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Hollywood East?

by Martha Hostetter, Jun 01, 2002
 

Over the past months, while many industries have struggled, television and film production in New York has flourished. The recent TriBeCa Film Festival celebrated that neighborhood's independent film scene, shows like "The Sopranos" and "Sex and the City" have continued to fuel a television production boom in Queens; and plans to build soundstages in the Brooklyn Navy Yard and a major film complex on Staten Island have gotten underway. The film and television renaissance began during the mid-1990s, when the number of New York-based productions climbed to levels not seen since the 1920s; there are now on average 200 films shot here each year, and 106 television shows call the city home. Traditional media production contributes $5 billion to the local economy and creates more than 70,000 jobs; factoring in pre-production; post-production, and studio work, the total economic impact doubles. And yet New York's film and television growth has not kept pace with growth abroad, and new economic and security concerns are stretching the resources of the city. Will an overtaxed police force, for example, be able to provide the red-carpet treatment for location shoots? With a drastically reduced city budget, will New York be able to compete with cities that provide direct economic incentives to producers? With such concerns, what is the long-term outlook for Hollywood East?

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Like many regions, New York actively markets itself to producers. The Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre & Broadcasting was created in 1966 as both an economic development agency and an advocate for the industry. It promotes the city through financial incentives and advertising, and by sending representatives to trade shows and meetings with Hollywood producers. (After 9/11, the office sent representatives to California to reassure studios that the city was open for business.) It also makes it much easier for the productions to get the necessary permits, permission and insurance, and even provides field representatives for shoots.

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According to Julianne Cho of the mayor's office, the events of 9/11and threats of future terrorist attacks have had "little to no effect on the industry" and no productions have left the city since September. Due to fortuitous timing, few productions were even interrupted by 9/11; fears of an actor's and writer's strike had pushed most film projects into the first half of 2001, and many television shows happened to be on hiatus in September. The increase in the number of feature films being made this year, Cho says, "can probably be attributed more to projects that were in their preparation phase during the latter half of 2001, than to a surge in patriotism [attracting producers to the city]."

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The real threat to the city's production industry, some fear, may not be from terrorists or economic downturns but from competition from the north. A March 2001 Department of Commerce report looked at the migration of film and television production from the U.S. to other countries--particularly Canada. The report concluded that about $4 billion worth of production, as well as thousands of jobs, goes to cities like Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver each year. It's a trend that began in the 1990s, when the Canadian government created aggressive marketing and incentive programs to attract producers. From January to March 2001, production in Toronto--a city that often stands in for New York--increased 40 percent. Many studios now hire "cost consultants" to manage film and television budgets, and the cost-benefits of Canada are clear--the strong American dollar, coupled with the significant subsidies and tax breaks provided by federal, provincial, and city governments, can produce savings on average of 26 percent.

Even though New York offers some of the most extensive economic incentives to film and television producers in the country--including free permits, free police assistance, and zero sales tax on production consumables--it can't match Canada's economic advantages. Thus, if the global boom in film and television production abates, New York risks being left behind. To avoid this scenario, industry leaders in New York and elsewhere have raised questions about whether Canada's largesse violates fair trade practices. In March 2002 the Los Angeles-based Film and Television Action Committee filed a petition with the U.S. Commerce Department, asking that a duty be placed on productions made in Canada. Others have suggested that, instead of tariffs, federal and local governments should directly subsidize the movie and television industry. But would New York taxpayers be willing to pay to keep "The Sopranos" in the city, or to encourage Woody Allen to film his next project here?

As a location, New York clearly has strengths beyond the bottom line. Julianne Cho lists "a world-class talent pool, locations that cannot be duplicated anywhere else, and a simple, one-stop, expedited permit service that other domestic and international regions have only just started to imitate." Anecdotal evidence suggests that a smaller city like Toronto might not be able to sustain the high production levels it has been experiencing. (The Times quoted one Toronto resident complaining of "production fatigue," while other reports suggest that the labor pool in some Canadian cities has been overtaxed in recent years.) Many writers, directors, and actors place high value on New York's vitality--a quantity than can't be easily be reproduced, even with the latest digital technology that can edit out Toronto's trolley lines and add in New York's skyline. The city's independent film scene--which accounts for 60 percent of all films made here--might also be a source of strength, since indies tend to be driven as much by script and other creative requirements as by budget concerns.

This month, the Economic Development Corporation will review the plans for Stapleton Studios, a project now in the early stages that would build 10 soundstages, a hotel, marina, and esplanade on 36 acres of Staten Island's waterfront. It is an ambitious and seductive plan--a small, self-contained slice of Hollywood just minutes from Manhattan--and one that might help keep New York at the center of film and television production.

Martha Hostetter writes for American Theatre magazine.


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