Exiting New York Film Czar Lacked Political Savvy for the Job, Insiders Say

Cynthia Lopez
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Cynthia Lopez, the New York film commissioner who will step down after less than 18 months on the job, didn’t have the political savvy to keep the city’s booming production activity on track, according to sources both in the industry and close to the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment. Nor, it’s said, did she show the business acumen that would have increased momentum in the sector.

It wasn’t any one thing that undid her, it’s believed. But her balanced, low-key demeanor seems to have contributed to a general sense in the industry that she was unengaged with the film community and ineffective in the job. That’s despite some recent reported milestones including year-on-year rises in episodic television (46 shows in 2014 vs. 29 the prior year) and in feature films (242 in 2014 compared to 194 in 2013). It’s expected that the 2015 feature tally will surpass the 2014 figure.

Lopez’s exit, which had been rumored for weeks but was officially announced Aug. 21, unsettles a restless film community already worried about losing ground in New York after a period of unparalleled growth under the previous film czar, Katherine Oliver, who served during the administration of Michael R. Bloomberg. When the year’s most recent report on pilot locations saw the resurgence of Los Angeles — and the decline of New York’s new pilot count, which dropped to six dramas and one comedy after a 2014 tally that hit a record 10 dramas and five comedies — some in the industry saw it as a sign of impending decline.

The stakes are high, and not just for the entertainment types who make their livelihoods in the sector. The industry, which generates a whopping $7 billion in direct spending each year and provides some 130,000 behind-the-scenes jobs, has become a vital economic motor for the city overall.

With first deputy film commissioner Luis Castro stepping in as the interim czar in October, the hunt is on for a permanent replacement, but sources close to the selection committee say the search is in very early stages. One person involved said the new candidate would likely be someone with experience dealing in politics and in studio culture, probably coming out of the entertainment world.

Under Lopez, it’s said, the commission lacked the broad business savvy that had characterized Oliver’s tenure. Going forward, decisions need to be made on whether the new czar will operate with one big voice, or whether the deputies will take on larger roles.

Some in the industry expressed dissatisfaction with the way Lopez handled herself in January at a crowded City Council hearing regarding a bill that aimed to institute day-to-day, monthly and annual reporting on the frequency and impact of neighborhood filming. Councilman Stephen Levin, whose Brooklyn district (including Greenpoint and Williamsburg) is a hot spot for location shooting in the city, proposed the bill in response to community concerns regarding noise, disruption and lost parking.

But the film community saw it as a potentially serious threat to the smooth production protocol that had helped make New York a desirable place to film. Although Lopez did argue that the commission wouldn’t be in favor of any hindrances on production — “The amount of reporting called for in Intro 84 could be seen as inhospitable toward the production community,” she said, according to a transcript of the hearing — the commissioner’s measured tone didn’t seem to appease some of the industry’s concerned members.

Others said they’d been satisfied with Lopez as film czar. Doug Steiner, the president of Steiner Studios in Brooklyn, said his office met by phone with the film commission every week. “I thought she did a great job of reaching out to the industry,” he said. “And I don’t think you saw any bad press about location shooting, which means they did a good job with community relations, too.”

“I’m a fan,” added Dana Kuznetzkoff, a New York film and TV producer who’s currently at work on the upcoming Amazon series “The New Yorker Presents.” “I think she’s incredibly approachable.”

As the administration proceeds with selecting a new czar, Julie Menin, the former chair of lower Manhattan’s Community Board 1, still has strong advocates, after her name was bandied about in the initial search. But she’s taken another position in the administration as the commissioner of the Department of Consumer Affairs, so her availability is uncertain. In the rank-and-file industry, there also remains a vocal band of supporters for Pat Swinney Kauffman of the New York State Governor’s Office for Motion Picture and Television Development.

One potential hurdle in finding a new czar: De Blasio has emphasized diversity in filling out his administration, and Hollywood, of course, faces its own challenges in terms of diversity, which could make identifying film czar candidates more difficult. In addition, many of the people who would be in line are ensconced in the private sector, according to one source involved in the selection, and luring them away could prove a challenge.