How NYC became a motion picture mecca

Ali Goldstein/FX
Frank Langella, Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys in "The Americans." set in Washington D.C., the show is filmed in New York thanks to attractive tax credits.

How NYC became a motion picture mecca

How NYC became a motion picture mecca
December 19, 2016

Decades before Hollywood became synonymous with the silver screen, New York City was the cradle of the nascent film industry. By the onset of the Great Depression, however, movie production had migrated west, where it would remain until Mayor John Lindsay, 50 years ago, established an office whose raison d’être was rebuilding the motion picture industry in the city of its birth.

“(The mayor) moved in circles where he knew a lot of people in the cultural world, and particularly in the theater world,” explained James Sanders, editor of “Scenes of the City: Filmmaking in New York.”

“I think the theater people whom he knew socially told him that they were struggling in New York because they were losing actors and talent to California, and couldn’t afford to live only on theater,” he said.

The new agency, known then as the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting, was established, first and foremost, to streamline the filming process and be a one-stop shop for location permitting. The mayor also created a specialized police unit to deal with the logistical complications that can crop up when shooting on location. Previously, New York – like many cities – had viewed film crews as little more than a nuisance. Lindsay sent a letter to city agencies asking them to cooperate with filmmakers. The mayor, who himself cut the figure of a leading man – and even appeared in a couple of films – made a point of visiting film shoots and saying hello to everyone, according to Sanders. “The producers really felt like there was somebody on their side,” he said.

Despite a few hiccups along the way – an early 1990s boycott by Hollywood studios, for one – film and TV has exploded into a nearly $9 billion industry that employs 130,000 New Yorkers. Small businesses are responsible for a large portion of that workforce, as are blue-collar professionals in fields such as lighting, set and costume design. The industry also helps the city attract top talent to its universities and maintain its position among the world’s leading tourist destinations.

In the wake of 9/11, the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting made a major push into the digital age, wooing production companies with a host of online resources: a catalog of searchable images to aid location scouts, a listing of city assets available for free and information about the sunrise. The Made in NY program offered new branding opportunities for films and TV shows shot in New York, which could gain free media on bus shelters and subway stations.

Coupled with tax credits designed to keep the local industry competitive, those initiatives paved the way over the past decade for the construction of three major studio complexes. The addition of that studio space in Brooklyn and Queens has coincided with a golden age of television. Having attained a critical mass of studio space, craftspeople and actors, it can save producers money to film in New York despite the city’s overall higher costs. Not long ago, the bulk of a film set in New York might have been shot in Canada. Now, New York perpetrates its fair share of “cheating,” with films and TV series set elsewhere – such as the popular spy thriller “The Americans” – now shot primarily in the city and its suburbs.

In 2010, the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting merged with NYC Media, the largest city-owned broadcasting entity in the country, to form the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment. Among its assets are six local cable TV stations and a radio station.

Not long ago, the bulk of a film set in New York might have been shot in Canada. Now, New York perpetrates its fair share of “cheating,” with films and TV series set elsewhere – such as the popular spy thriller “The Americans” – now shot primarily in the city and its suburbs.

With the appointment of Julie Menin as commissioner in February, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the agency’s expansion into other industries: music, advertising, publishing, digital content and real estate (as it relates to the creative industries), while pushing to open access in all media sectors to underrepresented groups.

“We really are thrilled about the tremendous growth we are seeing within the various portfolios, and the opportunity to launch important initiatives and increase the opportunity and access,” Menin said.

Under Menin, the agency has rolled out new programs in a number of sectors, hoping to build upon its historic success in the TV and film industry, which now serves as a model for other cities.

“Every city in the world wants to figure out new ways to have economic activity and development, and it’s usually pretty hard to get a new industry started,” Sanders said. “This is a case where you have to say the actions that the government took really made a difference.”

Gabe Ponce de León
20211019