When there are blocks of film production vehicles on the street of New York, there’s an all-too-common sentiment that “Hollywood” has invaded the Big Apple and successfully inconveniencing the locals. While no one can deny that a Production Assistant on ‘lock-up’ rarely gets a round of applause for asking pedestrian traffic to halt until the walkie talkie mic emits a crackly “cut”, but we do know that the hundreds of crew on said production are New Yorkers.
No industry exists without somebody or even lots of somebodies having an issue with a company or product. Some will even write a pointed article or 311 complaints unpacking their views in no uncertain terms; even ice cream has haters.
However, allow us to offer the following: the Production Assistant before you are working just one of the 294,960 jobs created by the film industry and their paycheck is part of the 12.3 billion in wages filtering through our shared local economy. (1)
The history of film production in New York tells a tale.
In 1966, Mayor John Lindsay helped producers cut through numerous municipalities’ red tape by streamlining the film permit process to a single permit, established a police film unit for crowd control and wrote an open letter to the city with jobs and New York’s economy at the core.
Lindsay’s move brought 20 million dollars to the city (2), a 2020 equivalent of $161,000,000, and the talents of Jane Fonda, Sidney Lumet, and was the first time New York was the backdrop in Francis Ford Coppola’s early career. (3)
In 1974, with filmmaking in New York ever-increasing and surfing the American New Wave cinematic movement, it still had issues. New York was experiencing “in-and-out ” productions like Audrey Rose, a psychological thriller based on an Upper West Side couple, yet only 10 out of 60 shoot days were actually shot in New York, all exteriors, the rest of the production and all the jobs and spending power was elsewhere.
Then-Mayor Abraham Beame created the Mayor’s Advisory Council on Motion Pictures and Television and appointed producer, Walter Wood, as the Council’s director. Wood knew he has to reduce the friction producers faced shooting in New York and allowed the producers to include the people of New York to take part in the climactic scene of King King falling to his demise off the Empire State Building. (4)
Beame’s comments on film making and New York’s citizenry sums up the give and take of the local film industry:
In the next 24 years, New York would host films that sculpted cinematic auteurs and established New York as the best backdrop in the world. The French Connection, The Godfather, Taxi Driver, Annie Hall, Saturday Night Fever, Raging Bull, When Harry Met Sally, Wall Street, Ghostbusters, and of course, the pivotal cinematic masterpiece starring local, home-grown celebrities, The Muppets Take Manhattan, shaped the industry and world’s perception and desire to visit our fair, and fascinatingly gritty, Gotham.
Governments interested in economic development and diverse revenue streams took notice of the high-paying jobs, tax revenue, and dazzle of the thriving film industry and introduced a scheme to lure productions away from the U.S. Enter Canada introduced the world’s first film tax incentive program in 1997. (5)
It worked. Productions flocked to our neighbors to the North and created TV programming and movies for American viewers on Canadian soil. Millions and millions of dollars left the U.S. economy for “greener” pastures for a favorable exchange rate and a discount.
Back in the U.S., a cautionary tale unfolds.
Louisiana admirably became the first state to introduce a tax incentive for producers in 2001, and by 2013 it surpassed Los Angeles and every player in film production in the United States. (6) The Governor at the time, Bobby Jindal, fixed what wasn’t broke by implementing a cap and suspending payments for a year in an over-zealous gutting and overhaul of what the Republican Governor sold as “corporate welfare”.
It sent the industry reeling. Productions went elsewhere and Louisiana’s film industry’s small businesses and freelance crew suffered. Republican Jay Dardenne, the lieutenant governor at the time knew it was a costly error.
Here in New York, we don’t want to learn Louisiana’s lesson the hard way.
A 2014 report by New York State Department of Labor Division of Research and Statistics Bureau of Labor Market Information, looked back at a decade of a tax incentive from 2003-2013. They stated, “Back in 2003, a year before the creation of the [New York] tax credit program, the state accounted for slightly less than 1 in 8 jobs in the American film industry. Now, the state accounts for about 1 in 6 film jobs (15.3%) in the U.S. In 2013, the 3,120 firms in New York State’s film industry paid total wages of some $4.9 billion, or more than $88,000 per worker.” (8)
Today, with the wildly expanding infrastructure of larger, more sophisticated sound stages in New York City including Broadway Stages in Staten Island and the Silvercup North’s in the Bronx, New York City has seen production explode. But it’s not just New York City.
Upstate New York is brimming with new and newer state-of-the-art stages like Buffalo Film Works, Upriver Studios in Saugerties, and Umbra in Newburgh. Recently, the Westchester Marriot got certified Qualified Production Facility. There is no arguing that production’s huge spending power including HBO’s “The Undoings”, Hulu’s “Monsterland”, and Showtime’s “Billions” will benefit the state and local communities as production expands to benefit all of New York.
Media giants, like Netflix and other investors, see the value in New York state and despite the argument asserted by a watchdog group that productions will still come to New York with a reduced, capped, or eliminated tax incentive is not quite seeing the full picture.
In fact, some economic benefits never will get recognized fully. Rudy Callegari of Edge Auto Rental, who employs a hundred New Yorkers and is the premier go-to for production truck and van rentals, disclosed that his company spends $500,000 annually at the corner gas station. From insider sources, we’ve learned that Set Decorators spend about $30,000 an episode on prop rentals businesses and purchases from New York retailers and that Spider-Man III spent $100,000 in glass from local suppliers. These expenses never quite make it to the budget lines, but they make it to paychecks, commercial rent, and the ability to survive at a time when every dollar counts.
Matt Dienstag of LeNoble Lumber, who is the main provider of theatrical lumber and raw materials to the film industry since 1965, explains it best:
“The increase in productions has allowed our company to expand and hire more employees. As you know, there are literally hundreds of New York businesses that cater to these industries. Hundreds of businesses that have grown and hired more New York workers. Lumber yards, hardware stores, prop houses, lighting and electrical suppliers, truck rental companies, restaurants and caterers. The New York State Film and Television Tax Credit is first and foremost a jobs creation measure that provides needed employment opportunities for residents of New York. It is not simply a benefit for production companies.”
So this year in April, when Assemblyman Kevin Byrne lamented the extension of the film tax incentive, calling it the “Hollywood” Film Tax Credit. We respectfully ask him to reconsider the mindset that movies are made by outsiders. “Hollywood” is in California. Here at home, and in your district and your state, there are small businesses, big businesses, and professionals that make a life and a living making the movies and TV shows that keep the world entertained and the economic eco-system verdant for all of New York.