Made in New York
Forget Vancouver. New York City's booming television production market is giving L.A. a run for its money.
Twentysomething aspiring politicos try to break into the halls of power in Washington in ABC's drama pilot Georgetown. The mother and daughter of Mildred Pierce traverse the sun-soaked streets of Pasadena and Glendale circa the 1930s in HBO's miniseries. Stewardesses traipse around Rome in ABC's hotly anticipated Mad Men-influenced pilot Pan Am.
Despite the variety in landscape and tone of these shows, each was filmed in New York City: Brooklyn's brownstone-lined streets have doubled for Georgetown; Westchester and Long Island faked Pierce's California setting; Rome was created right outside the popular NYU hangout Caffe Reggio on MacDougal and West 3rd Street.
The bumper crop of New York projects was spurred by last fall's long-delayed approval of a five-year state film and TV production tax-credit program worth $420 million annually. The program is a key "paving stone," says Brooke Kennedy, executive producer of CBS' The Good Wife, which takes place in Chicago. "There are times in history where people will pull to a central place. In the early '80s, it seemed like it was all in Los Angeles. But right now, especially in TV, it's New York."
And it has put the bleakness of the late 1990s and early 2000s in the rearview mirror. Back then, Canada touted incentive programs and even suggested specific locations in Toronto that could serve as stand-ins for New York. After the state introduced incentives in 2004 to make New York more competitive, the entertainment industry here continued to lobby for a multiyear tax credit to attract productions for the long term, particularly TV shows.
According to the state film office, a combined 100 movies, TV series and pilots qualified for a production tax credit in 2010, with a combined New York spend of $1.53 billion -- about even with 97 projects and $1.6 billion in 2009 and down a bit from 101 projects and $1.8 billion in 2008. Still, it's well up from the measly 18 projects and $598 million in 2004, when the tax credits launched. Only 3½ months into 2011, there are 43 projects, accounting for $431 million.
Those long-term incentives, says Patricia Swinney Kaufman, executive director of the New York State Governor's Office for Motion Picture and Television Development, have "been a tremendous draw and strengthened our hand. The bottom line more than ever drives decisions."
One beneficiary has been HBO. The network has Boardwalk Empire, Bored to Death and How to Make It in America in production in the Big Apple, will film the Lena Dunham-Judd Apatow series Girls in the city and recently wrapped production on the Wall Street drama Too Big to Fail. "We try to start from the question of how to produce a story the best way," says Bruce Richmond, HBO's executive vp production. "After the [2008 WGA] strike, we shot a lot of pilots, and the incentive made it extremely accessible for us."
Being in or near the city that never sleeps is also a big selling point. "Other states still have tax-credit programs, but no one in the creative community wants to live there," says Alan Suna, CEO of Silvercup Studios in Long Island City. "New York is unique in that we have the crews, talent and other infrastructure, but we also have effective incentives that make financial sense for the state."
New York is the second-largest production center after Los Angeles, and this has a potent ripple effect on the local economy. The city's entertainment production biz employs more than 100,000 people and generates $5 billion annually, according to the City of New York Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting. More than 200 films were shot in NYC in 2010, up from 188 in 2009, and primetime TV projects numbered 32 in 2010. The city has 21 pilots shooting this year -- a record, and up from five last year. "That far outpaces anything we've seen in the Bloomberg administration and probably even before that," says Katherine Oliver, commissioner of the New York City Mayor's Office of Media and Entertainment, of which the MOFTB is a part.
The "Made in NY" program, launched by Oliver and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, also offers special services to productions, such as an outdoor-media marketing credit and a discount card, that have L.A. eyeing legislation to emulate the program.
And while New York has served as a stand-in for different locales, the city also isn't bad at playing itself. From the teeming markets of Chinatown to the Hasidic enclave of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, New York's diversity imbues local productions with a gritty visual authenticity.
When CBS' cop drama Blue Bloods needed authentic environs for an episode about the murder of the scion of a Russian mob boss, it simply headed to Brighton Beach, Brooklyn -- aka "Little Odessa." "The signs are in Russian; everyone there is Russian," says Bloods executive producer Leonard Goldberg, who adds that one location in particular -- the Tatiana restaurant and nightclub, a popular Brighton Beach haunt with bottomless bottles of vodka and a disco-kitsch interior -- had execs stymied. "They saw the dailies and said: 'It's so hokey. It's like Las Vegas, 1960,' " Goldberg recalls. "And we said: 'Exactly. That's why we went there -- because it's real.' "
Despite the current boom, New York-based productions are taking nothing for granted while keeping their fingers crossed that the city and state continue to be financially hospitable. John Ford, co-chairman of the New York Production Alliance, says he hopes "it's not temporary" but admits he is skeptical. "I have been in the business for a long time, and it has always been chickens today and feathers tomorrow," he says.
Nevertheless, studio and stage owners have eyed expansions. Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens has, in recent years, focused on attracting restaurants and other infrastructure to its campus-style setting. And last year it opened Stage K, a new film and TV production studio, where Men in Black III has been shooting. "We have to be smart as an industry," Kaufman Astoria president Hal Rosenbluth says. "We have a shot at making this a sustainable industry."
Silvercup has also looked into expansion. And Douglas Steiner, chairman of Brooklyn's Steiner Studios, home to the Sex and the City movies, has recently pulled together a financing package to nearly double its 310,000 square feet over the next couple of years. "Besides L.A., we have the best resources and infrastructure for the business," Steiner says. "I feel there is no upper limit for New York."
So much activity also risks annoying easily perturbed locals. While New Yorkers have a reputation for being blase about celebrity, they can be downright hostile to film and TV productions, especially when squadrons of production trailers monopolize entire city blocks of precious parking spots. So it is exceedingly important for local crews to be good neighbors. "We talk to the crew about being good citizens," says Kennedy, who has worked on several New York-based series including NBC's erstwhile Third Watch and Fox's Fringe. "We have to do everything we can to not litter, to keep noise pollution down, to make sure the streets are safe with our equipment around."
Kennedy's approach was tested in winter 2010, when a blizzard shut down airports and turned parked cars into street-side igloos. The mess was exacerbated by a woefully inadequate response from the city's sanitation department. Entire neighborhoods, especially in the outer boroughs, were left unplowed and buried in snow.
But Kennedy and her team deployed workers with shovels and plows to the Hunters Point section of Long Island City, Queens, where Wife does much of its location shooting. "We sent people over there to shovel them out," she says. "We can't exist at a location level without the people of the city being behind us. And we can be invasive. So we always try to show our appreciation."
For others, shooting in the city can offer priceless only-in-New York moments. Richie Jackson, executive producer on Showtime's Nurse Jackie, which chronicles the daily drama and drudgery of a New York public hospital, experienced a veritable meta moment. "We filmed in a park next to Bellevue Hospital," he says. "In the far background I could see a food cart that had a Nurse Jackie umbrella, left over from a Season 1 Showtime promotion. It was a good spot for the vendor, so we had to pay him $50 to move the umbrella."
5 People You Need to Know to Get Production Going in New York
Commissioner of the New York City Mayor's Office of Media and Entertainment, which includes NYC Media
What she does Provides a key connection between Mayor Bloomberg's office and Hollywood; works to attract productions to the city and to keep them from taking off for California or elsewhere.
Patricia Swinney Kaufman
Executive director of the New York State Governor's Office for Motion Picture and Television Development
What she does Pitches the state of New York for film, TV and commercial shoots and coordinates players and locations; oversees tax-incentive program.
President of Kaufman Astoria Studios
What he does Runs the Queens-based television and movie studio -- nicknamed "New York's Production Center" -- at which Sesame Street, The Cosby Show and Law & Order have been shot.
President of Steiner Studios
What he does Runs the enormous Brooklyn-based studio (sitting on seven acres of the Brooklyn Navy Yard) that has been home to many films and TV series, including HBO's Bored to Death and interiors for Boardwalk Empire.
President of Silvercup Studios
What he does Runs the Long Island City-based studio that has served as a production hub for series including Fox's Fringe and NBC's 30 Rock.