Taking Tinsel Town, 1, 2, 3
IF you’ve ever sat fuming in your car in L.A. while a TV or film crew snarls traffic with giant curbside trailers and production assistants in wireless headsets skipping around cables, you may wonder why other cities would lobby to have such inconveniences exported to their neighborhoods.
That’s exactly what New York City is doing, though. A prominent official in the administration of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is making a public push to snatch production away from our environs and is going so far as to attack series such as “CSI: NY” and “Without a Trace” as phony because, although they are set in Manhattan, the shows are filmed mostly in Southern California.
Quite a surprise, this: Hollywood relies on fakery! If Bloomberg’s aides want to pursue further this issue of authenticity in entertainment programming, we could also provide evidence that “MASH” wasn’t filmed in Korea and that some of the actors in NBC’s “Heroes” can’t actually fly.
But here’s Katherine Oliver’s case. She’s the commissioner of the New York City mayor’s office of film, theater and broadcasting, which dispenses permits and other services to production companies shooting in the five boroughs.
“It’s frustrating to see shows set in New York that are not made in New York,” Oliver was recently quoted as saying by the trade magazine Broadcasting & Cable. “Something like ‘CSI: NY’ spends maybe five days a year here. You can see that it’s a fake New York.”
Oliver was somewhat less provocative when I contacted her for elaboration last week. In fact, she bounced my call to a media handler, who didn’t dispute the accuracy of the quote but said it had been “taken out of context.” The aide followed up with an e-mail statement attributed to Oliver that enumerated the various goodies New York offers producers and concluded: “With such an attractive package of services and unparalleled locations on offer, we believe all productions should strongly consider our city.”
You might think, given all this, that New Yorkers are missing out on the joys of production, blockaded sidewalks and all. But they aren’t. NBC’s three “Law & Order” shows film there, as do HBO’s “The Sopranos,” FX’s “Rescue Me,” NBC’s “30 Rock” and ABC’s new sitcom “The Knights of Prosperity.” (When I lived in Brooklyn a few years back, residents were bestirred when NBC’s “Third Watch” swung by for some shooting.) And this isn’t counting most newscasts as well as numerous talk shows. In 2005, New York logged an impressive 31,570 production days, up 35% from the previous year, according to the city.
Oliver’s office, as it happens, is located in the Ed Sullivan Theater building on Broadway, just around the corner from CBS’ “Late Show With David Letterman,” which broadcasts from Manhattan five nights a week.
But New York wants more, which is what Oliver’s mini-diatribe was really all about. No, she’s probably not that bothered whether a certain crime scene in “CSI:NY” looks like a cheap knockoff of a Chelsea warehouse. She just wants more location production days in her city, because that means more jobs, more tax revenue and a healthier economy.
Producers confronting soaring production costs are looking for ways to minimize expenses on TV series and films. New York and many other localities (and yes, many other countries, notably Canada and Britain) are eager to oblige, in the form of production tax credits, free permits and the like. And California, unfortunately, hasn’t been able to get its act together to stem the tide.
“More often than not, productions are leaving California because there’s a financial incentive to do so,” said Amy Lemisch, executive director of the California Film Commission, who added that 28 states are now angling to snag TV and film work with tax credits or other goodies. “These states are offering very valuable incentives.”
At least three bills designed to halt or slow “runaway production” have failed to pass the California Legislature, a record that Lemisch’s boss, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, hasn’t been able to reverse.
Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., said Southern California is entering a “dangerous period” as the filmed-entertainment business becomes increasingly global, challenging Hollywood’s traditional production dominance. In the Los Angeles area, full-time employment in the local motion picture and TV businesses stood at 132,000 during 2006, down 10% compared with the peak year of 1999, Kyser said.
But California legislators have proven allergic to the kind of incentives Oliver and others now dangle in front of TV producers.
“People in Sacramento approach it as, ‘Oh, this is welfare for big corporations,’ ” Kyser said. “They don’t understand the way the business works.”
That’s bad news, obviously, for the tens of thousands of Angelenos who make their living working on movies or TV shows.
On the other hand, it may take a lot more than some tax incentives to erode Hollywood’s status as the film and TV capital of the world. Most top stars, executives and craftspeople still live here. And despite Oliver’s admonition, Southern California has generally acquitted itself well as a stand-in for New York.
CBS spokesman Chris Ender disputed the contention that “CSI:NY” or “Without a Trace” looked phony. And then he added what, for any self-respecting New Yorker, must be the clincher.
“ ‘Seinfeld,’ one of the most New York-identified shows ever, was filmed on the CBS lot in Studio City,” Ender said with a laugh.
Channel Island runs Mondays in Calendar. Scott Collins’ TV blog of the same name is at latimes.com/channelisland. Contact him at channelisland @latimes.com