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Chicago Takes a Bite of Big Apple’s Movie Production

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

This city holds a special place in the filmmakers’ atlas, its photogenic allure--the skyline, the streets, the hustlers, the cops--providing any movie with a kind of instant tone that doesn’t have to be written into a script or built on to a set.

The New York shoot has almost become a required ingredient in some branches of moviemaking, with the number of movies being shot here--partly or wholly--reaching a high of 139 last year. But suddenly, Hollywood-on-the-Hudson has become a ghost town.

The problem is an old one for New York, and one that is as much a part of the local landscape as the skyscrapers: labor strife. Studio contracts with New York’s unionized cinematographers and studio mechanics expired last fall. The studios want the unions to give up some overtime and premium-pay. And the unions want something in return, preferably residuals or other funding for health and welfare benefits.

In the impasse, the studios took their business elsewhere. Their flight is becoming increasingly obvious as New York’s production season looms.

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“What I’m worried about is that nobody is in here prepping (for spring and summer shooting),” said Jaynne Keyes, director of the Mayor’s Office for Film, Theatre and Broadcasting. “At least nine or 10 people were here scouting locations this time last year.”

Woody Allen’s latest film, which just finished shooting in New York, was the last major-studio feature film project scheduled for the city.

New York’s loss has been a boon to other locales with an Eastern urban “look,” especially Chicago. Film and television production there is running twice the usual level.

Some of the films that New York had been expected to land were “Significant Other,” “Prelude to a Kiss,” and “Mad Dog and Glory.”

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A Chicago production office for Touchstone’s “Significant Other,” starring Tom Hanks and Debra Winger had been opened by director Alan J. Pakula, but he has since left the project and Touchstone has temporarily shelved the movie. Universal is planning a Chicago shoot for “Mad Dog and Glory,” which has Martin Scorsese as its executive producer and Robert De Niro starring. There is even talk that Universal’s planned Babe Ruth story will be shot not in The Bronx, where the Bambino gloried in the House that Ruth Built, but, rather, in hated Chicago, home of the rival Sox.

In all, eight feature films, a TV movie and a pilot have committed so far this year to shooting in Chicago. “We can attribute probably half of these films to the labor dispute in New York,” says Janet Kerrigan, a staff member of the Illinois Film Office.

Film commissions all over compete vigorously to attract location shooting in their cities and states. For relatively little expense--and possibly some inconvenience to local citizens--the pay-off can be great; about 10% of a film’s budget ends up in local coffers. Last year in New York, that amounted to an estimated $3 billion.

“These companies (the studios) are engaged in a tactic of economic terrorism against New York City,” says Louis D’Agostino, business representative and chief negotiator for Local 644 (cinematographers) of the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE). Their dispute teams them with IATSE’s Local 52 (studio mechanics), against five of the major studios--Fox, Columbia, Paramount, Warner Bros. and Orion--although the other major producers are also staying out of New York as well.

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The unions have reached agreement with a handful of independent producers for some low-budget films to be made in New York this spring, and they are continuing informal talks with the majors over the lapsed contracts. Local 644, which is negotiating separately from Local 52, is pulling all stops in its efforts to pressure the producers into coming back to New York--even staging a made-in-New York film festival for the public and orchestrating a letter-writing campaign among New York moviegoers. The studios, for their part, are avoiding comment on the dispute, even through their spokesmen.

While television production in the city has not been greatly affected, movie producers are slowly but surely getting out of the New York habit. Steve Roth, who’s producing a movie called “Gladiator” (Columbia) in Chicago and “Mobsters” (Universal) in Los Angeles, says that both projects were originally meant for New York.

He relocated “Gladiator,” Roth says, for creative reasons, only to realize an added benefit: “It is less expensive in Chicago.” As for “Mobsters,” Roth was advised that it would be just as easy--and less costly--to re-create the look of 1920s New York in Los Angeles than in New York.

Roth says that as producers discover it’s possible to manage without New York location shooting, it might be awhile before they return. “I think it’s like everything else,” Roth says, “once you’ve shown another way, people start to follow that path.”

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New York’s film office, whose mission it is to bring filmmakers to the city, is neutral in the contract dispute, but Keyes does allow that the “studios are shooting off their foot” by pulling their projects.

As anyone who’s ever been on the Universal Studios tour knows, some version of New York City can be created with a few pieces of plywood, some fake brownstone and a construction crew. (Universal, in fact, is rebuilding its New York Street set that was destroyed in a fire last November.) But is it really New York if it’s shot on a back lot, or for that matter, on a back street of Chicago?

“There is something New York has onscreen that can’t be captured elsewhere,” says an obviously pro-New York Keyes. “When you cheat on New York, you can tell. Even to people in Dallas something seems wrong.”

“I’m not going to say shooting in New York isn’t more expensive. It probably is,” Keyes says. “But silk costs more than polyester.”

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