More than just movies: MOME helps bring a diverse group of artists' works to life

Joan Marcus
The cast of "A Bronx Tale" which opened this month. MOME recently launched a program, Access Broadway, which provides free Broadway tickets to NYCHA families.

More than just movies: MOME helps bring a diverse group of artists' works to life

More than just movies: MOME helps bring a diverse group of artists' works to life
December 19, 2016

The creative process is about forming associations, connections where previously none existed. Creative sectors, likewise, thrive on connectivity, reinvent themselves and expand within rich, diverse ecosystems. 

In business, diverse teams that embrace multiple perspectives are known to deliver the best results. Industries, by extension, are stronger when they draw on deep, diverse pools of talent. Their appeal to consumers is broader; so too is the distribution of the economic benefits they generate. 

Diversity is critical, therefore, to the enduring economic power of a company, industry, or city. 

In the words of Julie Menin, the commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, “Our differences are what make our culture more vibrant, more beautiful, and more dynamic – and having greater diversity in media and entertainment creates more compelling stories for all of us to enjoy.” 

At MOME, Menin has made a point of promoting diversity throughout the media and entertainment world. Her first year at the agency coincides with its 50th anniversary. The spectrum of media and entertainment has dramatically grown, and transformed, over the past half century. 

Historically, live stage dominated the entertainment scene. In the late 19th century, the stretch of Broadway delineating the Theater District became one of the first electrically lighted streets in the country. Thus the nickname, the Great White Way, was born. 

Today, we don’t usually associate theater with cutting-edge technology, but the stage has a knack for reinvention. Just because it has not endured the same level of technological disruption that other fields have does not mean the medium has stagnated. In fact, the use of special effects projected as scenery and new lighting techniques now create magical experiences for audiences in ways that weren’t previously possible. “Ghost The Musical” and “Finding Neverland” are recent standouts in that regard. 

But for some, the enduring allure of the live stage may to be connected to the temporary respite it offers from the digital whir engulfing our daily lives. 

“Theater is not only an escape, but an opportunity to be in a room with a couple thousand people – and that night won’t ever happen again,” said Charlotte St. Martin, president of The Broadway League. 

According to St. Martin, it’s not just the production value that’s kept pace with the times. A generation ago, most Broadway shows fell into just a few categories, such as musical or comedy. Today, there really is something for everyone. The arrival of Disney, for instance, brought more kids and families to the theater. And an increasing number of productions, such as “Hamilton,” employ nontraditional casting or reinvent genres in ways that appeal to new audiences. 

While other media and entertainment industries seem to face a steady stream of threats to their business model, Broadway’s greatest challenge – cost – has remained constant over the years. Broadway has the highest-paid theatrical employees in the world. According to St. Martin, it costs at least between 30 and 50 percent more to produce a show in New York than London. “There is no question that our prices continue to rise because the costs continue to rise,” she said. 

To open the doors of world-class theater to New Yorkers who might otherwise be priced out, MOME recently launched a program, Access Broadway, which provides 100 free tickets to NYCHA families every month. “Broadway in the Boros,” another Menin initiative, brings Broadway performances to public parks in all five boroughs. 

Despite the considerable investment they represent for many theatergoers, Broadway tickets continue to sell, in fact, more than ever before. This past season was the most attended in history, with 13.2 million tickets sold. That’s more than the 10 New York and New Jersey professional sports teams combined. It was also the highest-grossing season ever, with $1.37 billion in ticket sales. Last year, Broadway contributed more than $12.5 billion to the city’s economy, and supported some 89,000 jobs ranging from actors and musicians to electricians and stagehands. That figure doesn’t include the small businesses, restaurants and hotels that benefit from, or depend upon, the sector. 

“There was a Macy’s before there was a Garment District,” Andy Kozinn, president of Saint Laurie Merchant Tailors, a high-end tailoring business that provides wardrobes for TV, film and Broadway productions. “The manufacturing was done and rolled on racks up the street to the retail floor,” he said. 

Kozinn was not always in costume tailoring, but fearing a slump in his high-end ready-to-wear business, he capitalized on an opportunity, one just outside his door. “Our pivot to serve the entertainment industries has kept us in business and kept real manufacturing jobs in New York,” he said. 

Beyond Midtown’s still-electric glow, off-Broadway continues to develop the new concepts and products that sometimes find their way uptown – and beyond. 

“We definitely take risks,” said Adam Hess, president of the Off-Broadway League. “People here are going to be the first to see something before it makes it big time on Broadway or elsewhere.” 

As Hess explains it, off-Broadway is where artists, even celebrities such Daniel Craig, go to “really develop chops.” And it’s a two-way street, with off-Broadway serving as a feeder into Broadway, film and TV. 

Broadway, of course, attracts its own share of Hollywood headliners – A-list actors, as well as directors and producers. 

“I don’t think there has ever been a time when there was more crossover and synergy between film, theater and television,” St. Martin said. 

That crossover is so substantial, in part, because there’s never been a better time to work in film in New York. And that’s not just the byproduct of new soundstages, or hit TV series like “Girls,” box office blockbusters like “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows,” which are now shot locally. The full range of opportunities are available to local filmmakers, who have more options for earning a living than their counterparts in one-industry towns. 

Carey Graeber is an independent documentary producer, who has made films for outlets such as MSNBC and public television. But Graeber, the founder of Great Plains Productions, also produces independent not-for-broadcast films for nonprofits, manufacturers and corporate clients, such as Pfizer Inc. 

“In New York there are so many industries that you can make documentaries for, health care and retail and manufacturing,” she said. “So much of the print media is headquartered in New York, and their websites use video – even radio stations need video now.” 

“I don't think there has ever been a time when there was more crossover and synergy between film, theater and television.”

– Charlotte St. Martin, president of The Broadway League

The availability of corporate gigs helps Graeber pursue her “passion projects,” which currently includes a film about the women behind “The Wizard of Oz.” 

Though well aware of how good the times are for a filmmaker in New York, Graeber believes there is room for improvement. Why, for instance, should it be more difficult for women to access funding than men? Why are less than a quarter of crew members female? Across the board the numbers are skewed: only a fifth of writers are female, and the percentage of directors and cinematographers is in single digits. 

“We find more women working in roles that are further away from the heart of the process: script supervisors, hair and makeup, costume work,” Terry Lawler, the executive director of New York Women in Film & Television, said. 

To help open up that pipeline, Menin recently rolled out a package of women’s initiatives, including a script-writing competition and production project inviting New York City writers to submit pilot scripts for an episodic series spotlighting stories by, for, or about women. 

In partnership with Brooklyn Workforce Innovations, MOME has prepared over 600 low-income New Yorkers for entry-level jobs on film and television sets, through the Made in NY Production Assistant Training Program. 

Through the Made in NY Media Center, MOME supports emerging storytellers working at the intersection of media and tech, art, gaming, and new forms of digital journalism. The Center, which is operated by the Independent Filmmaker Project, provides training in film, TV, web content, as well as new technologies, such as virtual reality. Joana Vicente, the executive director of the IFP, sees independent film as “an incubator for talent, both behind and in front of the camera.” The medium that can be more personal, and resonant, taking greater risks aesthetically, politically, and culturally. 

“It’s a big world and a lot of different people living in it. It’s important that the stories that are told reflect that diversity and that people from all different backgrounds are participating in the making of those stories,” said Vicente, who has produced more than 40 films. “It only adds to a richer culture of film and films that are made. So I do think it’s important that the more the industry reflects the outside world, the stronger it will be.” 

Some people believe that independent films can play a role in overcoming intolerance. “It’s so important for us to come together and understand that there is no ‘other,’” said Katha Cato, who directs the Queens World Film Festival, which last year screened 144 films from 23 nations – not to mention 29 filmmakers from the borough. 

For all the disruption caused, breakthroughs in digital technology have had a democratizing effect. Young filmmakers with few resources can create content and showcase their work at the growing number of film festivals in the city. 

With the proliferation of digital platforms, the big question for emerging filmmakers is no longer: Can I get my film out there? But rather: How can I build an audience for my film? 

“All the other barriers have been lifted,” Vicente said. 

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act was written in the late ’90s. “There was no YouTube. Those regulations are in serious need of an upgrade,” said Tino Gagliardi, president of Associated Musicians of Greater New York, American Federation of Musicians Local 802. “Think of all the different content-providing technologies developed since that legislation was written.” 

New York is a cultural capital, and its music scene – whether opera, Broadway, jazz clubs or live shows – is a vital part of that. But due to high costs and incentives dangled by other states, iconic recording studios have closed shop, or left town along with many artists and technicians. 

“You’d hear about friends and colleagues heading to LA, and then Nashville, where records were being made. Commercials were moving to Canada,” recalled Art Labriola, a Grammy- and Emmy-winning musician and composer. “Kids animated TV, a pretty steady gig if you wanted it, was going to Canada and South Korea. Session work ended as the studios closed their big orchestral spaces. And all this was happening before the digital onslaught.” 

Last month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo vetoed a music production tax credit bill, approved by the state Legislature, to stem the flow of production out of New York. Proponents of the legislation argued it would benefit the more than 100,000 New Yorkers who work in the sector. 

“Musicians come to New York, and live in New York, because it is the cultural capital of the world,” Gagliardi said. “Musicians come here for the opportunity to perform with the most talented artists and be part of the most creative community in the world. We need to make sure those opportunities sustain their ability to make a living.” 

For her part, Menin supported the tax credit bill and, early in her tenure as commissioner, made clear her intent to bolster New York’s standing as a music capital. In spearheading the effort to bring the Grammys to the city, she said, “Hosting the 60th anniversary of the Grammys in New York City would be not only a marquee music event, it would provide $200 million in direct and indirect economic benefit to our city. New York City has a rich history of hosting the Grammy Awards and our agency, which now includes music within its portfolio, is delighted at the prospect of bringing it back after an absence of 15 years.” 

Even in down times, New York musicians have more options to fall back on. Many shuttle between gigs, whether teaching, subbing on Broadway, or performing in clubs or at events. 

For a while, Labriola struggled to find work. Eventually, he landed a job in the gaming industry, creating music and designing sound for casino games, slot machines, and online gaming suites. His employer, High 5 Games, is located at One World Trade Center and offers a good salary with benefits. 

“Out of the blue, this producer friend calls me and asked me to put some tracks together,” Labriola recalled. “I sent him some stuff, and next thing I know I have an actual job job.” 

New York is generally not thought of us a major player in the game industry. Other cities – San Francisco, Austin, Montreal – are bigger hubs. But New York does have a track record of innovative game development and a robust indie scene. 

Whether in audio design, writing, animation, voice acting, or virtual reality, there is already significant crossover between games and other entertainment fields. For that reason, advocates for the local game industry find the potential tantalizing. They believe New York can become an industry leader, provided the political will is there. 

“I think games tend to get sidelined a little bit,” said Jess Haskins, co-chairwoman of the New York City Chapter of the International Game Developers Association. “They don’t have the same cultural weight, which is something that’s changing.” 

But its annual growth rate of 4.8 percent outperforms more established entertainment industries. Digital games are now a $78.6 billion global industry. The market for virtual and augmented reality – whose profile grew with the launch of Pokémon GO – is expected to grow to $2.6 trillion by 2035, which is why MOME funds programming in those areas through the Made in NY Media Center and NYC Media Lab. 

So, will the game sector, still flying somewhat under the radar in this town, finally break out? 

“We have the numbers,” Haskins said. “There are a lot more game developers in New York than many people realize.” 

Gabe Ponce de León