Business is booming in the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theater and Broadcasting — $600 million in new production last year, including jobs for 100,000 New Yorkers.
It wasn’t that long ago cinematic New York City was losing productions to Canada, which was widely considered cheaper and less stressful for shoots.
While indelible images of Gotham have been an integral part of some of the most iconic films ever made, by the late ’90s the all-important Manhattan backdrop that played a supporting role in films such as “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “Annie Hall” and “Taxi Driver” had been upstaged by simple economics.
“Canada got very aggressive with tax credits in 1999, and that’s when the city started feeling it,” says commissioner Katherine Oliver, who was appointed in August 2002 under Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
“One of the first things I had to deal with was a movie about Rudy Giuliani starring James Woods that was being made in Montreal,” Oliver says. “The producers told me they hadn’t even budgeted for New York. There was the perception that New York wasn’t film-friendly. The ‘hassle factor’ kept people away.”
Under Oliver’s leadership, an office that had until that point been using typewriters and processing permits by hand became an advocacy center for film and filmmakers.
In short order, everything was computerized, and a major outreach campaign was launched to studios to trumpet the city’s free permits, locations, parking and police details.
When Sydney Pollack was in pre-production for “The Interpreter,” he asked the MOFTB to help him gain access to shoot inside the United Nations. Due in large part to an intensive lobbying effort by Bloomberg and Oliver, Pollack got approval — a filmmaking first.
“That sent a strong signal to the industry that things can happen in New York,” Oliver says.
In recent years, the office has arranged for other ambitious shoots, including 10 successive nights on the Brooklyn Bridge for “Stay.”
“Our message was, ‘We’ll do things like that if you spend your entire budget in the city,’ ” Oliver explains.
When Gothamite Mel Brooks and producer Jonathan Sanger set out to make the film version of the “The Producers” musical, they wanted to shoot in the city but weren’t sure they could.
“I was being courted by Canada with proposals offering substantial savings,” Sanger says, but director Susan Stroman “had a strong support system in the city, and to have that taken away from her was something I was hoping to avoid.”
While in talks with the MOFTB about the film, Sanger found himself in the unique position of helping the fledgling Steiner Studio execs lobby city lawmakers for the passage of Gotham’s own tax credit.
After making “a calculated choice” to start pre-production, hopeful a credit would pass, in September 2004 Sanger’s optimism was rewarded when a 10% state benefit was signed into law. In January 2005, a 5% city credit followed. “We saved $5 million,” he says.
After losing local hero Martin Scorsese to Cinecitta on “Gangs of New York,” the office lured him home to shoot New York as Boston in “The Departed” with its tax credit.
The city agency has upped the ante with other incentives including vendor discounts and a “Made in New York” marketing credit that offers the equivalent of 1% of a Gotham-based production’s budget in free advertising on JumboTron devices, phone kiosks and bus shelters and airtime on NYCTV.
Last year, the office assumed the responsibilities for red-carpet events including the opening night of “King Kong” in Times Square and the Tribecca Film Festival premiere of “MI3” with Tom Cruise’s multiple marathon arrivals via subway, helicopter and racecar. Says Oliver: “We like to say we’re a one-stop shop from script to screen.”