In addressing the subject of runaway production affecting the New York film industry, Edward Burns knows he’s part of the problem.
“Unfortunately, as an actor, there is not much you can do about it,” he says from Nova Scotia. “In my short acting career, I’ve done two movies in Canada, one in the U.K., one in Prague and only two in the U.S.,” he says.
InDigEnt founder Gary Winick also knows he’s contributing to the downfall of his neighborhood economy since he shot the interiors for his Disney film “13 Going on 30” in Los Angeles even though it’s set in Manhattan. “They wouldn’t let me do it in New York,” he says.
Producer Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas sings the same tune from L.A., where she is overseeing post for “Little Black Book,” which is set in Gotham but filmed only exteriors in the city. “It was just more cost-effective,” Goldsmith-Thomas says.
These three represent the current dilemma for New York: Filmmakers involved with stories set in Gotham give lip service to shooting in the city, but not everyone can. While a star like Robert De Niro might demand a film shoot in New York, like he did for Fox’s “Hide and Seek.” For a low-budget indie, it’s an easier decision, especially if all the crew and actors live there, which was the case for “Jailbait.” Pic also will bow locally, at the Tribeca Film Festival.
But most of the time, if productions do come, they breeze into town for a few days for establishing shots and fake the interiors elsewhere, mostly in Canada, and then take post-production work to the cheapest bidder.
“When you’re dummying the exteriors to look like New York, then you can tell and it looks fake. But when you shoot your exteriors in New York and your interiors elsewhere, you can’t,” says producer Bill Mechanic, who was doing just that for Walter Salles’ “Dark Water,” which spent weeks in Toronto and then came to Roosevelt Island in New York for several days.
Film production accounts for a minor part of the city’s overall revenue and employment, but it is a huge factor in the city’s image. Since the late 1990s, when film production hit its peak, the local industry has been in a downward spiral, hitting bottom in 2000. Since then, the Mayor’s Office for Film, Theater and Broadcasting, as well as the state Film Commission and almost every department of the city government, have been working together to keep production in New York. Specifically, they have been encouraging productions — mostly big-budget studio films — to complete their entire projects in metropolitan New York. So far they have succeeded in leveling off the numbers, at least in terms of shooting days and employment. The post-production industry, however, is still in dire straits.
The efforts constitute what the city’s film commissioner, Katherine Oliver, calls a concierge service. In her 18 months in office, she has put the permit process online and tried to up the ante on customer service. She also has been to L.A. many times with state film commissioner Pat Kaufman, taking the hard sell to the studios, talking up the free police protection and the increase of available studio space to shoot interiors.
There’s also a new perk: cash. The Empire State Develop Corp., a state economic development agency, just announced a $100,000 grant to Universal for “The Interpreter.” The money comes from a fund that is mostly given to factories and other large businesses to keep them from moving away. This is the first time the money has been given to a single film production, but the state decided it qualified because it was in danger of losing the production to Canada.
This could open the floodgates for other projects demanding money, but ESD chair Charles Gargano says, “We don’t have a blank check here. We’re trying to encourage the industry to the extent we have the wherewithal.”
In an ironic twist, the last ace up Oliver’s sleeve is trying to convince film productions that they can shoot in properties that New York owns for free and use them to double for exotic and expensive worldwide locales. “We have a rock garden in Staten Island where you’d swear you were in China,” she says, “and parts of City Island look just like the French Riviera.”
They have nothing, however, that could double for Toronto.