Tax incentives and bigger stages pave the way

Gotham is in the grip of a major production spasm. Shooting days in the city are have more than doubled in four years (to 31,578, compared with 14,858 in 2002). Area soundstages are at capacity. And just last week Hugh Grant, Drew Barrymore, Bruce Willis and Halle Berry could be found blocking out scenes in neighborhoods incuding the Upper West side, Times Square, Battery Park, Union Square, Irving Plaza and Central Park.

Even studio tentpoles, long a part of the Los Angeles economic fabric, are eyeing New York, thanks to a soundstage shortage in L.A.

But all this success has been a mixed blessing for the city.

The tax incentives introduced by Mayor Bloomberg a year and a half ago have been so successful that the mayor’s office is now out of money. Katherine Oliver, Commissioner of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Film, Theater and Broadcasting, recently had to ask for more funds.

As part of his 2006-07 exec budget, Gov. George Pataki will propose that the state’s credits jump from $25 million per year to $30 million, beginning in 2009. Gotham will increase its tax incentives, too: making available $30 million annually, as opposed to the current $12.5 million, beginning in ’09.

Location shoots have grown so ubiquitous that some New Yorkers are beginning to kvetch about having their neighborhoods turned into backlots. For the production of 20th Century Fox’s “Stay,” the Mayor’s office let producers Tom Lassally and Eric Kopeloff block Manhattan-bound traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge for 10 nights in a row.

The Mayor’s Office responds by saying it will not let shoots hit certain neighborhoods repeatedly until they cool off.

But such complaints just underscore some of the ways in which Gotham has become more friendly to producers than Los Angeles.

In L.A, some ‘hoods are off-limits to moviemakers. The Big Apple allows cameras to roll in all neighborhoods and at any historic location. It doesn’t charge for permits or primo locales and assigns police protection — two cops for every eight hours of shooting — for no charge.

When Sydney Pollack wanted to go inside the United Nations to film “The Interpreter,” the city helped his pic become the first ever to do so.

Just five years ago, West Coast producers viewed New York as both a hassle and a money pit. When Oliver took over as commish from veteran Patricia Scott — who served for eight years under Rudy Giuliani and seven under Ed Koch — production in New York was ailing.

Crews were leaving town after the attacks of 9/11 for production incentives in other locales.

Things reached an all-time low when a TV biopic of Giuliani was shot in Canada, and when Miramax’s “Gangs of New York,” decamped to Italy.

When she arrived on the job, Oliver says, “New York was not very film friendly. There was no access to key locations. Permits were being processed by hand using electric typewriters.”

The seeds for the tax breaks and the more user-friendly system were born at a summit Mayor Michael Bloomberg hosted at Gracie Mansion, closed to the press, where bigwigs including Howard Stringer, Les Moonves, Harvey Weinstein and Dick Wolf weighed in on what they’d need to bring production to New York.

The tax plan passed in 2004 doled out $100 million in tax credits over four years to production companies shooting 75% of their projects in the state, and an additional Made in N.Y. tax credit from Gotham. The tax breaks arrived in tandem with new and updated soundstages, as well as better access to key landmarks and the updating of a permit process. Gone are the triplicate color-coded application forms. Now everything is done online.

Gotham has long been seen as a place that offered stages with antiquated facilities, inadequate parking and amentias. But the sector got a jolt when Steiner Studios came on the scene in late 2004, offering a new state-of-the-art 285,000-square-foot studio space on a 15-acre site in Brooklyn.

Run by commercial real estate enterprise Steiner Equities Group, the newest, and largest, facility was seen by the competition as aggressive at first: Steiner tried to push a plan with Brooklyn politicos that would make it the only stage where a tax benefit would apply. But the scuffle has actually invigorated competish between the major city stages to offer more.

Silvercup Studios — home to recent pics including Ivan Reitman’s “Super Ex-Girlfriend” and Meryl Streep-starrer “The Devil Wears Prada” — has unveiled a $1.5 billion complex, called Silvercup West, that will add 2 million square-feet, through eight soundstages as well as residential and commercial space, to Long Island City.

In Astoria, Kaufman Astoria Studios has plans to expand and turn its property into a space like a Hollywood studio lot. A 1,600-square-foot Starbucks recently moved into the KAS Studio Annex, pumping out nonfat lattes for film stars and crews.

Some of Steiner’s first pics were Mel Brook’s “The Producers,” Spike Lee’s “Inside Man” and the upcoming Nicole Kidman-starrer “Fur.” High profile pics skedded to shoot are “Spider-Man 3,” “Enchanted” and “The Nanny Diaries.”

Pics currently lensing in Gotham include Warner Bros.’ “August Rush” (starring Freddie Highmore, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Robin Williams), Castle Rock and Village Roadshow’s “Music & Lyrics” (starring Grant and Barrymore), Revolution Studios and Sony’s “Perfect Stranger” (starring Willis and Berry), New Line’s “Pride & Glory” (starring Colin Farrell, Edward Norton, Nick Nolte and Samantha Morton) and indie “We Own the Night” (starring Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg and Eva Mendes).

Pics that have lensed in Gotham this year have included Robert de Niro’s “The Good Shepherd,” Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” and Julie Taymor’s “Across the Universe.”

“New York is more of an option than it was in the past,” says Arianna Bocco of the Gersh Agency and a former Miramax Films vet.

One Hollywood player in Gotham for meetings last week scanned the space-age dining area of the Brasserie. “Y’know,” he said, “whenever we’d see a script set in New York, we’d immediately say that’d we’d double with Toronto. Now with these tax incentives, it’s not true. And you look at a film like ‘The Inside Man.’ New York is a part of that movie the way that Los Angeles is part of ‘Collateral.’ “

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