Tax incentives spur surge in production
When she took over as the city’s film commissioner, Katherine Oliver began ridiculing movies that show audiences “fake” New York — scenes supposedly shot on location in Gotham but actually filmed in cheaper, less chaotic substitutes on the West Coast or in Canada, and even Eastern Europe.
Now, after years of successful efforts by New York City to woo more film and television productions, it appears the tables have turned and that the Big Apple is the one increasingly doing the faking.
Riding a boom in local film production, New York City is awash in lights and cameras, so much so that Gotham has begun doubling for other places, whether it’s Staten Island posing as Ohio or, in the case of “The Good Shepard” and “The Departed,” Brooklyn and the Bronx standing in for Washington and Boston.
“It’s a far cry from where we were back in 2002,” Oliver says.
According to the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theater and Broadcasting, New York City last year hosted approximately 275 films and hit a record 35,000 shooting days, marking a 10% increase from 2005 and a more than 50% increase since 2000.
Officials credit the city’s shooting surge to “Made in N.Y.,” a multipronged program launched in 2005 that offers tax credits and other incentives to productions that complete most of their work in New York.
The program gives tax breaks of up to 15% — 5% from the city and 10% from the state. It also offers productions marketing credits for advertising on city kiosks and bus shelters as well as free police details for shoots and discounts at local vendors.
The perks were working so well at hooking Hollywood on New York that some feared the program would become a victim of its own success. Last year, amid criticism that “Made in N.Y.” was too costly, the city announced it already had gone through the $50 million that was allotted in tax credits for productions over five years. Other concerns focused on whether a handful of productions, including “The Sopranos” and “Law & Order,” were receiving a disproportionate share of the credits.
But Oliver says the tax credits are no longer in danger of running out. She notes that the city credits were increased to $30 million per year and extended through 2011. The state’s credits also have been increased.
“I think we’re in very good shape at this stage,” Oliver says, adding there is “no hard cap” set for the credits and that productions receive them on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Success at a price
City officials are quick to note that film productions inject $5 billion annually into the Big Apple’s economy and employ 100,000 New Yorkers. But for residents in camera-friendly neighborhoods like Brooklyn Heights, Dumbo and Chinatown, the benefit of filming can come at a price.
Around the city, helicopters are hovering, superheroes are slinging from buildings, and actors playing panicked police are seizing rooftops. Recent filming on the Will Smith pic “I Am Legend” clogged the Brooklyn Bridge area and peppered residents near Washington Square Park with occasional early morning explosions.
While New Yorkers may love life in a celluloid city, they also aren’t shy about kvetching when film crews take over parking spaces, block streets, snarl traffic, use loud machinery and flood living rooms with klieg lights during night shoots.
“They come early in the morning, they stay all day and take up all the parking spaces,” says Irene Janner of the Brooklyn Heights Assn. “The big problem is we don’t get enough notice.”
Victims include unlucky residents who, for example, may miss last-minute signs warning of an upcoming shoot and wake up to find their cars were towed.
Some neighborhood community groups have mobilized to protest — and have won temporary respites.
“They let the furor die down,” Janner says, “and then they come back.”
On the set, the love lost can flow both ways. Production assistants have complained of New Yorkers heaping abuse on them in multiple tongues. There also are less predictable pitfalls to shooting in a dynamic urban environment, as rap star Busta Rhymes discovered when he recently was barred from shooting a movie after the NYPD reportedly deemed his presence a “public safety concern.”
Do unto others …
Oliver says the city tries to educate productions about working in New York and reminds them that it will not be “like shooting on a back lot in California.” Her office offers a checklist of tips for happy filming in the Big Apple, including advice to be considerate of funeral homes, to avoid parking trailers in front of restaurants, and to keep info on local impounds for towed cars handy.
Oliver says the key to handling New Yorkers is keeping them well informed. “People just want to know what’s going on,” she says.
Of course, many New Yorkers don’t mind Hollywood’s intrusions and the chance to gawk at stars.
Kerry McAleer, a publicist who lives near the South Street Seaport, has weathered traffic jams and brightly lit night shoots, but still enjoys treats such as walking outside on a recent afternoon to find a crew filming a “little, tiny penguin trying to get into a cab.”
McAleer says she doesn’t mind the minor inconveniences and wonders about all those New Yorkers who protest too much.
“They’re just trying to act cool,” she says.