Even back then cheap apartments were hard to find in Manhattan,” says Peter MacNicol during his opening monologue in Sophie’s Choice.
Shot exiting a dark train station from below, MacNicol steps into a pool of golden New York sunshine and continues, “So began my voyage of discovery, in a place as strange as Brooklyn.”
The Brooklyn of the 1940s, as it’s portrayed in director Alan J. Pakula’s 1982 holocaust epic, doesn’t differ that much from the Brooklyn of today, at least in appearance. The decades of gentrification and hyper development have introduced more glass and steel, but the bones of the beloved borough’s working class, industrial roots still provide the gritty “authenticity” that continues to define it. The bricks and stoops and trees and comparatively large spaces have made the area irresistible to hordes of young professionals who could afford to buy into the storied authenticity without facing many of the ugly realities that come with “true” grit.
New York is the cradle of moviemaking, and the state offers one of the most competitive tax incentive programs in the country. Productions can earn back 40 percent of qualified expenses and 45 percent on post—the highest refundable rates in the country. Each borough that makes up the state’s star city is stuffed to the gills with art directors, sound stages, equipment rental houses, trained talent, and ready-made locations. But which borough is the best for moviemakers?
“The short answer,” writer and moviemaker Chris Osborn tells MovieMaker, “is that you kind of can’t avoid Manhattan.”
Matthew Seig, a Media Specialist at The New York Foundation for the Arts agrees: “Images of Manhattan are instantly recognizable all over the world and if that is indispensable to your story, you have little choice other than to shoot there.” Hunter Arthur Moran, Creative Director at Lytehouse Studio in Brooklyn, concurs. “Everyone wants to shoot in Manhattan. It’s like this strange good old boys club where everyone knows each other. They use these studios because of the culture behind them regardless of the price point, which is sometimes double compared to what Brooklyn has to offer,” Moran says. Lytehouse Studio represents the best of what Brooklyn has to offer—premium services in a state of the art facility at rates Manhattan can’t match. At a year old, the embrace of a newer studio like Lytehouse by moviemakers on both sides of the bridge is part of the shift taking place in NYC.
The very things that once made Manhattan attractive now flag it for many as a prohibitive place to shoot. “Everyone knows that Manhattan is insanely expensive and full of savvy businesses looking to extract the very last penny from anyone, right down to the lowest of low-budget independent filmmakers,” says writer-director Michael M. Bilandic. Manhattan’s resource-rich film community proves for many to be inaccessible. But there’s a “sense,” Bilandic added, “that Brooklyn can be anything. If you can think of a scenario it’s likely that you can find a place to match it in Brooklyn. The range of neighborhoods and facilities is seemingly endless.”
Brooklyn offers a solution to not only Manhattan’s cultural challenges, but its logistical problems. In interview after interview, moviemakers, programmers, and city stewards involved in film all brought up one thing: Manhattan presents a logistical nightmare. “You have to park these huge trucks on the street outside and lug all this equipment up four flights of stairs, whereas in Brooklyn, you can just cross the street and load in directly to the shooting site,” Moran explains.
Madeline’s Madeline writer-director Josephine Decker chimes in: “The streets are wider. The people are slightly more spread out,” Decker says. “And if you need to get a bunch of child pirates riding bicycles, this is an easy place to do it. Especially in Red Hook.”
Brooklyn’s rangier landscape, more diverse population and aesthetics, and mitigated tactical challenges (including a notoriously simpler permitting system) seem to make it a better choice for indie moviemakers.
Located in East Williamsburg, Lytehouse is primed to enjoy the spoils of this cultural shift from a Manhattan to a Brooklyn state of mind. Founders Helene Safdie and Ira Levy have built a full-service production agency for photo, video, film, creative and art direction—pre-and post-production—from the ground up. They boast 4,000 square feet of unobstructed space, 20-foot ceilings, direct drive-in access on the ground floor with full turns, and rooftop space looking off as far out as the East Village and Queens.
Lytehouse is fully furnished to handle e-commerce, brand content, and production from strategizing creative design, hiring talent and crew, and wrapping up post-production through project handoff. The studio is centrally located in the thick of what every subject we interviewed referred to as, “where all my film friends live.” New York is thriving, Brooklyn is experiencing a sort of “golden age,” and Lytehouse aims to be in the thick of this scene for many years to come. MM
This article appears in MovieMaker’s Winter 2019 issue.