New York City’s multibillion-dollar filmmaking industry is hurting. Numbers released by the New York Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting (MOFTB) show an understandably dismal 2001: Film and TV expenditures declined by $149 million; the number of feature films in the city dropped from 201 to 174, and the number of shooting days shrunk more than 15 percent, falling to levels not seen since 1994. While this past spring saw a strong rebound of new productions, climbing out of last year’s doldrums isn’t going to be easy.
Gotham stalwarts like Woody Allen, The Sopranos, and Sex and the City remain faithful, but summertime in the city isn’t what it used to be for the more than 78,000 entertainment professionals who work here. “Business has come back, but it hasn’t come back to the level of past summers,” says Scott Fleischer, vice president of Panavision New York, which supplies camera and lighting equipment to many of the city’s productions. Despite the welcome arrival of new large-scale films from Jane Campion (In the Cut) and Boaz Yakin (Molly Gunn), Alan Suna, CEO of Long Island City’s Silvercup Studios, says, “There’s fewer shows and fewer movies, but I believe it’s like the stock market, and we’ll see a significant pickup over the next few months.”
But for many, future recovery will come too late. There’s the story of the camera operator who couldn’t make his house payments and moved to Los Angeles. Then there’s the fallen post-production houses: first midtown Manhattan facility Post Perfec; then Spin Cycle Post, the 10-year-old indie-specialized outfit; and just recently, commercials giant National Video. “We are slower, though we’re not dead yet,” says Tom Rickell, manager of Post 391, another editing company that has yet to come up to speed since 9-11.
But MOFTB spokesperson Julianne Cho says the downturn was already bubbling before then. “Due to the expected [writer and actor] strikes last year, productions had already geared up to spend the majority of their annual budgets in the first two quarters of 2001,” she says. “Many people forget that the dotcom crash not only affected advertising across the country, but influenced overall entertainment spending for the entire year.”
Cho and others also fault “runaway production”—films shooting in Canada or other countries—for extracting jobs and dollars from U.S. soil. According to a recent study from the Center for Entertainment Industry Data and Research, the total budgets of films shooting in New York State declined 76 percent from 1999 to 2001; while in Canada, budgets leapt 154 percent. “Canadian subsidies have created an unfair advantage for Canada that is hurting the U.S.,” says Cho. Even our own Mayor Bloomberg abandoned the city, bankrolling and executive producing the set-in-New York, shot-in-Canada Focus in 2000.
To keep filmmakers local, the city removed the sales tax on goods and services for film and television productions, and created a new hotel discount program for crews (10 percent off their lowest daily rate). There’s also a proposed federal bill that offers films budgeted up to $10 million a 25 percent tax credit on labor costs. But those workers whose livelihoods depend on the city’s entertainment industry want more innovative ideas and immediate results. Brent Swift, an art director and chair of the Film & Television Action Committee (FTAC), a grassroots organization combating runaway production, calls the federal bill a “red herring”—big-budget films will still flee the country in search of more lucrative subsidies. FTAC is currently filing a petition with the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative to investigate the legality of foreign tax breaks and favors stricter measures such as a countervailing tariff, which would raise tariffs on productions imported from Canada.
Reports from up north, however, show their own industry is slowing as well. “There was definitely less going on in Canada,” says producer Eva Kolodner (Boys Don’t Cry), who recently returned from the Toronto set of Canadian director Aaron Woodley’s debut, Rhinoceros Eyes. “A lot of people first said to us, ‘Stop taking your production up there,’ but then I was like, well, there’s really no production, anywhere.”