Last July, the television series “Ugly Betty” moved from Los Angeles, where it has been filmed for two years, to New York, on account of a recently tripled tax incentive. Given that the series, whose third season premieres tonight, is now being shot in the city where it is supposed to take place, you can’t exactly call it a runaway production -- more like a “run-to production,” perhaps. Still, it feels like a loss for the home team and an injury to local pride, not to say local pocketbooks.
As an L.A. native -- born near the corner of Vermont and Sunset, blocks from where D.W. Griffith raised the Great Wall of Babylon for “Intolerance”(film) -- I was conscious from an early age of living in the place where moving pictures are made. The house I grew up in was built on the site of the former RKO Ranch, where Frank Capra earlier built Bedford Falls for “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I toured Universal Studios for childhood birthdays, before it had turned completely into a theme park, drawn not so much by the glitter and glamour of it all as by the ordinary magic of the false fronts. The studio system may have been dead, but the studios were still there, manned behind their fortress walls by armies of artists and artisans whose life’s work it was to re-create the entire world, and all its history, in and around Hollywood, Calif.
This is what we had instead of the things the East called culture.
Still, while the “Betty” move seems like poaching, it may, from the opposite coast, also be seen as payback: New York was home to the movie business before it headed out to Hollywood in the 1910s and ‘20s; television production was also centered there before its own migration west, leaving behind only soap operas, talk shows, news and Ed Sullivan. For decades the New York seen on screen, and therefore the New York most people knew, was something made in Southern California, with an occasional authentic location insert or rear-screen projection to sell the illusion. The same could have been said of nearly everywhere else the movies showed. Even when film crews began to travel extensively, a door in El Paso or San Francisco would emerge into a room built on a stage in Culver or Studio or Universal City.
That is less and less the case.
Silvercup Studios, the converted bakery in Long Island City where “Ugly Betty” now shoots, was already home to “30 Rock” and “Gossip Girl,” two of television’s best-loved if not most-watched series. Not far away, Astoria Studios in Queens, where Griffith worked and the Marx Brothers shot their first two films, was revived after many idle years to house “The Cosby Show” and “Law & Order.”
But this is not a battle merely between the nation’s two great, self-proclaimed Entertainment Capitals. Every state in the union (and more than one city) has its own film commission, tasked with bringing home a slice of the Hollywood bacon. They do this primarily by giving some of that bacon back to the producers, through tax incentives and cash rebates. New York State increased its tax credit in a bid partly to keep work from moving to Connecticut, New Jersey and Massachusetts.
Permit fees are waived, civic cooperation offered. New York City offers a “Made in NY” discount card for use with participating merchants. Some states exempt film and TV productions from child labor laws; some are nonunion “right to work” states. Each touts its natural wonders and the city streets they will be only too happy to block off for your production. Soundstages are going up all over, and there’s no reason that a three-camera sitcom set in Los Angeles couldn’t be shot as “accurately” in Wilmington, N.C., as in Hollywood. Even as the hometown booster in me cries that it would be wrong, I’m forced to admit that it’s only what we’ve been doing here for years.
And while the L.A. County Arboretum may have been good enough for “Fantasy Island,” a show like “Lost” needs a real tropical island to anchor all the preposterous things that happen on it. The soap operatics of “Gossip Girl” gain authenticity and authority from the series’ New York locations, and I am sure that “Law & Order” would not have run for a hundred years were its Gotham re-created in Burbank. The Providence, R.I., of “Brotherhood,” the Baltimore of “The Wire,” the New Jersey of “The Sopranos” -- I wouldn’t have wanted them replicated on a local back lot. But I’d rather see them replicated here than in Vancouver, Canada.
Just how much does “Ugly Betty” benefit from its move east? The show is a fantasy, after all. Its spirit belongs not to the real streets of the city but to the Spacecraft-Vogue interiors of the magazine where Betty works and the Latin funk of the house where her family lives. The fine seasons shot in L.A. have demonstrated the show doesn’t need the actual Manhattan to make its points, any more than “Green Acres” had to be shot in the country or “Gilligan’s Island” on “a desert isle.” The N.Y. locations are icing on an already tasty cake -- but who doesn’t like icing?
And while the reasons for the move are largely mathematical, ABC has been touting it as something of a spiritual homecoming. (Technically, it is a homecoming: The pilot was shot there.) The producers have made sure to include great tracts of real city in the season’s first episodes -- landmarks like Times Square, the Chrysler Building and the Brooklyn Bridge, but also the ordinary streets of Queens and Manhattan. Tonight’s opening sequence combines those two boroughs in a single shot, as Betty sits in a cemetery in Queens, with the Manhattan skyline rising behind her. Outdoor scenes include plenty of long shots, integrating the characters into the cityscape, as if to say, yes, we’re really here, and it really was worth it.
There is too much money in the picture businesses for the fight over it to go away -- though so far the state of California has declined to match the incentives being offered by the poachers. (“Why pay for what you already have?” is the only reasoning I can reckon.) Even so, Albuquerque -- home to “Breaking Bad” and “In Plain Sight” -- isn’t going to be the new Hollywood, however many four-year, interest-free loans New Mexico makes to producers. L.A. still represents the nation’s greatest concentration of people who are good at making motion pictures; they create worlds here, they put the art in artificial. Indeed, the city of Cleveland would like you to know that their Film Commission is “staffed with seasoned Los Angeles film veterans that know what is expected.”
When: 8 tonight
Rating: TV-PG-DLS (may be unsuitable for young children, with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language and sex)