Big Apple Blues – Looking At the Slip in New York-Based Production
by Christopher Henderson
It is commonly said that New York City has a million stories, so it is no surprise that filmmakers commonly choose the Big Apple as the setting for their cinematic ventures. Filmgoers can see many of these recent endeavors in The Tribeca Film Festival’s NY, NY section, which was established to celebrate films shot in New York City. With more than 20 features and docs, including a film on graffiti artists vs. authority, (“Style Wars/Style Wars Revisited” — another NYC graffiti film “Bomb The System”, is screening in the feature competition), and films about NYC movie fanatics (“Cinemania”), a disintegrating Manhattan marriage (“Milk and Honey”), and a girl escaping to the city for a new life (“Nola”), New York City can still be the right choice for certain film productions.
But increasingly, filmmakers are choosing other locales. During the boom of 1998, crews filmed on nearly every corner in New York and the film community buzzed with word of a film studio to be built at the Brooklyn Naval Yard. But a short four years later, even the Rudy Giuliani biopic was shot in Toronto, and many other features are heading north. Production is down throughout the city and no one is suffering more than indies.
“[Back then] we would go from job to job with no time to breathe in between,” line producer Becky Glupczynski told indieWIRE. “It was ‘Six Ways to Sunday,’ then ‘Restaurant,’ then ‘Side Streets.’ I remember getting a tech list and there would be 25 jobs going on in the summer. Now I know of possibly two projects.”
The number of production hours in the city has slipped each of the past five years, according to the Mayor’s Office. Most films recently shooting in NYC are studio offerings like the Julia Roberts film “Mona Lisa Smile” or micro-budgeted productions like InDigEnt’s “Pieces of April.” The combination of a terrible economy, high production costs, and foreign incentives are pushing $4-million to $12-million indies away from the city.
“There are no $4- or $5-million movies,” said Amanda Slater, a first assistant director who has worked in the city since 1994. “The $2 million movies feel like $500,000 movies because they’re unionized. So much money goes towards the crew that there’s no money left over to do a movie. So why make a movie in New York?”
Labor costs are not the only issue. Many of the low-cost locations that indies formerly rented from the city for as low as a dollar a day are gone. “[In the mid-’90s] you would get in kind contributions from the city,” said Glupczynski. “You’d get office space for close to free because all the furniture was there. There was this wonderful building over on Pearl Street which had a different production on every floor. Now it’s condos.”
The past two years have been particularly harsh. The lull began soon after the SAG and DGA strike deadlines in June 2001. Producers rushed to complete films fearing the strikes would shut them down. When the strikes didn’t happen, production stopped anyway. September 11 and its devastating economic consequences followed.
More and more producers have reconsidered the benefits of New York’s spectacular locations and experienced crews. Canada offers a low exchange rate and labor subsidies of 27 percent. “For private independent films without distribution in place it is absolutely economics, because at that point every dollar is at risk,” said John Penotti, head of GreeneStreet Films. “The challenge is for independent producers to somehow figure out a way to still make it worthwhile to increase the budget by 15 to 25 percent.”
In response to rising production costs, the New York City Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre & Broadcasting has been seeking ways to improve the situation. Commissioner Katherine Oliver noted, “While globalization of our business and a weak economy have produced some adverse effects, we are working with our partners in labor and government to explore new financial incentives. We have also been enhancing our customer service and implementing programs that lower production costs, including our hotel discount program. There’s more to come.”
The unions are also trying to make shooting low-budget films in New York affordable. The East Coast Council, a consortium of the city’s major crew and acting unions, will negotiate a specialized contract with lower rates for films with budgets under $6 million. But even those numbers have dropped. Eighteen films shot with an ECC contract in 2000; that fell to eight in 2002. Once budgets exceed $6 million it becomes difficult for the unions to match the subsidies offered abroad. “In the $4 million range the defined rate structure effectively matches the subsidies,” said George DeTitta, co-chair of the ECC. “However, if a producer is going to take advantage of a subsidy of up to 25 percent when the below the line is $5 million we can’t compete. There is nothing you can do to eliminate that by reducing your salaries.”
As smaller movies get unionized, however, Slater believes fewer films shoot in the city. “[The ECC] wants their union crews on the smallest movies because there’s not enough work to go around,” she said. “It’s a Catch-22 because the more they unionize movies the less movies are going to want to shoot here.”
Part of the reason for New York’s raised union rates is the elevated cost of living. Crew members need to be paid enough to pay the highest rents in the nation and feed their families at a rate well above most other locales. These costs also find their way in to production expenses. It costs more to feed, move, and lodge a cast and crew in New York than perhaps anywhere else in North America.
Despite these financial burdens many loyal indie production companies including InDigEnt, GreeneStreet, ContentFilm, and Killer Films continue to thrive and shoot in New York. Every InDigEnt film to date has used the city as a location.
“The guilds have been really cooperative because the budgets are so low,” said InDigEnt partner John Sloss. “The idea of making everyone in the film a partner in the film is a very real part of InDigEnt. Everybody has bought into that and everybody has been rewarded for it.”
Another Sloss project, “Far From Heaven” (co-produced by Killer and Section 8) made the financial sacrifice of shooting in the city because many of the people involved, including producer Christine Vachon, director Todd Haynes, star Julianne Moore, and Sloss live in New York. All the same, one of Sloss’ current projects, “A Home At The End Of The World,” would have filmed in the city, but because of economics is shooting in Toronto instead.
Over at GreeneStreet, Penotti and Fisher Stevens have taken the necessary steps to stay in the city for each of their projects. On the recently completed “Uptown Girls” (formerly “Molly Gunn”) they shot fewer days with a slightly smaller crew. The long-term benefits, according to Penotti, far outweigh the short-term gains of uprooting. “There are a lot of films that are shot in Canada trying to double cities as New York that have a tangible impact on the success of the film,” he said. “You have to be very specific when you make those decisions because you don’t want to ruin the look of the film or compromise things creatively. While you may be saving some money in the short run, you’re film is not going to be as valuable in the long haul.”
ContentFilm, which filmed “The Guys,” “The Hebrew Hammer,” and “Rick” in New York, has taken advantage of the absence of other films. “It’s been beneficial to us that [fewer people are shooting in NYC] because we’ve been able to get the most incredible, dedicated hard-working crews because of the lack of work,” said Sofia Sondervan, Content’s head of production in New York. “It’s been really attractive because we have been able to work with people we may not have been able to work with otherwise.”
With the exception of “Far From Heaven,” each of the aforementioned films had particular financial circumstances that allowed them to shoot in New York. GreeneStreet partnered with United Artists to shoot “Uptown Girls,” ContentFilm is fully financed by foreign investors, and InDigEnt is backed by the Independent Film Channel. Until the economy improves, riskier films like “Far From Heaven” may be few and far between. DeTitta and Slater both believe the state and federal government need to enact legislation to subsidize production. Sloss sees the solution as being internally driven.
“Everybody involved in creating the cost of a movie has to get together and understand these are hard times for financing,” Sloss said. “It involves sacrifice and understanding, and not asking any group of people to take a disproportionate sacrifice. No one can say, ‘It’s not our problem’ because It’s everybody’s problem.”
[James Israel contributed to this article.]