When Johnny Carson moved “The Tonight Show” from Manhattan to Los Angeles in 1972, with the state’s then-first lady Nancy Reagan among his early guests, it wasn’t as much a blow to jobs as it was to pride: For years afterward, whenever New York got mentioned in latenight, it usually was about crime and grit.
Two generations later, NBC’s decision to move the “Tonight Show” to New York after naming Gotham-based Jimmy Fallon as host in 2014 doesn’t spell Hollywood’s impending doom, but it’s hard not to view it as anything other than a slap in the face. That’s why “Tonight’s” impending move seems to underscore the extent to which New York has captured the production momentum in the bi-coastal rivalry. For years, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has expressed a desire to entice Tonight back to Manhattan; by contrast, when word leaked that such a move was happening, local L.A. officials were caught by surprise.
There may have not been anything that L.A. could have done, but it will only highlight the Empire State’s ability to offer a sweeter pot of incentives that California struggles to match. It’s a reminder that Southern California, with its concentration of talent and terrific weather, is no longer such a sure thing as a locale, as TV dramas and major feature films have been drifting away from L.A. for a decade or more.
“With the incentives, and with the fact that everyone is so easy to work with, it almost makes shooting in California a really distant choice,” says Martin Shafer, the Castle Rock exec whose latest pic, an untitled Hugh Grant romantic comedy from Marc Lawrence, is shooting in locations both in New York City and in the state.
While Manhattan is not the new Hollywood — according to FilmLA, which issues permits in the region, there was a 37.3% gain in TV pilots during the 2013 first quarter, a major rebound in that category — the trend in recent years has seen production in Los Angeles draw a healthy dose of sitcoms and reality shows, while drama series production has fallen off. On the feature side, there is ample production of low-budget indie features, but only one big budget tentpole, the sequel to “Captain America,” is being shot locally.
“Los Angeles is sort of the last resort now when it comes to feature films, even though actors and producers want to stay in L.A.,” says Steve Dayan, business agent for Teamsters Local 399 and vice chairman of the California Film Commission.
California launched its first-of-its-kind production tax credit in 2009, but it is far smaller than those of rival states with a maximum of 25% of the budget. With only $100 million in credits available annually, demand far exceeds supply with recipients selected through a lottery in June. What’s more, feature films with budgets over $75 million aren’t eligible, making Argo the highest-budget film to qualify.
The state has been able to persuade a few series to relocate to L.A. in exchange for the credit: ABC’s “Body of Proof” moved from Rhode Island, BBC America’s “Torchwood” from Wales and Comedy Central’s “Important Things With Demetri Martin” came from New York. “Body of Proof” producer Matthew Gross says the state’s incentive has helped in ABC’s renewal to second and third seasons. “Hopefully it will help us get season four and five,” he says. “We have the best crews. I don’t think there’s anything anyone could offer to get us to move.”
But the Empire State continues to outpace the Golden State when it comes to production incentives. New York’s film and post-production credits, recently extended and bolstered through 2019, includes a 30% tax credit on New York State expenses and a local post-production credit upped to 30%-35%. The city, meanwhile, ponies up a Made in NY marketing incentive as well as a slew of initiatives aimed at making Gotham a place filmmakers want to come back to. Among the programs is a vocational training program for production assistants and a new Brooklyn media center.
The post-production savings is one of the big draws. “Post in New York is very attractive right now, especially because there are more and better post-production facilities in town than ever,” says Anne Carey, the indie producer of “Love,” “Marilyn” and “The American” who recently joined Gotham-based production company Archer Gray.
“Location decisions are driven by the availability of incentives,” says Amy Lemish, executive director of the California Film Commission. “Infrastructure and looks are important but it’s incentives first and foremost. It’s hard to draw a conclusion based on a quarter or two, but we’ve generally seen TV leave California in greater numbers over the last four or five years.”
New York’s frenzy to drum up local film and TV production, both on the state and city level, was sparked in large part by 9/11, which emphasized the need to diversify the Gotham economy. It lured shows like “Ugly Betty” from L.A., and while it also managed to get “Fringe” to shoot in New York, that show eventually ended up in Vancouver.
That’s why, as much as New York has had success in drawing production, there is a certain wariness that it is also a “race to the bottom.” That’s the term that Bloomberg himself used at a press conference last year.
New York “won’t ever be as competitive as New Orleans or Atlanta,” says Kevin Turen of Treehouse Pictures, which produced Gotham-shot pics “Arbitrage” and “Are We Officially Dating?,” currently in the editing room. “If you have a limited budget and you have talent that’s incredibly expensive, you’d probably choose somewhere else.”