New York's indie scene expands to outer boroughs

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Think of independent cinema and it's impossible not to think of New York City, which houses not just key production and distribution entities, but also any number of location shoots for projects outside the umbrella of the major studios. There's free scouting permits, free parking and free police assistance, plus robust tax incentives and rebates.

And as of earlier this month, it now also sports a reconfigured Cinetic Media -- which is hoping to become more than just a storied film sales agency, but rather, with the addition of CAA agent Bart Walker, a one-stop shop for its clients' projects, from development to distributor sale. Everyone, it seems, wants a piece of New York's indie scene.

"Certainly a lot of low-budget stuff is thriving, no question," says Michelle Byrd, executive director of the not-for-profit Independent Feature Project, whose 29th annual IFM Market began yesterday.

But with production thriving at never-before-seen levels -- the Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting reports that last year it issued some 34,718 shooting permits -- indie and low-budget filmmakers around the city are broadening their geographical horizons. Thanks to a flurry of directors, producers and actors living and congregating in trendy Brooklyn, Queens and Bronx cafes over the past few years, the creative center of New York's indie scene is shifting, too.

Veteran producer Anthony Bregman of Likely Story recently wrapped "Synecdoche, New York," written and directed by Charlie Kaufman and starring Philip Seymour Hoffman. Bregman says he was looking for that authentic New York look, shooting at locations like Manhattan's Bedford-Stuyvesant armory -- but he also managed to have Brooklyn double for Germany, and Queens stand in for Schenectady.

"A lot of those shots were done with visual effects, where we would shoot on the street and place a CGI warehouse in the sky," Bregman says. "This movie has fantastical elements to it but is ultimately grounded in real New York. We thought it was incredibly important to shoot in the real New York."

The generous city/state combination rebate offered to productions in New York (10% from the state and an additional 5% from the city for qualifying shows) has been integral to its ability to land projects that might otherwise film in other states or even Canada. Bregman says that when producing 2004's "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," he faced a great deal of pressure to take the production to Toronto, where it could be shot on a tighter budget, but today, the combination of the rebate and the weak dollar has alleviated much of that stress.

"That decision used to be a much harder decision," he says. "The price difference between shooting in New York and shooting in Toronto was much steeper than it is now."

Process Media founder Tim Perell found himself in a similar situation on his most recent films, last year's "Trust the Man" and John Cameron Mitchell-helmed "Shortbus." "There were real pressures for us to go shoot ('Trust') in Toronto, and it would have saved a decent amount of money," Perell says. "We completely resisted because New York was a big character of that movie. And you see it because we're on the streets all the time; we're all in these sort of very specific signature restaurants."

Perell says moviegoers expect reality when it comes to Gotham-set movies. "Because of Woody Allen (and) Martin Scorsese, everyone knows what New York looks like and has a romantic idea of what New York looks like," Perell says. "And it's not Toronto."

It might, however, be Brooklyn. Perell's Process Media will be moving offices from Tribeca to DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) in Brooklyn next year. Likewise, independent linchpins like IFP's annual Gotham Awards gala are heading across the river: On Nov. 27, the Gothams will move from Chelsea Piers in downtown Manhattan to Steiner Studios at the historic Brooklyn Navy Yard.

"Frankly, we're doing it because there was no push-back," Byrd says. "It's bit of a gamble, but we kind of feel like it feels right because there is a lot of stuff going on particularly in Brooklyn at this moment."

Professors at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University say that they have witnessed a renewed zeal for the areas surrounding Manhattan proper from their students and other members of the local filmmaking community. Director Dee Rees took home this year's King Award at NYU's First Run Festival for her short "Pariah," the majority of which was shot in the South Bronx.

"It really gives a texture to the film," says Rees of the locations for "Pariah," a semi-autobiographical tale charting the travails of a teenage girl who is openly gay to her friends but not to her conservative parents. "I can't see the film outside New York because it's a New York story. New York is where I first encountered this whole scene and these girls and this way of life."

Rees, who is currently at work on a feature-length adaptation of "Pariah," notes that the NYU culture also has begun to explore the outer boroughs -- in part, because of a standard of living that dovetails with the usually penny-pinching lifestyle of the indie filmmaker.

NYU associate teacher Amos Poe, who produced early punk classics like 1976's "The Blank Generation," says today's independent filmmaking scene in New York is in some ways very similar to its formative years in the 1970s. The talent might have traveled across the Brooklyn Bridge, but the aesthetic is still very much "neighborhood filmmaking."

"I consider myself a New Yorker, but I'm really also kind of a downtown filmmaker," says Poe, who premiered "Empire II," his tribute to Andy Warhol's 1964 "Empire," at this year's Venice Film Festival. "If you're outside New York, you see New York as New York, but New York is really like a bunch of neighborhoods."

And, of course, the city has its own singular rhythms that translate to film effortlessly.

"I love L.A.," Poe says. "I love the weather. I love cars. I love the business there. But I need the energy of the street. I need to walk, and when I'm taken out  of that context, or when that is taken away, I realize it's an integral part of my psychology or my emotional being -- which is being a New Yorker."  


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