Sunday, August 3, 2008

NYC's Latest Innovation: Providing Employment for Sherpas.

I've written before about filming in inaccessible places. There are a variety of situations that arise when filming off the beaten track. You may want to shoot on a privately owned island where the state owns the coast line, but someone else owns all of the roads. Maybe you want to shoot on a river, but the road ends half a mile away from the spot you've fallen in love with. I've had dirt and ice roads cut in South Carolina and Maine so we could get equipment where it needed to be. A Producer I've worked with once told me stories of airlifting all of his crew and equipment to a glacier in Alaska.

So, here's the thing. When you purposefully take a movie to a setting that is less, or not at all, built up, you expect to face some challenges getting to your location. Inaccessible, is not, however a word that leaps to mind when considering NYC as a location. Well, think again Bucko!

GF pointed out this article in this morning's NY Times. It seems that I am free to file a permit to film anywhere I'd like in Chinatown, I just can't park any of the equipment within 5 blocks of where the work would take place. Times Square and Cobble Hill in Brooklyn have similar restrictions. Once a month, the Mayor's Office of Film Theater & Broadcasting, publishes a list of Hot Spots. Most of the Hot Spots are temporary. A neighborhood or block may have had a lot of filming take place recently and the City decides they deserve a break. Fair enough. The few you'll see at the top of the list have been more or less permanent because, duh, they're extremely popular locations for people who want to shoot NYC icons.

In practice, when you wanted to shoot in one of these areas, you approached the Film Office and they considered requests on a case by case basis. Usually, if you couldn't get everything you were looking for, but some compromise could be reached that allowed you to use the location. More often than not, the answer was that you'd put your equipment trucks at the end of the block on a bigger street that could accommodate them and maybe you parked your trailers (dressing rooms, Make-up/Hair, etc.) even further away. Granted, having to walk equipment in from a 1/2 block away and having to have vans shuttle your cast to and from set makes life more difficult, but it's still feasible. Making an entire swath of Manhattan permanently off limits to film trucks is a new one. Look at the map below.

The shaded part shows the boundaries of the Chinatown exclusion zone. The Tea Parlor mentioned in the Times article is located on Doyers Street. (Doyers isn't named on the map, but if you look at the little button-hook street below Pell Street, it's located right where the road curves to the East.) Now if I want to shoot there, I've got big problems. If I park South of the exclusion zone, say on that yellow street going toward the bottom left corner of the map, not only does the crew need to haul the equipment 2-1/2 blocks, they need to cross a major multi-street intersection where Worth Street and Mott Street come into Chatham Square. I could avoid part of the intersection by parking equipement on Worth Street, west of the zone, but that's all parking reserved for Judges and Court personnel, because there are three major courthouses on Centre Street, just a little bit further west. The Film Office isn't going to issue a permit for that. Maybe I can park the trucks on Mott Street, just north of the zone. OK, fine. I'll ask the crew to push equipment across Canal Street (a challenging undertaking with nothing more than a shopping bag in hand), and then to navigate 4 blocks of narrow Chinatown sidewalks teeming with people. Yeah, the crew's gonna love me.

Oh, and the walkie talkies probably won't work between the trucks and the set, (buildings cause intereferance even at relatively short distances). And guess what else. Mott Street above Canal Street is what little is left of Little Italy in Manhattan. How long before they say, "We want and exclusion, too!"?

And soon, every neighborhood in NYC is going to start riding their City Councilman wanting to know why they can't get pesky movies eliminated from their backyard. Why should Chinatown get a pass while the Upper West Side still needs to cope with filming on their streets?

The city used to issue Scouting Permits. With one of these, I could park free at any meter. I could park in zones that were reserved for commercial vehicles loading and unloading. I could park pretty much anywhere except bus stops, fire hydrants and spaces reserved for some official agency. This was a wonderful thing which allowed me to cover a great deal of territory in a short period of time. You'd find a place to park within a block of the place you wanted to scout, zip in and shoot pictures of the place and be on your way to the next stop in no time flat. In practice, the Scouting Permits were horribly abused and everyone and their brother got ahold of one and used it to park in front of their apartments for days on end without moving their cars. That was a situation that could have been fairly easily reigned in but the Film Office unilaterally just decided to eliminate the Scouting Permits altogether a couple of years ago.

Now, I drive in circles looking for open meters to park at. I keep rolls of quarters in the car and God-forbid I run out, because the deli on the corner isn't going to give me change for two dollars unless I buy something and I'll get a ticket anyway during the two minutes it takes to get change.
Alternately, I can put the car into a garage. Most Manhattan garages charge anywhere from $10.99 to $25.00 for the first 1/2 hour. If I go to six different locations in a day, that adds up pretty quickly. And I've got 3 other people working for me who are doing the same thing.

NY State and NYC have recently raised the level of tax credits for movies shooting here. The tax credits are so attractive that Ugly Betty, a show that used to shoot 1-3 days of location footage per season and shot the rest in a studio in L.A., picked up stakes and moved the entire production here. Now, they'll shoot 2-3 days per episode in real locations and then finish things up in a studio here in NYC. That's huge. It points to a very successful program. Local equipment gets rented. Hundreds of local actors and technicians are employed. Piles and piles of money end up in the local economy because this one show moved to NY.

That's a good thing. However, it's not such a good thing if NY lets itself become a victim of its own success. The Film Office needs to be solving these problems by working with Producers and Location Managers, not by making unilateral decisions that make it impossible to get our work done. We recognize that certain places bear more of a burden than others we acknowledge that compromises are necessary.

What they've done with Scouting Permits and what they've done with Chinatown, is not the answer. Nobody is going to shoot Chinatown with the current restrictions in place. Go ahead and place restrictions on additional neighborhoods. We'll find other neighborhoods to stand in for Chinatown. Maybe we'll look in Queens. Restrict enough neighborhoods and I'll look for it in Cleveland.


John the Scientist said...

Ok, Nathan, what's the economic impact to NY of filming a movie?

I'm pretty sure your crew does not buy as much stuff as the stores (especially non-food stores)would have otherwise sold if the crew hadn't blocked their parking. And no one is going to come to NY as a tourist because of some movie they saw - they're going to come to NYC because it's friggin' NYC, so I don't buy any advertising bump either.

I just don't see what's in it for the Chinatown merchants in the area who aren't getting a check from you as a location reimbursement. And as a frequent visitor to Chinatown I sure as hell know there's no advantage to the customers and residents of the area.

So why don't you guys film in Flushing? You saw the area when we were there - no English signs except for the chain stores, and as you noted, even the smell is authentic to China.

I'm actually all for this - Flushing has much more plentiful parking, and only a native of NYC would notice that it's not Chinatown.

I've got to be missing something here - what do you guys bring to the party? Because at my level of knowledge right now, this ordnance makes me very, very happy. I can see your reservations about having it spread, and not having any negotiating powers, but if any other part of the streets of Chinatown are blocked off for official reasons (which they seem to be for one reason or another every week), I'd vote no for a film crew adding to that burden. Only in the absence of other street closings would I let a film crew in there, if I ran the parking authority.

Tell the truth - you're just afraid of filming next to the stinky tofu! :p

Nathan said...


I had no way of knowing how long it would take you to visit, but I sure as hell knew what side you'd take.


OK, first, you've got to separate economic impact from the filming site itself and the city as a whole. I've been on shoots where I was spending site fees for cooperation from just about everyone on the block, and shoots where only the one store I was using made any money. It varies depending on what the scenes involve and the budget of the production. Sorry, reality.

The advertising bump is real. Movies and TV keep the city in people's minds. For years, people made treks to a crappy little store in the East Village because Madonna bought a jacket there in Desperately Seeking Susan. I still get asked where the coffee shop from Seinfeld is located.

Economic impact on the city as a whole? A number of people who don't live here (cast, producers, etc.) are living here for 6-7 months. They're paying for housing, food, laundry, shopping and transportation. Lots of people who would not be working have a full time job for the season. Hundreds of extras will get day work and more.

Not to be dismissive, but to a filmmaker (my bosses), Chinatown in Manhattan and Flushing are completely different things. They don't look remotely alike. The signs and the people on the streets (who don't want to be in our movie anyway) aren't all that go into the look. There's the width of the streets, age and size of the buildings and a bunch of other stuff that go into the look.

C'mon, how many of Chinatown's patrons drive there. A lot of these people live right there in the area and they're walking.

I've got no problem with Flushing for certain types of scenes that don't call for the older grittier look downtown, but it's not always going to work. And to be honest, the folks in Flushing are going to bitch just as much starting the very first time I show up there.

What it comes down to for me is that NYC has made a concerted effort since 1966 (founding the Film Office) to attract motion pictures to the city. They've demonstrated over and over again that there is a positive impact. So, maybe the answer is that the city should look at who bears the brunt every year and then kick it back in the form of added city services for those communities.

I don't know. I just know that the city works really hard to attract films, but they're just going to counteract the attractiveness if they keep putting up barriers.

Jeff Hentosz said...

"Why should Chinatown get a pass while the Upper West Side still needs to cope with filming on their streets?"

Ooh! I know! I know! 'Cause then Law & Order wouldn't have any more murder suspects?

Also: when you go to Cleveland to scout, look along the Carnegie Rd. corridor between E. 55th and the Cleveland Clinic. It's been a while since I was in Chinatown, but I'm sure there's something there you could dress up convincingly. (Mayfield Rd. and Murray Hill Rd. would be a great substitute for any number of funky NY neighborhoods, were it not for, you know, the hill.)

You're welcome.

John the Scientist said...

The advertising bump is real. Movies and TV keep the city in people's minds. For years, people made treks to a crappy little store in the East Village because Madonna bought a jacket there in Desperately Seeking Susan. I still get asked where the coffee shop from Seinfeld is located.

As a marketing professional, this is what I don't buy. Individual businesses featured get a bump. The city? Not so much. The rest of the inconvenienced neighborhood gets bupkis. Tourists don't come to NY just to see the coffee shop in Seinfeld. They ask for the shop because they are already in NY to see the Statue of Liberty. That's why the only guy opposed to stopping the Richard Gere pic in Chinatown was the guy whose place they were going to film at. People would still come to NYC and spend their money elsewhere, rather than in some store Madonna shopped at (seriously, there are people that stupid?!?).

How many films need just the right grittiness of Chinatown? That's the art director's ego talking, isn't it? Like I said, no one outside of NYC natives or people like me who frequent the neighborhood from out of town will likely notice.

NYC has such huge turnover in secondments and people living there (my company owns a couple of floors of an apartment complex for just that reason) that I doubt that the few movie people who live there would not be replaced by someone else. If you were talking about Newark, I'd buy that line. Smaller cities, sure. NYC, no way.

And given your attitude towards extras, do you really want to use supporting their lifestyle as an argument? :D

And to be honest, the folks in Flushing are going to bitch just as much starting the very first time I show up there.

There we agree. Which is why I'd like you to be able to negotiate for Chinatown. just, as I said, I'd like the answer to be "no" if anything else is going on in the area. And I think they'll bitch a lot less in Flushing since there is cheap municipal parking there.

An awful lot of people drive from Flushing or other neighborhoods to Chinatown, otherwise, no one would have started the petition in the first place.

They've demonstrated over and over again that there is a positive impact.

That's why I didn't come off more strongly. I'd like to see the economic analyses. Because, if I know NYC, and I do, the City or some fat cat is getting all the benefit, and the small store owners are paying the costs. Maybe if the city gave out tax breaks prorated for days films on top of what you pay, it would help a bit? If the city really is accruing a benefit, they should put their money where their mouth is.

John the Scientist said...

Hey - if you want my support in Chinatown - when you're filming there, buy out a couple of parking garages for the day and let people park in there for a nominal fee who would have otherwise parked on the streets - and bonus points for giving a deeper discount to out-of-state plates! :D

Eric said...

I'm going to agree with John 100%. In fact, I think New York City itself shouldn't put up with the congestion, traffic and other assorted difficulties created by film crews attempting to hold the city streets hostage. New York gets nothing from moviemakers at all, except heartache and woe!

Now, Wilmington, North Carolina, on the other hand, is an extremely suitable place for filming. And while Wilmington doesn't have a Chinatown, there are a number of soundstages down there where the extremely professional local crews would be more than happy to build a replica Chinatown to the director's and art director's specifications and without causing all the trouble those New York unions make (NC is a right-to-work state). And I know the residents of Wilmington will suffer in silence if they have to adjust their parking to accomodate the needs of film crews. Unlike those horrible New Yorkers, who do nothing but cause trouble.


Eric said...

Should I delete my serious reply in the other thread, then?


(Anyway, it's nothing personal: just trying to drum up a little work for my Dad, 's'all....)

Nathan said...

To Eric's Dad,

I need a 2K pigeon on a quarter apple and rig a 20X double net over the skylight.

Then we'll use the Apollo for the last shot, booming most of the way and then crabbing left for the end of the set-up.

We also need a buttload of cribbing around that 24' staging...can't have it rocking. And we'll use the Weaver-Steadman on the baby legs.


Eric said...

I'll pass that along, but he'll probably want to know what you're paying.

Nathan said...


It's a PSA so he should donate his services so that he'll be my first call the next time I'm in town. (Full Disclosure: If he's in Wilmington, I don't think I've ever even driven through the place, so it could be a while.)