Filming Is Up But Will It Last?
By Heather Corcoran
Sometimes – especially when you’re running late and some kid with a clipboard and headset tells you to step to the other side of the street – it seems like all of New York is turning into a film set.
From “Reading Rainbow” to the ubiquitous “Sex and the City,” more than 80 productions are currently rolling in New York. It’s enough action that 95 percent of Manhattanites have seen filming taking place, according to a recent survey. A trip to the box office or turning on the TV increasingly means seeing the local drycleaner, the neighborhood coffee shop or even a friend’s apartment. But as the city’s classic grit disappears, New York may be losing its on-screen edge.
This reappearance of New York on screen is due, in part, to Made in NY, a program launched in 2005 by the film office to bring productions back to the city after the economic slump that followed Sept. 11. New York had a bad reputation for being too expensive, and burgeoning film industries in cities like Toronto lured productions with promises of cheap costs. In an attempt to keep New York competitive, the city and state countered with tax incentives and discounts for films shot at least 75 percent in the city, plus a campaign highlighting the only-in-New York cachet.
Throughout the industry, professionals like casting director Scott Powers are happy to see an increase in activity. In the past, it has been cheaper to ship everything – from casts to sets – but now productions are staying put.
“I think, first of all, you have talent here that is not elsewhere – talent as far as actors are concerned, talent as far as directors are concerned – and there is a certain type of intensity and edge on it that doesn’t exists anywhere but here,” said Powers.
Currently, New York shares the screen in “The Brave One” and “Across the Universe.” When the Beatles-inspired musical “Across the Universe” filmed in 2005, it briefly transformed a slice of the Lower East Side into a psychedelic Technicolor wonderland for the ’60s-set film. Bongs and concert posters filled the windows of a corner bodega and magic mushrooms sprouted up on tenement buildings. Two years later, some of the paint – polka dots and a building-sized dragon – remains.
Camera crews and complex sets are the most visible side of the industry, but its impact is largely economic. Each year films, TV shows, commercials and music videos inject the city’s economy with $5 billion and 100,000 jobs. Last year alone, the city hosted 34,718 days of shooting in public spaces – more than ever before and two-and-a-half times the low of 2002. This year’s numbers haven’t been crunched yet, but as anyone who’s been detoured by any one of the myriad big-budget productions in the city can attest, this year is set to be another big one for New York City in the movies.
Two candidates for the holiday blockbuster rush, “American Gangster” and “I Am Legend” prominently feature the city. When “I Am Legend,” a post-apocalyptic thriller starring Will Smith, shut down the Brooklyn Bridge it became the most expensive scene ever shot, topping out at $5 million.
The city’s presence on the screen is about to surge even more – today New Yorkers can run into the casts of “Sex and the City,” “Gossip Girl” and “Cashmere Mafia.” Even “What Happens in Vegas,” a film that takes place in Sin City, is using the city as a set.
But as productions bring big bucks to the city, New York’s scrubbed up image is making it more difficult to find the dirt and grime the city was once known for.
“I was very fond of saying, we could be the last major large-scale period movie made on the streets of New York, because it isn’t easy anymore to find anything left,” said Arthur Max, the production designer of “American Gangster.”
Max’s team, including 21 location managers and scouts, scoured the city searching for the perfect locations to represent Harlem of the ’60s and ’70s. On one occasion, the breakneck speed of New York’s latest makeover was underscored: They found the perfect abandoned lot, only to discover construction of a luxury building had begun by the time the crew went by for a second look.
“Ridley [Scott] particularly likes to work with natural light in real locations, even if we were building into the location, rather than going to a soundstage and trying to recreate the whole thing as a set. You just don’t get the textures, you could never possibly achieve it because of the patina of time,” said Max.
So they had to get resourceful and find patches of the old New York wherever they could. The resultant footage is a collage of the five boroughs. “Thank God for Brooklyn, thank God for the Bronx, because without them Harlem wouldn’t exist in the 1960s on the screen.”