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Gotham struts its stage beauties

Money benefits loom as prod'n havens joust to bring more shoots to Big Apple

The Big Apple is peeling off its grouchy image, readying to welcome production with a bevy of new facilities and intiatives. Not surprisingly, the changes have come about with plenty of New York attitude.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been leading the charge, last year allowing HBO’s provocative “Taxicab Confessions” to return to shooting in Manhattan and recently inking a valuable promo campaign with the History Channel.

When a influential New Yorkers including Dick Wolf and Jane Rosenthal hit Gotham’s City Hall Dec. 1 to urge politicos to pass a pending film and TV tax incentive plan here, the wowed crowd welcomed the latest lure with a fanfare.

The proposed 5% credit for city prods — which could go to a vote as soon as this month — would be the latest in a spate of sweeping changes making New York more attractive to producers: New York State has already ok’d a plan to pass out $100 million in credits over four years to companies working in the state, and President Bush unexpectedly handed down an additional boost when he signed off on a massive tax bill last month that will aid low-budget filmmakers.

But the boon to Gotham — after a years-long slog by production pros through City Hall’s Byzantine maze — has been juiced, ironically, by a local off-screen soap opera that played out over the summer.

“Let’s just say that the Queens guys were very upset,” says Kaufman Astoria Studios president Hal Rosenbluth, looking back a few months ago from his offices in Queens. “But a great window was opened by the fight we made to not end up in a borough-vs.-borough war.”

While those lines might sound like the kind of hardboiled dialogue cooked up by a scribe on the set of “Law & Order: Trial by Jury” — lensing just downstairs from Rosenbluth on one of KAS’ soundstages — to describe a gangland turf war, it sums up the state of the soundstage business over the past few months.

The bone of contention that made two of the city’s biggest soundstage facilities — Astoria-based KAS and Long Island City’s Silvercup Studios — dyspeptic was Brooklyn newcomer Steiner Studios.

Shaking up what had previously been a congenial competition in the city between studios, Steiner had quietly devised a way to cut through the politcal maze that had trapped so many in the ongoing battle to create tax relief.

Before its doors opened, Steiner worked with its Brooklyn delegation to create a plan giving significant breaks to soundstages located in Empire Zones, the state’s industrial development areas that receive special tax privileges.

The scenario ultimately spurred a feverish political battle to block the plan and divert preferential treatment for Steiner, which had shrewdly linked with Brooklyn politicos to bypass the gridlock and create its own fiefdom. The streamlined Empire Zone concept could have a better chance of being OK’d by lawmakers, plus it came with a $20 million subsidy.

And, there was one giant catch: Steiner was the only Gotham facility located in an Empire Zone.

“Silvercup and (Kaufman Astoria) had always competed in a healthy, friendly way,” says Stuart Suna, the co-head of Silvercup Studios, which plays home to HBO’s “The Sopranos,” ABC’s “Hope & Faith” and Fox’s “Jonny Zero.” “But there was only one facility in any one of the 72 Empire Zones.”

One industry exec says that under such a scenario, a producer would feel “idiotic” if he or she were shooting at a Queens or Manhattan soundstage while the competition got a major tax break just over the bridge in Brooklyn.

Steiner’s rivals, and their own political reps, jumped into action, blocking the plan, but also clearing the way for a scenario where all New York stages could benefit.

Both Rosenbluth and Suna concur that what seemed like a major punch-up has now ended up a real boon to the city’s production industry when the dust cleared.

“We worked things out,” says Suna, “and we are working together. We weren’t ready, and by (Steiner) stepping out for themselves, it opened the door for the whole industry to do it equally.”

Adds Steiner head Doug Steiner: “I think that we have represented a big change for the production business in New York. But our gameplan has not been to take shows from other studios. We have to grow the pie, and that will mean more success for everyone.”

Steiner’s plan was ultimately amended to become a historic tax break for New York film and TV production. The plan was given the thumbs-up by Gov. George Pataki and provides $100 million over four years to cover tax write-offs for projects produced in New York state.

Next up comes the pending bill that would allow New York City to provide as much as $12.5 million in annual tax credits for production.

Says Rosenbluth: “The relationship between facilities has always been competitive but also based with the understanding of the well-being of the industry as a whole. This is all about getting the work. There’ll be enough business in town, and we’ll all be able to share the wealth.”

Proving the camaraderie that’s replaced the summer’s bruised egos, execs from KAS, Silvercup and Steiner hit the road together with New York film commish Katherine Oliver and her state counterpart Pat Kaufman in early November to promote the city’s new tax advantages.

A number of new productions have already been wending New York’s way as a direct result of the tax breaks, including Mel Brooks’ “The Producers,” shooting at Steiner for Universal.

An indie helmer and Vox 3 Films partner, Steven Shainberg (“Secretary”), whose next feature is “Fur,” starring Samantha Morton, says he would not have considered lensing the film south of Canada if it weren’t for the new cuts.

Says Steiner: “(The tax breaks) are making all the (Hollywood) studios take a harder look at New York. And the extent that there are three studios to play against each other is better than two.”

Oliver has additionally created a 1% marketing credit for studios to get breaks on Big Apple ad campaigns showing off features they’ve shot there.

But the warm fuzzy feelings aren’t completely giving way to the unexpected, if probably much-needed jolt that the industry got this summer.

“(The Gotham industry) needs to have more complexity, more depth and more breadth,” Suna says. “We would not be the financial capital if we didn’t have those things. Just as long as the playing field is even.”

Steiner, KAS and Silvercup all have major plans to expand and create more L.A.-like studio lots. Stay tuned.

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