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.