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New York film czars keep production humming

Oliver, Kaufman on how Gotham stays competitive through innovation

NEW YORK — Two of the most powerful women in the U.S. film industry are Pat Swinney Kaufman, exec director of the New York State Governor’s Office for Motion Picture and Television Development, and Katherine Oliver, of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment. Oliver, now celebrating her 10th anniversary on the job, expanded her office to include an NYC Digital arm, and launched the first city-based film & TV production tax credit. Competition from other states and countries inspired Kaufman, now in her 17th year, to triple the state of New York’s production tax credits from 10% to 30%, a move that boosted Gotham production but quickly burned through allocated city and state program funds. Gregg Goldstein spoke with Kaufman and Oliver on whether the now-defunct Gotham tax credit will be revived, the impact of new post-production state tax credits and other ways New York is staying competitive.

Keeping New York City in the production game requires thinking outside the box.

Oliver: Customer service is priority No. 1 — that’s something I learned with (New York City Mayor) Michael Bloomberg in the private sector that we’ve tried to apply to government. (But) it’s not just making it as easy as possible for people to access locations and interface with our office — no other city in the world offers our marketing credit. We look at your New York City production spend, take 1% and give you free outdoor media on bus shelters, kiosks, taxis and subways. We can’t control what other territories are going to offer in the form of tax credits or currency fluctuations, but we can offer innovative ways to lessen the cost of production.

We have record production — 22 primetime shows, almost 200 feature films a year — and a record number of people working in film, television and commercials. This is a real turnaround from 2002, when we were losing a lot of production to Canada and other parts of the world and still working on electric typewriters. Now we have a robust online permitting system, online digital photo libraries and iPhone applications for films to find businesses, part of our vendor discount card program.

Training future bizzers is a good way to grow.

Oliver: When the state decided to be more competitive and raised their tax credit from 10% to 30% in 2008, not a lot of extra money was put into the program, so we exhausted the amount that was put in. After the city’s portion ran out, we felt the 30% tax credit was still very competitive.

We couldn’t afford to extend the credit at that particular time, and we also felt that if we were going to introduce new incentives, they should be a complement to the state film tax credit. So we now choose to roll out new initiatives that are complementary to the state’s program: in addition to the marketing credit, our Made in N.Y. Production Assistant Training Program has trained over 300 young people, 97% of color, and placed them in paid positions where they’ve taking in earnings of well over $6 million. Just recently we launched a new workforce training program with NYU’s Stern School of Business, and we’re offering some post-production training grants.

The current annual $420 million funding level for state production tax credits is designed to last.

Kaufman: For the first time, the program is funded adequately for the demand, so we’re not at risk of running through the funding too quickly. The pacing is right on target. The confidence people have in the program has really created a great boon to production, and from August 2004 (when the credit began) to August 2012, we’ve had 741 films, series and pilots come into the program that have spent or will spend $7.8 billion.

We’ve also worked hard to be very strategic — most states will give to most sectors of the industry (but we) only do narrative full-length feature films, episodic television and the pilots that lead to them. We don’t do reality, talk shows or documentaries. Our incentive is not as large as other states, because we felt we had many assets and many good reasons for productions to come, so we didn’t have to try to match what everyone else was doing.

Film & TV commissions evolve by developing new sectors of the entertainment industry.

Oliver: In May 2011, the city’s first digital officer, Rachel Haot, released a Digital Roadmap that’s just been updated, with 80% of its objectives complete, including high-speed broadband connectivity for over 80,000 low-income New Yorkers. We recently issued a request for proposals to create the “Made in N.Y.” Media Center — it will be a 25,000 square foot space, a public-private partnership to house digital media entrepreneurs that’s part learning, community and screening center with classes and educational workshops. We expect to announce the winning proposal this fall.

The post-production tax credit, which was increased to 30% in the metropolitan commuter region, and 35% in the rest of the state, provides a case study of the power of incentives.

Kaufman: The Post New York Alliance took a really strong interest in (boosting the credit), and the state certainly recognized there was real potential in this. Just an anecdote: in the six months before the credit was increased, (we’d) gotten maybe two or three calls about it. Yet just in the last week of August, we’ve received 20 or 30 inquiries.