CityLab Panel: Film/TV Productions Bring Much More Than Jobs

Perry Ogden
The 'Game of Thrones' costume department in Belfast, where the production has been "transformative"

Louisiana, Georgia, Illinois, New York and, most recently, California have determined that it is worth spending even more to get more production

The value of financial incentives that attract movie and television productions is always about jobs first. But it is more than that for states, cities and countries that are successful in creating the right infrastructure and environment.

“The film industry is a great business for a city,” said Katherine Oliver, who was commissioner of the New York City film office when Michael Bloomberg was mayor. “It not only has the potential to employ a lot of people but it is a great marketing tool for a city.”

Oliver, who is now a principal with Bloomberg Associates, said the industry can also improve the locale’s image, boost tourism, have a ripple effect on local businesses and even inspire students who see it as a source of jobs in the future.

There was general agreement with Oliver’s comments during a panel on How to Stop a Runaway Industry: What Cities Can Learn from the Flight of Hollywood from L.A. held during the CityLab: Urban Solutions to Global Challenges event in Los Angeles on Tuesday afternoon.

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“I don’t think its necessarily right for every state in the United States to try and build up their infrastructure and be the next Hollywood,” said Amy Lemisch, executive director, California Film Commission, “but for some its been incredibly successful … Louisiana and Georgia are not going to go away. They are building stages and recruiting crews. But other states are rethinking it.”

Minnesota, Maryland, Nevada and North Carolina are among the states that have debated, and in some cases ended, incentive programs in recent months.

At the same time Louisiana, Georgia, Illinois, New York and, most recently, California have determined that it is worth spending even more to get more production.

Lemisch predicted in the wake of the state of California increasing incentive money from the current $100 million to $330 million per year beginning next July, “We anticipate a big increase in productions.”

The new California program was the result to a large extent of a determination to compete with New York state, which has seen a huge influx of work since about 2007.

Oliver recalled that when she began working with the New York City film office, her mandate from then Mayor Bloomberg was to “diversify the economy,” and make it less dependent on Wall Street and the financial community.

She said Bloomberg wanted to “look at arts, at culture, at entertainment and get people excited about coming to New York.”

She recalled being with Bloomberg in 2008 at the height of the global financial crisis when both attended a ceremony to mark the construction of a third stage at the Kaufman Astoria studios in the borough of Queens, New York.

“I remember Mike was shaking his head and saying, ‘this is an industry that is expanding,” said Oliver, adding that “it was really important to look at other aspects of city life where there were opportunities for growth.”

Jay Roewe, longtime senior vp of west coast production for HBO, said they have been “shocked” by how production of Game of Thrones in Belfast, Northern Ireland, has transformed the entire country.

Roewe said they considered the U.S., Canada, Australia, Eastern Europe and elsewhere before choosing Belfast, which does not have a long history of production because of its social and political problems in past years.

“We have transformed it in a way I don’t think any of us expected,” explains Roewe. “It isn’t why we went there in the first place to change a city and country but after five years the worldwide recognition of that show has put Northern Ireland on the map in a way globally that I don’t even think the leaders of the country expected when we first walked in there.”

And it was the leaders of Northern Ireland at the highest level who helped bring the show there. Roewe recalls that the first week they were there the Prime Minister had them over for dinner to tell them how much he wanted them there.

“When they reach out,” said Roewe, “it says from the top down we are going to be supported. I know when I’m bringing a business to a state or a country, when the people on the top are supportive, that sends a very strong message to us.”

Lemisch pointed out that many productions prefer to shoot in California because it has the infrastructure, plentiful crews and about 150 days a year of sunshine. “And you can never underestimate the value of the sun,” added Lemisch,

“The other big issue is we have members who haven’t been with their families for years,” said Kathy Garmezy, associate executive director, government and international affairs for the Director’s Guild of America. “You have to leave your family to feed your family nowadays. So if you can work [in California] and see your kids every night or be off somewhere else, it’s sort of not a choice really.”

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