Katherine Oliver has been synonymous with the New York movie business since spending a decade as film commissioner under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. But after leaving City Hall in 2013, she’s been crisscrossing the globe — stopping in London, Los Angeles, Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City and elsewhere.
The reason she’s been collecting frequent-flier miles: to offer strategies to mayors who want to replicate her success at working with Hollywood. As a consultant for Bloomberg Associates, a nonprofit organization that provides pro bono counseling to cities around the world, Oliver shares the lessons she’s learned about drawing productions to town.
An open dialogue with the entertainment industry is an important branding tool for many major cities, Oliver notes. “It’s about attracting and retaining jobs, and creating that buzz,” she says. “People have seen what Woody Allen has done — not just New York, but look at Barcelona, Rome, Paris and London. There’s a desire to capture that.”
Her advice includes talking up the benefits of electronic permits, which can be processed quickly. She tells mayors that while they may not be able to control currency rates or tax incentives, good customer service to producers and crew can do wonders for a city’s image on the big and small screen.
Oliver recalls how she visited Mexico City shortly before Sony Pictures’ James Bond tentpole “Spectre” shot an elaborate sequence there, helping government staffers figure out how to open their streets to the production. When the city’s film commissioner, Leyla Mendez, later visited New York, Oliver coordinated a meeting with location experts to discuss a range of issues, including the best way to set up crafts services in a congested space.
Some critics argue that states shouldn’t be in the business of offering tax incentives to Hollywood. But many cities have found that welcoming crews can lead to financial benefits. For example, New York’s filmed production industry brought in $8.7 billion to the city’s economy and led to the creation of 130,000 jobs last year, according to a recent study.
The business is changing, Oliver says, citing new players like Netflix and Amazon. “The pie is getting bigger,” she notes. “We’re creating a lot of content. The message is: How do cities support the growing entertainment industry?” Part of her role with Bloomberg Associates, on a team with other consultants in disciplines ranging from transportation to urban planning, is to stress the importance of improved communications technology in a city’s economic development strategy.
“If you’re starting a framing business or a florist, often you create a website,” Oliver says. “You use social platforms like Instagram or Snapchat. At the end of the day, it’s storytelling.”
Oliver likes to remind mayors that one of her mandates as film commissioner was to make sure crews reflected the diversity of New York. She notes that in the past year, L.A. has opened a local division of the Ghetto Film School, the free tuition program for aspiring storytellers that started in the Bronx.
Most people wouldn’t put Kansas City on the top of their list to shoot a movie or TV show. But just before meeting with Oliver a little more than a year ago, the city’s mayor, Sly James, hired a full-time film commissioner, Steph Scupham, to help get the word out about the relatively low cost of production in the area. “Since that time, business has taken off and done quite well, and continues to grow,” James tells Variety, citing recent TV shows like Discovery Life’s transgender docu-series “New Girls on the Block,” set in Kansas City. “The more attention we get, the more jobs we create.”
The power of media, Oliver argues, is evidenced in how a single show, like “Sex and the City,” can shape the identity of a city. “People would come to New York and want to experience what Sarah Jessica Parker experienced,” Oliver says. “Fortunately, that now extends to ‘Girls.’ ” She recalls watching the first episode of the new season of the HBO series starring Lena Dunham, which served as a postcard for an upstate New York wedding. “I was like, ‘Where is that beautiful venue? I want to go visit it.’ ”