hounsou.

Described by Famuyiwa as a “love letter to New York,” “Brown Sugar” concerns the relationship between two successful music biz professionals who share a passion for hip-hop. Pic stars Taye Diggs, Sanaa Lathan and rappers Mos Def, Queen Latifah and Method Man.

The decision to move forward with the film was made immediately after the World Trade Center attacks. On Sept. 12, with the Queens production office inaccessible to the largely Manhattan-based crew, producer Peter Heller, co-producer Trish Hofmann and Famuyiwa summoned all department heads to a meeting in Riverside Park to discuss their options.

“Uniformly, to the last person, everyone insisted that we keep going,” said Famuyiwa, whose first pic, 1998’s “The Wood,” was filmed in his home state of California. “It’s a credit to the toughness of this city that we were able to continue.”

Logistical challenges

The Oct. 1 start date was pushed back one week, and while it is still early to tell, the cost overages incurred as a result of the delay may not be the only extra expenses Searchlight will have to cover. With the city’s recent restrictions on allowing passenger vehicles with fewer than two occupants to enter Manhattan, more production assistants will be brought on for runs between the boroughs to fill the extra seat.

Extra PAs will also be required to secure production parking, since the mayor’s office has temporarily suspended its service of towing unauthorized vehicles from permitted locations.

Police have been spot-checking commercial vehicles, which will cause further delays, and longer travel times in general will result in increased overtime wages and turnaround issues for the cast and crew.

“What used to take 20 minutes now takes 45,” said Hofmann, whose credits include “Down to You,” “The Grey Zone” and “Igby Goes Down.” “That being said, both the Teamsters and the crew union have gone a long way to accommodate us. And Fox has supported every adjustment we’ve had to make.”

Searchlight had other reasons to focus on Gotham last week.

On Oct. 12, company president Peter Rice and other senior execs were on hand at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall for the East Coast preem of Richard Linklater’s animated “Waking Life,” which screened as part of the 39th New York Film Festival.

Searchlight acquired the fest-circuit favorite in April and will open it in New York, Los Angeles, Toronto and Chicago this week. Rice plans to roll out to 125 screens in 50 markets by mid-November.

Two other Searchlight projects — Denzel Washington’s yet-to-be-named directorial debut (currently known as the “Untitled Antwone Fisher Project”) and Danny Boyle’s supernatural thriller “28 Days Later” — are lensing in Cleveland and the U.K., respectively. Five other releases are set to bow by 2002, including the Robin Williams starrer “One Hour Photo.”

Searchlight shines

The company has certainly seen its share of recent successes. In addition to “Kingdom Come,” which grossed $23 million domestically, Searchlight had two of the summer’s top three specialty releases with “Sexy Beast” and “The Deep End.”

“In my corner of the business,” Rice said, “if you do $10 million with a film, it’s the equivalent of a $100 million hit, and if you do $20 million, it’s considered an arthouse blockbuster.”

And, in the wake of last month’s terror, if you lead the filming charge back into Gotham, it’s called an investment in the future.

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