Big Apple tries to regain pic prod’n juice

Slowdown reflects changes in the industry as a whole

NEW YORK — Gotham’s production woes are far from over.

TV work continues to be the city’s strong suit, and the New York commercial biz is bouncing back. But the number of studio films coming to the Big Apple has sharply declined over the past year.

Some below-the-line workers can traverse from one biz to the next with ease. But many from the feature arena can’t, and they’ve been hit hardest.

Still, city leaders say a recovery of sorts is under way, and producers on both coasts insist they love lensing in photogenic Gotham, whose energy they say cannot be bottled or reproduced elsewhere.

The Mayor’s Office of Theater, Film and Broadcasting issued a report in April indicating that the number of film and TV permitted shooting days in Gotham for 2001 had reached its lowest level since 1994 — 18,096 (there were 22,029 in 2000). That’s even with the production increase early in 2001 in the face of strike threats by the Screen Actors Guild and Writers Guild of America.

Though the 2002 figures are not yet available, data collected by the theatrical Teamsters’ union Local 817 demonstrates that the area hit hardest is feature film.

Early in 2002, TV production rose slightly, and the commercials business has been rebounding gradually since the commercials strike in 2000.

But there were a mere four features lensing in part or in full in Gotham during February, compared with 19 during the same period a year earlier; 13 were shot in June, compared to 23 during the same month in 2001. And month by month, all the numbers are lower than last year’s figures to this point.

Still hope

A strong second half could bring the city’s total number of pics to roughly 200, on par with last year, though the year’s final shooting-days tally, not pic count, will be more telling.

Local 817’s Thomas O’Donnell said the actual monetary loss from 2001 to 2002 was less than 9%. But his Teamsters work not only on features but also on commercials and television.

The city’s staunchest supporters say Gotham’s woes are a cyclical problem and part of larger trends afoot, such as the globalization of entertainment congloms, the majors’ love affair with tentpole pics and runaway production.

“All of us in New York have to look at what is going on in the film industry as a whole before we cry, ‘Oh, we don’t have any movies here,’ ” said Jane Rosenthal, Robert De Niro’s partner at the Tribeca Film Center.

Together with De Niro, she coordinated the successful inaugural Tribeca Film Festival and recently wrapped production on De Niro/Billy Crystal sequel “Analyze That” and the Comedy Central telepic “Porn ‘n Chicken” — both shot in Gotham.

“Production here follows the trends around the country,” Rosenthal added. “New York isn’t the only city that is losing to Canada. So is Los Angeles.”

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s new handpicked commissioner, Kathleen Oliver, agreed.

“We can’t take a myopic view of the city’s production industry,” Oliver said. “Entertainment as a whole is undergoing a tectonic shift, with shrinking budgets and the globalization of all media forms. We need to capitalize on the enormous creative energy and brain power in New York City — pull together decisionmakers, labor and production-support businesses to develop incentives that market us in a new way.”

George DeTitta, president of IATSE Local 52 (motion picture studio mechanics and others), acknowledged that it’s a little slow now, but he remains optimistic.

“I think we have reached the end of the period of time where Sept. 11 and the strikes that never happened are affecting things,” he said. “Production will return here. I have a positive attitude. The contracts are no different now than they were a year ago when we had so much production.”

However, Local 52 is beginning fresh contract negotiations with the majors later this month that DeTitta said could result in some change.

Challenges ahead

Oliver, meanwhile, has her work cut out for her. The 9/11 attacks only exacerbated a production downturn that had begun in the latter half of 2001 before the terrorist attacks. Because production and stockpiling of pics had accelerated production so greatly amid the threat of SAG and WGA strikes, the predicted slowdown took effect by late last summer. By that time, the country had fallen into a recession.

Just two weeks after the attacks, the mayor’s office confidently allowed filmmakers to return to the streets of Manhattan.

Disney’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” which had been location scouting on Sept. 11, was one of the first features to return; “Third Watch” was the first TV show back in action.

Under commissioner Pat Scott, the mayor’s office, local unions and trade orgs met with leaders on both coasts to strategize a recovery. By mid-October, it seemed that everyone had jumped onto the bring-back-New York bandwagon.

And they had a winning pitch: The entertainment business began in New York and today brings billions in annual revenue; it must not die in the Big Apple’s battered streets.

Their cries were heard — in the New York community, on the West Coast, all over the globe.

Broadway coordinated a celebrity-filled, bring-back-New York Theater PSA, filmed live at Times Square.

The ad biz launched a “We Love New York” campaign and committed to more New York-centric shoots. Woody Allen made a surprise appearance at the Oscars, articulately singing Manhattan’s praises.

But by early spring, the momentum seemed to grind to a halt. Some of the film companies that looked like they might bring work to Gotham changed their plans.

Despite high-profile shoots such as Warner Bros.’ Sandra Bullock pic “Two Weeks Notice” or Paramount’s “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,” companies were looking for ways to cut corners. Even the emotional draw to be part of a new Gotham energy could not persuade the studio suits to justify New York’s higher insurance and union costs.

Studio shortage

Part of the problem of shooting in Gotham has always been the availability of studio space. That helps explains why some companies like New York-based Miramax shoot many of their films outside Gotham and do nearly all their film processing in a lab in Toronto.

Miramax recently did shoot “Kate & Leopold” and “Duplex” in New York, and a rep for the company spoke of an ongoing dialogue with Gov. George Pataki and the mayor about “making New York City a more affordable and feasible location for filming.”

After the city, under former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, reneged on an agreement with Miramax to develop a studio space in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the company, in conjunction with Tribeca Films, is said to be once again honing in on plans to build a studio in Yonkers.

Real-estate moguls the Steiners are speaking to potential partners about their continued push for a studio in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Moreover, Danny Aiello recently unveiled his Stapleton Studios venture on Staten Island, proclaiming his dream to keep production in New York and away from Canada. In March, a consortium of investors announced plans to build a $375 million Studio City in midtown (Daily Variety, March 1).

Still, for the moment, the costs of shooting in Gotham remain prohibitive.

“If you can save 35%-40% going to Canada,” said Joe Roth, the former Disney studio chief, “it’s hard to explain to the studio accountants that it’s better to go to New York.”

But Roth is his own boss now at Revolution Studios, and he happens to have grown up in New York.

Since 9/11, Roth has insisted on supporting Gotham: His company lensed the feature “Chambermaid,” starring Jennifer Lopez, and the TV series “Queens Supreme” in Gotham. Revolution will next make “Mona Lisa Smile,” starring Julia Roberts, in New York.

“I think that New York is a great character on film,” Roth said. “You can feel that. Whether it’s ‘Manhattan’ or ‘Tootsie,’ New York movies just play better in New York.”

But not everyone is Roth. “It all comes down to dollars and cents,” said Jean Doumanian, Woody Allen’s former prod
ucer who is now making her own films and recently elected to do her post-production work in Toronto.

“When you’re an indie, you try to put everything onscreen. Especially after Sept. 11, the unions really should become competitive. You need to fill the gap to make shooting in New York more attractive. You need to negotiate more in favor of the production.”

However, some Gotham low-budget feature producers say the unions have been great at negotiating during a tough year.

“Independent productions are done on an individual basis,” acknowledged Local 52’s DeTitta. “There is wiggle room there, mostly with films under $6 million. There’s no wiggle room with the majors; we abide by the long-term agreements we have reached with them.”

Pat Kaufman of the New York governor’s office praised the city’s tax breaks on production goods and services, as well as the free parking, permits and police.

In the arena of low-budget production, Gotham’s perennial strong suit, there are signs of recovery.

Lloyd Forcellini, veep and technical director of Gotham’s DuArt Labs, said that after Sept. 11 all the jobs seemed to go away but that in the past three months, there’s been a new wave of low-budget projects.

“Between now and Sundance we are going to be very busy,” he noted.

John Johnston, Kodak’s East Coast sales and marketing manager, said his company was seeing some rebound but wondered whether it would be sustainable.

“We’re getting ready for the fall TV season, and there are some good numbers around that,” he said. “We feel reasonably confident about this quarter, but it’s next quarter we’re not sure of. That’s everyone’s concern. I like to say, ‘We’re cautiously optimistic.’ ”

Scott Fleisher, a veep at Panavision in New York, estimates his business is off 20%-25%.

“My theory,” declared GreeneStreet partner John Penotti, who is producing MGM’s “Molly Gunn” in New York, “is that nothing really changed … I feel that people were more emboldened to shoot here. The strong crews and talent were more willing to be here.”

But Gotham production insiders still worry about the larger issues.

“We can’t compete with that dollar thing in Canada,” O’Donnell said. “We can’t compete with Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Australia.

“On top of that, the tax incentives on labor, we just can’t compete with them. TV work has saved this city … HBO is part of the savior. They’re doing ‘Angels in America,’ ‘Sex and the City,’ ‘The Sopranos,’ plus a lot of MOVs.”

But the arena of big-budget feature production has below-the-liners most worried.

“The business will slowly die here,” said G. Mac Brown, a Gotham-based feature producer whose credits include “Unfaithful,” “Scent of a Woman” and “You’ve Got Mail.”

“One of the great things about New York is that the film industry basically started here,” Brown continued. “The Teamsters, the cameramen, the electricians, the grips and the prop men have been in the business for generations. It’s a way of life for them. It’s a shame that we can’t keep them here.”

Paul Bernard, anassistant director, added that the large-budget feature is an endangered species in Gotham.

“There’s no reason for people to come to New York any more other than to shoot exteriors,” said Bernard, who has worked on such films as “Vanilla Sky,” “The Hurricane” and “The Patriot.” “It’s a business that I see fading. People in New York used to come to me. Now I have to go look for jobs.”

Unlike Brown, Bernard has sustained himself through commercials and low-budget features. His next gig is “Tomorrow,” Roland Emmerich’s mega-budgeted action pic lensing in Los Angeles in October.Brown hasn’t worked since “Unfaithful” last summer. His next gig is the low-budget feature “Max and Grace,” which begins lensing in Gotham later in the month.

Kalina Ivanov, a production designer working on “Molly Gunn,” acknowledged that she’s been busy but lucky. “Only 20% of the people in my union are working. There’s a tremendous amount of worrying among my friends. The consensus is that work hasn’t really come back.”

“The way to increase the number of productions coming to New York City is to let it be known that one can negotiate better deals,” Doumanian said. “But I doubt that anyone would want to do that.”

Read how terrorism has affected entertainment at Variety.com/sept11.

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