January 2004

Erasing Myths About Production in New York


Ed Sherin (center) with Law & Order series costar Jerry Ohrbach (right)

In New York, the Directors Guild of America is actively seeking to erase the enormous myth of the Big Apple being rotten to the core for filmmakers. That's just not so, say veteran feature and television directors who shoot regularly in Manhattan.

"The myth is overwhelming," says director Glenn Gordon Caron, who shot Picture Perfect and Love Affair in New York and heads the recently created New York Production Incentive Committee (NYPIC) of the DGA's East Coast Directors Council. "The myth says it's impossible to move here, work here and work with the unions. That's not the case." Caron says he also frequently hears the studios complain that filming in New York cost a fortune. "That's another myth. If you really explore, I don't think there's a price point that you can't hit in New York."

"The problem is the misunderstanding that West Coast producers have," said DGA National Vice President Ed Sherin, the executive producer and sometime director of the legendary Law & Order and its spinoffs that, for 14 years, have been filmed on the streets of New York. "If you want to make a film in New York City, you can find a way and for a price much less than you think it will cost. It requires good producing. At one time in the 1990s, we were the only show in town. Now there are half a dozen or so, including Sex and the City, Third Watch, Ed and The Sopranos.

"We pioneered in getting the Teamsters on board," Sherin said. "They realized if we made a good deal, over time the benefits would show. Jeff Hayes, one of our executive producers, worked hard on that. People thought that New York was excluding itself from the market, like Boston, because of the high-priced unions. That's just not true. Plus, the locations are not that expensive. The wonderful pool of actors here is the best in the world. The drumbeat and energy of this town you can't get anywhere else. It's a life force alive in our show."

Caron's committee intends to put together a sounding board of industry veterans including directors, unit production managers and first and second assistant directors to aid studios in making shooting in the Big Apple cost-effective. Russell Hollander, the DGA's Eastern Executive Director, said that if a studio-budgeted picture is estimated to cost about $40 million to make in New York, the horse sense of the savvy-steeped NYPIC might be able to shave $7 million off that figure to keep the show from traveling to Toronto, Pittsburgh or Romania.

Other myths to go along with the one about the big lovesick ape on the Empire State Building 70 years ago are that getting permits and police help is agonizing, parking and moving cars are logistics nightmares and that New Yorkers would rather have that ape around than truckloads of equipment and film crews in their streets. The truth is, permits and police are sometimes free and haven't been a problem to obtain for nearly two decades and the musical cars on filming day has evolved into an NYPD Traffic Control Division science. "It's done with the utmost efficiency, so issues don't linger," said John Gallagher, 1st AD on Third Watch. "It's amazing, a very, very smooth process."

Sherin emphasized that Law & Order went to great pains to minimize neighborhood disruptions, and he believes that care has helped the reputations of production crews in the city and created a win-win-win situation for the residents, production and the New York City Film Commission. "We always leave a place cleaner than when we got there," Sherin said. "It's tough unless you plan carefully. Production managers need to be educated to the specifics of the city. You don't try and move a company in the middle of the day. You organize your shooting around a hub and stay there all day. You need a good location manager and a really top-notch production manager."

Terry Donnelly, who was either AD or second unit director on the iconic New York movies (and Academy Award–winning best pictures) of John Schlesigner's Midnight Cowboy and William Friedkin's The French Connection, believes more is needed to lure producers to New York. "If the companies feel they can save 35 percent of the budget by going north of the Canadian border, it's a no-brainer — they go. To really stop runaway production, you need an act of Congress."

That's why even as production has increased in New York, Caron and Hollander are working with the film commission to find more avenues to lure even more shows into the city. The DGA also has a major voice in and provided a venue for the New York Film Initiative, an ad hoc committee that intends to track trends, location decisions and the economic impact of commercials, TV and features shot in the city. This committee, Hollander said, intends to present the findings to state officials in Albany to flesh out possible legislation to keep boosting production in the city.

The initiative also includes representatives of the Motion Picture Association of America, Screen Actors Guild, Association of Independent Commercial Producers, Association of Independent Creative Editors, American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 600 (cinematographers) and the New York Production Alliance's Creative Committee.

But first, Caron wants to present a few myth-busting findings to the industry at large. "One of them is that there is no stage space in New York to shoot series," Caron said. "That's not the case. There's Silver Cup and Silver Cup East, Chelsea Piers and armories all over the city." And the city's so-called "hot spots" for NYC iconography — Madison Square Garden, Rockefeller Center, Wall Street, Central Park, Grand Army: Plaza, etc. — are supplemented by hundreds of square miles of diverse locations, Julianne Cho, Assistant Commissioner of the Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre, & Broadcasting, agrees and is quick to point to this example: "Governor's Island, which was an old military base for so long, is now available with all sorts of location uses," Cho said. "It can function as a rather isolated back lot, with castles, barracks, offices, bowling alley, churches."

Clearly then, Gotham is rebounding with people determined to keep film and television production vibrant and destroy the myth that "it can not be shot in New York." And the DGA is committed to help lead the way.

The Industry / Technology

Articles on creative issues and new technology in features, television and new media.