Reopening Hollywood: Rising New York Production A Bright Spot In A Strapped City, But Concerns Linger

Amazon Studios; HBO

New York City could have 40 or more productions underway by year end, bringing it decisively back to pre-COVID-19 levels as an industry ramp-up that started in September gathers steam into the fall.

That’s great news for the entertainment business, a welcome shot to the local economy and a heartening boost of in-person bustle —  with strict protocols — in a city where block after block of offices towers sit empty, tourism is shot and unemployment soaring.

“The parking lot is full,” said Doug Steiner, the real estate developer and CEO of Steiner Studios. “Everyone’s back,” he said, referring to nine productions that include Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel — in lengthy pre-production and eying a January 2021 start — and Showtime’s City On a Hill — also in preproduction and gearing up. Starz’s Power Book II: Ghost is shooting pickups for its current season.

Steiner said 1,500-2,000 people daily are now populating the site at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

At Silvercup Studios, CEO Alan Suna said productions at its three campuses in Long Island City and the Bronx “are fully back in action” with seven scripted series. Silvercup is home to HBO’s Succession, expected to start production in late fall.

The Suna family, which founded Silvercup in 1983 on the site of a landmark bakery, has just sold it to investors Hackman Capital Partners and Square Mile Capital. Suna will remain chairman. “Restarting these productions — and the jobs that come with them — will provide an economic boost that our city needs, especially right now,” he said.

“I am reasonably confident that by the end of the year we will have the same if not more series that were filming on the ground before we shut down,” Anne del Castillo, commissioner of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, told Deadline.

Other shows underway (in production or pre-production) include The Flight Attendant, Blue Bloods, Bull and Gossip GirlLive with Kelly and Ryan is shooting live in-studio as are late-night talk shows Late Night with Seth Meyers, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

Saturday Night Live returns to the studio this weekend. For Life, which shut earlier this month after positive COVID-19 tests, is expected to resume shortly.

“I would say in the last few weeks, people are a lot more optimistic than they ever have been since this started. They are going back to work and cameras are starting to roll,” said Flo Mitchell-Brown, chair of the industry group New York Production Alliance.

The majority of new projects filming are TV series, mostly on sound stages where safety protocols, pods and PPE can be well monitored according to industry standards.

Location shoots are more complex now as productions must share crowded city streets with restaurants offering outdoor dining and rules that limit parking, outsized vehicles and access. Indoor dining in the city began Wednesday (September 30) and location restrictions are expected to loosen significantly at the end of October.

Castillo’s office oversees both production and nightlife.

“You try to support each sector to the fullest degree that you can. We are balancing industry needs,” she said. “But I have to say, it’s been very encouraging to see how thoughtful and collaborative all of the stakeholders have been [with] film production reaching out to local restaurants that have been shut down to use them as locations or catering. We can’t have catering out in the street but we can have socially distanced catering at a restaurant. Productions are being really thoughtful.”

Pre-COVID, NYC’s production industry was at an all-time high, supporting more than 100,000 jobs — many of them union jobs including grips, production assistants, post-production staff, actors, directors and writers. The nearly 80 series and 300 films that shoot in the city annually support more than 2,000 local businesses from florists to cafes and lumberyards. The industry generated more than $60 billion in direct economic activity and $3 billion in tax revenue annually.

“The film and TV business wants to be in New York. It is back. It will continue to thrive. It is a rare bright spot in the New York City economy and demonstrably key to its recovery,” said Steiner, who recently announced plans with the city to build a new 500,000-square-foot film and TV production hub in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, with eight soundstages.

Tax Credit Jitters

Of course, given the ongoing havoc wreaked by the pandemic, there’s still lots keeping the local industry up at night.

That includes the future of New York State’s tax credit, which has been key in attracting production. The credit was renewed in April but rolled back to 25% from 30% and eliminated for films with budgets of $1 million or less. That’s a blow to small independents, just as indie producers are being squeezed by the added costs of COVID safety measures and by a lack of affordable pandemic insurance.

The downsized tax credit had already been in the works pre-COVID, well before the financial toll of the virus was clear. Some industry players fret about the future of the benefit given New York’s dire financial straits

“With the state’s finances being what they are, it’s going to be quite a fight,” predicted Mitchell-Brown, who is also head of industry engagement for Extreme Reach, which provides payroll, accounting and labor relations for production casts and crews. She said the NYPA has a study prepared that supports, quantifies and justifies the credit. Before unleashing it she’s waiting to see if New York gets federal aid. “Because if it doesn’t, we will have a harder mountain to climb,” she said.

States and cities across the nation are struggling to fund the massive cost of COVID. According to recent reports, New York City’s hospitality and leisure sectors have lost 44% of their jobs. The city’s unemployment rate is twice the national average. Nearly 1,000 restaurants are said to have shuttered permanently.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been in an ongoing sparring match with President Donald Trump and the Department of Justice has labeled New York (and Portland and Seattle) “anarchist jurisdictions” and threatened to withdraw federal funding. Aid to cities and states has been a sticking point in the new COVID relief package being debated in Congress. Democrats want it in, many Republicans don’t. If aid isn’t forthcoming, given NYC’s estimated $50 billion budget shortfall, Gov. Cuomo has said spending cuts and tax increases will be inevitable.

The Virus Is Still Here

New York, once the center of the pandemic that has brought its cases down to the lowest in the nation, is seeing new clusters of infection in about 20 zip codes in the state, including in Brooklyn. So far they’re contained to Orthodox Jewish communities. Cuomo this week described a major outreach program and urged local officials to enforce mask wearing and other safety precautions.

Costs, clusters, tax credits, “These are the types of conversations we’re having despite … having cameras rolling,” said Mitchell-Brown.

She and others also note that the ramp-up, while great, doesn’t tell the whole story as virus risk combined with high population density may be discouraging new productions from heading to the city, opting instead for farms upstate, or other states entirely, where the process is easier to control.

Seth Needle, SVP Global Acquisitions & Co-Productions at New York-based CSS Entertainment/Screen Media Ventures, said his company is currently packaging projects that would shoot in upstate New York and New Jersey and others set for Toronto, Louisiana or Georgia.

“We’re looking at shooting a series in the city sometime early next year, but that’s the only project in NYC,” he said. “My take on the city is that it can still very much be a viable location as long as you’re taking your precautions and safety extra seriously. On the other hand, all shoots are so tricky right now that the extra hassle of coordinating such a shoot there may not be worth it.”

Challenges today include advanced coordination for personnel and extra safeguarding of the set on a daily basis. “Adding in the difficulty of a city shoot on top of this could push … projects to breaking points,” he said.

“Our choice to shoot in the city for the upcoming series [which he declined to name] really comes down to capturing authenticity of the location and accommodating the talent involved. Our other projects are less reliant on these areas, so it’s easier to set up shop in less trafficked locations and have that to our advantage.”

“Even prior to the pandemic, New York is a very specific place to shoot,” agreed Neil Champagne, of Brooklyn production company Tinygiant. He moved from Vancouver in May 2019 to launch a division for scripted film and TV. That had to be put on pandemic hold and the firm doubled down on its core business of producing commercials.

Commercial producers with small, non-union crews were the first back to work in July when the city began issuing permits for location shooting.

“You can shoot anything in Vancouver. There’s a downtown city, the mountains, the woods, the ocean. They shoot for everywhere else in the world.” Champagne said. “In New York, you do it for New York.”

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