Untapped Cities is excited to announce its partnership with URBAN Magazine, a production of Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. Last week Mayor Michael Bloomberg unveiled a proposal for an 18,000-square-foot media and entertainment facility scheduled to open in Dumbo, Brooklyn next year. The Made in NY Media Center will aim to bring film, gaming and marketing professionals under one roof, providing shared workspace as well as meeting, classroom, and screening space. As the mayor was quick to point out, last year was the biggest year ever for film and television production in New York City. Over 150 TV shows and 200 films were shot in the city last year, employing approximately 100,000 crew members and contributing an estimated $5 billion to the city’s economy.
Film and television have enjoyed a long and storied past in New York City, from Macy’s starring role in the 1947 Miracle on 34th Street, to the cupcake craze inspired by Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw. But the city resents its reputation as an expensive shooting location and its perennial backseat to Los Angeles. So in 1966, the City premiered its Office of Film, Theater and Broadcasting in an effort to promote film and television production in the city via tax breaks, free permits, and free police assistance. Its Made in NY program even includes a production assistant training program and a discount card valid at participating local vendors. But the Made in NY program is hardly unique. In the last few years, cities and states nationwide have developed incentives designed to lure the glamorous industry, in what has become a vicious battle for what some consider an expensive pursuit of a rather tenuous source of tax revenue. In 2010, 40 states spent a combined $1.4 billion on film production incentives. But with so many states playing, this subsidy battle only really benefits the filmmakers themselves, as purported job creation benefits are in fact quite limited spatially and temporally.
In 2008, Michigan debuted the most generous film incentive program to date, offering to rebate up to 42% of a film’s production expenditures. The state envisioned a bustling Hollywood North of sorts, hoping to retain the state’s fleeing young creative class and put laid-off auto workers back to work. But amidst a severe fiscal crisis last year, the program was drastically scaled back, and film subsidies, once uncapped, weren’t to exceed $25 million per year. The $500 million that was spent by filmmakers in Michigan in 2010 had slowed to a trickle by the end of last year. The program’s detractors point to a Senate Fiscal Agency study claiming the state made back just 17.5 cents in tax revenues for every dollar spent on film incentives.
But defenders of these incentive programs claim there is a goal beyond job creation and tax revenue: the much-hyped yet hard-to-measure concept of place promotion. Film commissions in Michigan and Louisiana hoped a starring role in a Hollywood production might help boost sagging reputations””and tourism figures. Unfortunately they lacked the power to veto films like 8 Mile and shows like TremÃ© that painted those places in a less-than-flattering light. “Films and TV shows set in the city serve as a postcard to the world,” says Marybeth Ihle of the Office of Film, Theater and Broadcasting. You don’t need to take a Sopranos- or Gossip Girl-themed bus tour to know that New York City does not have an image problem.
The website of the Office of Media and Entertainment features a quote attributed to film director Spike Lee: “Toronto, I’m sorry, it’s not New York City.” Toronto and other cities have been offering themselves as cheap stand-ins for New York’s rugged urbanism for years, while New York City itself languished under a reputation of crime and grand expense. But when a place takes a central role in a film’s story, its authenticity is near impossible to match, especially to today’s sophisticated audiences. So wouldn’t filmmakers who desired New York as a setting have to shoot in New York to achieve the desired effect? They should be willing to pay the price, however high, irrespective of any of the City’s efforts to lure them. Filmmakers elect to set their stories in New York because the city enjoys such a distinct position in our collective consciousness and is so visually enticing, not because of a promise of cheap land and labor; they have Hollywood for that. Live television shows have shot in Manhattan for decades, as they typically don’t require large floor areas and benefit from proximity to the media corporations that have long been headquartered there. More recently however, some enterprising New Yorkers have sought to attract film and TV production to some of the vast, disused industrial spaces in Brooklyn and Queens. Steiner Studios, which occupies 20 acres in the long-dormant Brooklyn Navy Yard, is perhaps the best example. Developed in 2004 by a father-son team purely on speculation, Steiner Studios is now the largest studio complex outside of California and has hosted over 40 feature-length films and 19 television shows.
One of these, HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, despite being set in 1920s Atlantic City, New Jersey, is shot almost exclusively in the five boroughs. The fact that the show keeps coming back to the city after three seasons should be an indication that New York’s television industry is sophisticated enough to provide the massive crew, equipment, and graphics and editing expertise required by a production with an $18 million budget — not merely that the city’s mix of historic architecture and grit does a better job of replicating Prohibition-era Atlantic City than Atlantic City itself. Many of Made in NY’s most laudable programs cost almost nothing, and other city agencies would do well to replicate them. The office’s website features a location scouting directory, paperwork minimization and expedition, and an industry job board. The office has customer service down pat, and their staff is praised by local filmmakers.
But the City of New York has its sights set beyond merely standing in as a sexy backdrop. City officials, especially under Mayor Bloomberg, want to make New York into a digital media hub — a “Silicon Alley” of web design and production, animation, digital effects, video game design, and graphic arts. This will prove difficult, though potentially very rewarding. In 2000, the City commissioned the Boston Consulting Group to conduct a study measuring the state of the city’s digital media sector. Availability of talent was the challenge most cited by local industry respondents. Clustering””of both firms and talent””is of crucial importance to this sector and “New York lacks the critical mass to supply a strong job network,” laments one digital media executive quoted in the report. There is reason for encouragement. When HBO needed a digital effects firm to lend Boardwalk Empire its period look in post-production, they turned not to a Hollywood or Silicon Valley outfit, but to Brooklyn-based Brainstorm Digital. New York City attracts this desirable bunch not by building new tech campuses and offering tax incentives, but by merely being itself. New York is and always will be a top choice among the young, creative crowd. And if time is any lesson, they will bear the cost.