Hollywood Brings Its Cameras to a New New York

| Media Coverage

New York City is abandoned.

That was the scene on Mercer Street one day last week on the shoot of “I Am Legend,” a sci-fi thriller featuring Will Smith as the last human in New York City after a flu epidemic transforms the infected into creatures that travel by night. Art directors worked frantically to place clumps of grass between cobblestones and spray cars with a film of dust, while Mr. Smith prepared for a minute-long scene of him walking with his dog. All this happened during SoHo’s lunch hour.

By some estimates the film is one of the largest to shoot on the streets of New York, and is emblematic of the new era of burgeoning filmmaking in the city. Its budget, according to one source that attended planning meetings, is more than $150 million. A publicist for the film, Carol McConnaughey, said this number was “inflated.” By contrast, the 1997 film “Independence Day,” also featuring Will Smith, cost $103 million.”Titanic” cost $200 million.

During a peak production day, more than 75 production assistants — the “breaking-in” job in the film industry — work to create the fantasy of an empty city by keeping pedestrians out of the sprawling set. Often filming simultaneously in two locations, “I Am Legend” has so far taken over a five-block section of Midtown for stunts, Washington Square Park, streets in Chinatown and SoHo, as well as the front façade and ramp of Grand Central Station. Everywhere the movie is, a caravan of trucks, support vehicles, and Mr. Smith’s two-story, luxury trailer take up neighboring streets. The film started shooting on September 28 and will continue through mid-February, Ms. McConnaughey said.

This is the new New York — a town that had 31,570 days of film shooting days in 2005, and seven television shows picked up this season. The city had 23,321 shooting days in 2004, according to the Mayor’s Office of Film, Television, and Broadcast.

Once a rare spectacle, the giant flood lights held up by cranes, the “Spiderman III” acrobatics on downtown skyscrapers, and the eerily empty scenes of “I Am Legend” seem as common as Con Edison construction work. According to some residents, so far a minority, these productions have also become an inherent obstacle in city life, as the sets can obstruct parking, delay traffic, and make it difficult to get home or to work.

A dozen studio owners, directors, and others in the film industry said in interviews that the tax cuts implemented for filmmakers in 2005 have been a major accelerant of growth for the film industry. Before the tax cuts, which were put forward by Councilmember David Yassky, a Democrat of Brooklyn, and supported by Mayor Bloomberg, the city had difficulty competing with cities like Toronto and Los Angeles, they said.

Under the “Made in N.Y.” program, filmmakers are eligible for a 15% tax break — 5% from the city and another 10% from the state — if they film least 75% of their film in the city. New York State has allocated $25 million in credits per calendar year for 2004 and 2005, and $60 million in credits per calendar year from 2006 through 2011. New York City has allocated $12.5 million in credits for 2005, and $30 million per calendar year from 2006 through 2011.

A comprehensive study by researchers from Cornell University and the Fiscal Policy Institute that explores the relationship between the city and state economies and the film industry, is expected to be released today. A business representative for the International Cinematographers Guild in New York, IATSE Local 600, John Amman, said that the report shows that “the industry has a much greater impact on the state’s economy than had been reported or understood.” Mr. Amman is part of a committee that oversaw the report.

“We’re seeing the highest level of employment that we’ve ever seen,” Mr. Amman said of Local 600.

The commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Film, Television, and Broadcast, Katherine Oliver, said the city’s movie industry now employs 100,000 New Yorkers. By the office’s calculations, about $5 billion is brought by the industry to the city’s economy every year.

The director of the Manhattan Institute’s Empire Center for Public Policy, E.J. McMahon, said he had no doubt the credits were increasing filmmaking in the city and state, but the benefit of these credits was unclear.

“If you are subsidizing somebody to do something, they will do more of it,” Mr. McMahon said. “The question is: is it worth it?”

Production companies are coming to New York in such numbers that all three of the city’s largest studio owners, Kaufman Astoria, Steiner, and Silvercup, are building more facilities.

Two years ago Steiner Studios became the owner of the largest studio in the eastern part of the United States when it built a 27,000 square foot, 45-foot tall space in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.The chairman, Douglas Steiner, said in an interview that the company is working on a master plan with the city to transform his studios into a preto post-production facility that can compete with the Los Angeles studios.

Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens is in the final stages of planning for a new 18,000-foot soundstage, and Silvercup Studios, also in Queens, is building eight new 18,000-foot studios.

“The tax credit narrowed the gap,” the president of Kaufman Astoria Studios, Hal Rosenbluth, said. “Before the tax credit, we were losing projects to other parts of the world and the country. Now, we are all very busy.”

“I Am Legend” is skipping the city’s established studios. The production is paying the city $350,000 to use the Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx for seven months.

Alongside the clamor to keep adding to the city’s film industry, some neighborhoods have been calling for the city to rein the industry in.

DUMBO and Brooklyn Heights have been given temporary moratoriums on filming in the last year when the onslaught of productions was too much. Neighborhood associations lobbied the Mayor’s Office of Film, Television, and Broadcast for the temporary reprieve. (Ironically, both areas are in the district of the tax credits’ most enthusiastic supporter, Council Member Yassky.) After a recent surge of film sets in Chinatown, residents and business owners there are asking for the city to stop granting street closure permits.

“It doesn’t always work well with residential neighborhoods like this one,” the executive director of the Brooklyn Heights Association, Judy Stanton, said. “They can sometimes be very intrusive. They are sometimes very rude.”

The film industry liaison for the DUMBO Neighborhood Association, Milton Herder, said the big film shoots were occasionally disruptive, but most crews were “responsive, courteous, and they clean up afterward.”

The city’s 311 reports don’t show many complaints about film sets, but the numbers are rising. In fiscal year 2005, there were 564 complaints out of about 12.5 million calls. In fiscal year 2006, there were 1,302 complaints out of about 14.2 million calls.

“You need people skills,” the commanding officer of the New York Police Department Movie and TV unit, Lieutenant Anthony Chapman, said of his job of coordinating 26 police officers and four sergeants to direct traffic, inspect prop guns, and address citizen concerns on sets at all hours of the day.

One observer said the city was entering a period similar to the golden era of filmmaking that followed the creation of the Mayor’s Office of Film, Television, and Broadcast by Mayor Lindsay in 1966.

“The image of the city has improved so dramatically over the last 10 years,” James Sanders, an architect and the author of a book about filmmaking in New York released this week, “Scenes from the City: Filmmaking in New York,” said. “It’s being seen again as the Great American Metropolis.”

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