New York TV Production Could Be Driven Out of the City By Proposed Permit Crackdown

As film and TV continues to embrace New York City, local officials complain that their constituents have had enough.

Anne del Castillo had already spent 90 minutes under attack. But when she was asked to comment on the New York City Council’s proposed 14-day notification requirement for film/TV permits that require special parking requests, the commissioner for the New York City Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment (MOME) was forced, for the first time, to push back.

“14 days will definitely kill the industry, I can’t mince words about that. That’s not how television works and it will go away,” said del Castillo at a September 26 City Council committee hearing. “The demands for content are so great…. and decisions about productions are being made very quickly, the turnaround time on this is very quick. So someone today is writing a script that’s shooting next week.”

And with that, she changed the tenor of the room and sparked the morning’s first round of applause.

It’s a tough time to be the film commissioner. The city has found itself reaching capacity, and it’s only slated to grow further; both Netflix and Lionsgate recently announced plans to build their own soundstages. For the neighborhoods where films and TV like to shoot, this is an increasing burden.

For council member and hearing co-chair Robert F. Holden, Showtime’s “Billions” was responsible for “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” According to Holden, the production took over commercial streets in his Queens district the week before last Christmas and was in violation of “every rule in MOME’s code of conduct,” costing each local small business upward of $15,000 from loss of business during the holiday shopping period.

“‘Fourteen days’ is really an offshoot of the lack of oversight from the administration,” said Holden. “Again, it’s putting the small businesses on the front lines and the brunt of the impact of filming. It has to be longer than 48 hours because we aren’t getting any cooperation from MOME or the administration, and we were not getting outreach from the production companies.”

Billions Season 3 Finale Damian Lewis
“Billions”Jeff Neumann / Showtime

It was clear that the council held del Castillo and her office responsible for not reining in “bad actors,” but both sides acknowledged the MOME office was severely understaffed, making oversight difficult. Council member Mark Levine also countered his colleagues’ complaints, arguing the committee was ignoring the large number of success stories in which productions had gone to great lengths to support the local businesses and economy.

Under Mayor Bloomberg and his Film & TV Commissioner Karen Oliver, New York City worked closely with studios to re-open its doors to New City’s iconic backdrop, and sharply changed its perception as an impossible place to shoot. Along with the introduction of state’s favorable tax incentives, the changes turned New York City into major production hub. Now every TV season brings more than 60 scripted television series and an estimated $8.9 billion in annual spending to the state. The De Blasio administration also supports production, but must manage the tricky balance of lessening the burden on residents and encouraging things like “walk-away lunches” that support local business, while still maintaining its attractive pro-production reputation.

Behind the scenes of shooting “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”Eric Liebowitz/Netflix

Del Castillo was extremely receptive, and at times apologetic, in response to the council members’ numerous and neighborhood-specific complaints. Repeatedly, she promised to work with council members to find solutions and create change over the next six months. Her demeanor was a sharp contrast to the angry, and at times irrational tirades, of council members, some of whom openly questioned the value of film/TV’s footprint in the city.

At one point, hearing co-chair Mark Gjonaj (Bronx) demanded a list of all the shows shooting in the city that day, sending Dean McCann, executive director of production and operations at NYC, out of the hearing to retrieve a list of the 59 productions shooting that Thursday. Most observers know McCann as an overworked city employe and vital cog who allows NYC’s production wheel to spin and is in daily contact with the NYPD and dozens of productions — solving problems that range from how Steven Spielberg can stage an enormous “West Side Story” dance scene in the middle of a street, to how a cop show can safely pull off a driving shot at night. For industry observers, the implication that McCann was somehow not on top of what was currently shooting was as humorous as it was insulting.

At one point, Gonaj expressed his dismay with MOME’s oversight — one street was so overburdened with production, it was permitted two-thirds of the year! McCann dryly pointed out that the intersection of 48th Street and 6th Avenue was, in fact, a studio: 30 Rockefeller Plaza, home of Universal/NBC.

Later, MOME staff had to explain that the reason that the Mayor’s office cannot ban production in council member Kalman Yeger’s neighborhood (Bensonhurst, Borough Park, Midwood, and Ocean Parkway) is it would be a violation of the First Amendment. Yeger vigorously disagreed.

“When ‘Law & Order’ decides it wants to shut down some streets because it wants to film an outdoor scene where a [detective] is chasing somebody, it’s not a First Amendment right,” said Yeger. “When they come to a neighborhood, they don’t bring anything but bad.”

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Universal TV/Wolf Film/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5886146at)Richard Belzer, Jerry OrbachLaw and Order - 1990Universal TV/Wolf FilmUSATelevision
“Law and Order”Wolf Film/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Finally, cooler heads prevailed with discussions around increasing MOME’s decade-old fees for larger productions and MOME’s need for a larger budget. But as long as the City Council continues to entertain the proposed 14-day permit notification, the New York film world will remain skeptical, if not combative — unions having already started to mobilize members on the issue — toward the efforts to rein in production.

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