Issue of the Week

Power Play

19 March 01

by Michael Burger

The sign for Silvercup Studios towers above Long Island City's factories and warehouses, its classic red arch a nod to Hollywood pizazz. A few blocks away, the cranes that are building Con Ed's two new power plants dominate the sky instead. The sign and the cranes represent contrasting visions for the waterfront's future. Silvercup, where HBO hits Sex in the City and The Sopranos are filmed, wants to build another studio. The New York Power Authority needs more generators to meet the city's rising demand for energy, and insists that this is the place to build. The power play is on.

Silvercup, joined by several public officials, has filed a lawsuit against the Power Authority, which sidestepped environmental and community reviews. Alan Suna, chief executive officer of Silvercup, says that the plant will halt the studio's expansion on an adjacent lot, and calls it the worst land use planning in years. "We really can't get clients to come to a site with a power plant on one side of it," he says. "Putting the power plant there pretty much spoils what could have happened in the area."

California hovers over both the power plant people and the movie production people, in a way. One group wants to avoid a California-style energy crisis, the other would like some California-style movie success.

New York is certainly not Hollywood. Silvercup and the rest of the movie production industry in the city does not carry the weight the big studios carry out West. The Mayor's Office of Film, Theater and Broadcasting reported $2.5 billion in direct spending, resulting in $252 million in local tax revenue, from film, television and commercial production in 1999. By contrast, the Entertainment Industry Development Corp. in Los Angeles recorded more than $30 billion in direct spending the same year. Not surprisingly, on the Queens waterfront, power plant construction has already begun.

Though small-time by California standards, New York's film industry has a history dating back to the nation's first indoor studio -- a tar-papered 50-foot box Thomas Edison kept in West Orange, New Jersey. Indeed, American movies were born in New York. In the last years of the 19th century, Edison sent camera crews around the region to shoot the elevated subways and Coney Island rides. The short films were first viewed on individual machines at a kinetoscope parlor at 1155 Broadway, and then by public audiences at Koster & Bial's Music Hall at Broadway and 34th St. Re-enactment films of the Spanish-American war provided a boost to the past time, and by 1904, story-based movies had become popular. But in 1910 Edison's competitors moved to California, fleeing the inventor's attempt to monopolize the industry through patent applications.

Despite the more recent flight of film companies to cheaper locales in Canada, production in the city has expanded over the last decade, peaking in 1998 and remaining strong since. According to Patricia Reed Scott, commissioner of the mayor's film and theater office, the city offers a package of incentives to filmmakers, including free permits for shooting on location and a police unit devoted to watching over sites. The city has even foregone its claim to sales tax on materials bought for costumes and certain equipment rentals and purchases.

And, while Oscar night traditionally belongs to Hollywood, New York has established itself as the center for independent film production. "Because of New Line, Miramax, Blue Sky and other [companies] we always have an up-and-coming bunch of talented people," Scott says. "If you look at Sundance winners from 1994 onward, it's all New York, from 'The Believer' this year, going back to 'The Brothers McMullen.'"

Joshua Pittman of SoundOne Audio, a postproduction sound house that edits dialogue and sound effects, adds that "the independent scene is still growing. It's larger than it's ever been."

At the moment, Scott has her hands busy. The 11,000 members of the Writers Guild, whose contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers expires at midnight May 1, are set to go on strike. And, more importantly to the studios, on June 30 a contract expires with the 135,000 members of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, which represent film and television actors.

"We're trying to manage the pre-strike boom," she says. "A lot of these things got greenlighted quickly."

Pittman adds that his sound studios are booked up through July 1. "A lot of films are trying to getting it done before then," he says. "We have a lot of holds -- first holds, second holds, third holds -- in rooms that we're usually not booked for so far in advance."

So Silvercup's Suna has more on his mind than his battle with the Power Authority. "The strike's going to slow up all aspects of production," he says. "It's going to have a major impact on production across the country. There's going to be a lull."

The power play is on

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