NYC Film Czar Julie Menin Follows Up A Grammy Awards Coup With A Timely Focus On Women In The Biz

Kristina Bumphrey/StarPix/REX/Shutterstock

It took 16 months of arm-twisting, glad-handing, elbow-jabbing, butt-bussing bicoastal diplomacy and numbers-crunching, but January’s 60th annual Grammy Awards will be broadcast by CBS from Madison Square Garden. The ceremony hasn’t originated in New York City since 2003, so the announcement proved to be a very high-profile, thumbs-up event for both Mayor Bill de Blasio and a city agency head more accustomed to complaints than congratulations.

The optics were terrific for de Blasio and Julie Menin, whom he’d promoted from head of the Department of Consumer Affairs to run the enhanced and renamed Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment (MOME). It was, after all, one of the few marquee coups that the Mayor didn’t have to share with his inconstant sparring partner, Governor Andrew Cuomo. The city could reap as much as $200 million from the one-off event (the ceremony will return to the Staples Center in Los Angeles in 2019) and even the LA-based recording industry brass were praising the effort.

“It’s definitely exciting, and for me a little bit nostalgic as well,” Recording Academy President and CEO Neil Portnow told the Los Angeles Times, “because my first Grammy Awards after being hired the previous December was the Madison Square Garden show in 2003.”

Portnow actually began plotting the return well before de Blasio took office. But the recording academy knew that producing the show in New York would be exponentially more expensive – to the tune of $8 millions more expensive – and who paid the piper would call the tune.

“There are challenges — there is nothing pro forma here,” said Ken Ehrlich, executive producer of the telecast. “But there is an excitement to a New York show. Each one has an energy of its own, and it really does get to you…I think we can take advantage of both the venue and what New York represents musically.”

Menin in her office above the Ed Sullivan Theatre Jeremy Gerard

What New York represents musically became Menin’s mantra, she told me, in a recent conversation at her office adjacent to the Ed Sullivan Theatre, the storied Hammerstein house where Archie Leach once played an Australian soldier in an “African” extravaganza called Golden Dawn and Steven Colbert now unloads nightly on President Donald J. Trump. The theme – of New York as essential font and sustainer of American culture – fits hand-in-glove with her credibly holistic vision of the pro-active role that the city must play in the entertainment industries.

“It was essential that we create one office where the needs of all these separate industries could find support,” Menin said. A lawyer by training, she brought experience negotiating contracts and, at least as important, an eye on the big picture and an ear for nuance. Translation: With ferocious competition from L.A., not to mention Canada, Louisiana, Georgia and other locations promising to replicate New York in any given era, even the unions have come to appreciate her as an advocate and are more open to negotiate because of that.

“The Grammys do not come here without Julie Menin,” said James J. Claffey Jr., the powerful president of the stagehands union, Local 1 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. “A lot of us even doubted she could do it,” he told The New York Times. “She proved us wrong.”

The Grammy Awards made headlines, but Menin is causing a stir in smaller ways that couldn’t be more timely, especially in her push to raise the profile of women in the industries vying for her support. As Hollywood reels from the scandals surrounding former Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein and, now, others, Menin is determined to improve opportunities for women directors, writers and techies.

To that end, MOME developed a five-point plan that includes a $5 million fund to support female creators  (pocket change, to be sure, but it’s a start). The Women’s Fund for Film and Theater is providing cash grants for filmmakers, playwrights and theatre producers working on projects by, for, or about women. The grants will provide funding at “strategic moments” to help the applicants shepherd their projects to successful completion.

Menin with Kevin Bacon Debby Wong/REX/Shutterstock

MOME also hosted a film finance lab – a “speed funding” event for 50 filmmakers – for projects directed by, for or about women. Participating filmmakers and their producers linked up with venture capitalists, investors and other funders. These complement other MOME initiatives to train students from under-represented communities in film, TV, theater production and post-production. Under the umbrella of the office’s “Made in NY” rubric are a Writers’ Room and  fellowships to help underwrite the work of storytellers and entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds. Fulfilling the “media” part of the equation, Menin has courted City University’s Graduate School of Journalism and given $1 million to train journalists at the city’s 350 community and ethnic newspapers.

The commissioner has also put the city’s owned television station, Channel 25, to work on developing and presenting the work of women writers and filmmakers. “Part of the deal,” she said, “is there must be a thematic link to New York – after all, it’s for the city.”

Menin is riding a wave of production returning to the city for which the Bloomberg administration deserves credit. She’s proving especially adept at negotiating the complex balancing act between studios that want free rein during shoots and city denizens and businesses that resist the displacement that shooting schedules can bring.

“One important thing we did,” Menin told me, “was convince the studios to use local businesses instead of outside sources. We negotiated with hotels and restaurants near locations to offer services that had been provided by outside companies.”

During the filming of Jodi Foster’s Money Monster, for example, MOME pressed Sony to hire local labor, to give cast and crew lunch money to spend at local restaurants, and to book hotel rooms for wardrobe changes, rather than use trailers. The 15-day shoot, Menin said, brought $300,000 directly into the pockets of New Yorkers. Her office also has pressed location managers to think outside the Manhattan box, shooting in the four other boroughs –  spreading both the wealth and the irritations. A “Made in NY” discount card steers TV and film people to over 1,200 local vendors. And the “Made in NY” marketing credit offers free advertising on subways and bus shelters to productions that keep at least 75% of their shooting in the city. Those productions must also donate to a city cultural organization, which has netted arts groups $200,000 in the past two years.

That suggests an overlap with the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, which oversees nonprofit institutions as varied as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Public Theater and the Metropolitan Opera. De Blasio also has been active on that front, promoting a long-term cultural plan determined to make the powers that finance, operate and program those organizations more reflective of the city’s gender and ethnic makeup. “We have a great relationship with (DCA Commissioner) Tom Finkelpearl,” Menin said, acknowledging that interplay in programs that bring commercial productions from film studios and Broadway to underserved neighborhoods.

Other programs are in development, and some of it is pie-in-the sky. But there already are practical consequences of de Blasio’s and Menin’s efforts – which come, it must be pointed out, with no small assist from the tax credits that rain down from Albany. But since coming on board, Menin has helped stoke a record-breaking  311 movies and 56 TV series in the city in 2016-2017, May to May, along with expansion of new studio space and sound stages.

In two weeks, de Blasio will almost assuredly be elected to a second term, and Menin says she hopes to stay on if the Mayor invites her to. “We have a progressive agenda, and this office is very much a part of it,” she explained. If during that second term she could convince her boss to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor, not to mention two former presidential families by actually lending his presence to the theater and other non-photo-op cultural events, Menin will have made a significant inroad not even her closest aides might have predicted.

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