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Taking a Bite Out of Big Apple Moviemakers

Taking a Bite Out of Big Apple Moviemakers

When Michael Bloomberg accepted an honorary Gotham Award in 2007, the New York City mayor’s sense of humor later proved all too prescient. Referencing his cameo in the Sex and the City movie, Bloomberg noted that, “New York film and television does go far beyond my acting career, if you can believe it.”

These days, however, many New Yorkers fear that may no longer be the case. In early February, the state’s 30 percent tax credit for film and television productions exhausted its $460 million budget. Now, the future of such a program in New York state remains unclear, leading many moviemakers to consider taking their productions elsewhere. The result? Sadly, Mayor Mike and his SAG card could become the best cinematic attraction New York has to offer.

Expected to last until 2013, the recently depleted tax credit only made it 10 months: Enacted in 2004 with a 10 percent tax credit, the Empire State Film Production Credit program was tripled in early 2008. Such a generous offering reflected the state’s interest in maintaining a strong movie presence. Empire State Development Corporation (ESD) president and CEO Marisa Lago puts a positive spin on the latest development. “Funding to this important program has not been cut,” she says. “It has been exhausted due to its immense popularity.”

Tax credits certainly aren’t exclusive to New York, and while neighboring states offer similar tactics for attracting movie and television productions—Boston, for example, provides a 20 percent tax credit to in-state productions—New York has always has been able to hold its own. But the governor’s office is now scrambling to come up with a solution to the current depletion of funding. In the meantime, the lack of tax credits in New York state provided a window of opportunity for California, where Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation for a new tax credit, capped at $500 million, in late February.

While Hollywood remains the epicenter of studio production, California’s lack of a tax credit program sent many productions to New York, most famously ABC’s “Ugly Betty,” where the spacious studios of Kaufman-Astoria, Steiner and Silvercup make it possible to cut costs. For the time being, it seems that New York and California have switched places.

But the real drama lies with the moviemakers bound to New York for its specific creative potential. “People forget the great history that low-budget New York indies have been responsible for,” says veteran producer Ted Hope, who began his career as a PA on Sid and Nancy.

After a recent speaking engagement at the New York Film Academy, Hope encountered students expressing fears of having to leave the state in order to fund their early features. “There are things on the tax credit that don’t apply to low-budget films,” he says. “Maybe they get short-shrifted because they don’t bring enough revenue to the state, but in terms of helping young filmmakers get their start and develop an allegiance to the city, they’re invaluable.”

Husband and wife moviemakers Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (The Nanny Diaries) luckily submitted their application for a tax credit on their current production, The Extra Man, before funding ran out. “On The Nanny Diaries, we had a budget,” says Pulcini. “This time, we don’t. Financially, it just seems like we have less to work with.”

The movie (“a recession-era comedy,” according to Pulcini), which stars Kevin Kline, Paul Dano, John C. Reilly and Katie Holmes, contains a distinctly New York vibe. “New York is a character in this movie,” says Springer Berman. “It’s so specific to New York that it wouldn’t be worth it to make it anywhere else.”

She points out that the economic benefits of productions in the state have already circulated throughout the economy by the time the tax credits are given out. “They wind up making money that far exceeds the expense,” she says. “This seems like a silly place to cut.”

Numerous film and television stars have publicly urged the governor to bring back the incentive. “If these tax breaks are not reinstated into the budget, film production in this town is going to collapse,” said “30 Rock” star Alec Baldwin in an interview with NY1. Meanwhile, a recent petition urging the governor to re-fund the New York state tax credit garnered more than 13,000 signatures in just a few weeks.

ESD has considered a few options, including the possibility of reducing the tax break to 20 percent with a yearly $100 million cap. For now, officials are taking precautions, citing the state’s $14 billion budget deficit.

“I’m sympathetic to any person in government now,” says Springer Berman. “It’s a horrible economic time, and you’re trying to keep people safe. This just happens to be a place where it works.” MM

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