On Location: New York TV writers want piece of state’s production incentive
The television industry is booming in New York, with the state surpassing Los Angeles in pilot production last year.
But not all entertainment workers in the Big Apple find themselves rolling in opportunities.
Writers who live in New York complain they’re being snubbed by TV shows that film in New York but are written on the West Coast. And a group of high-profile writers wants New York to pass a new tax credit for productions that hire scribes locally.
For the record: Corrects details about the amount of money the tax credit is based on in the 12th paragrah.
“We’re New Yorkers and we’re show runners and we have our writing rooms here in New York,” said Tom Fontana, who has written for the HBO series “Oz.” “We were talking about how many TV shows are shot in New York - the actors are here, the crew is here, and even the post [production] is here, because that’s now covered by the rebate — but the writers’ rooms are still in L.A.”
Fontana has joined forces for the new incentive with “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” writer Warren Leight and Writers Guild of America East executive director Lowell Peterson.
There has been a big rush by TV production companies in the last few years to film in New York to collect tax incentives doled out by the state. But many of those shows — including NBC’s “The Blacklist,” CBS’ “The Good Wife,” and CW’s “The Carrie Diaries” — have their writers working out of Los Angeles.
There were 24 drama pilots filmed in New York last year, and 19 were filmed in Los Angeles. The surge was fueled by New York’s 30% tax credit and marked the first time on record New York exceeded Los Angeles in one-hour drama pilot production, according to a report from FilmL.A. Inc.
New York’s tax credit offers $420 million per year to spur the growth of film production in the state, more than four times what California offers. Writer salaries are not included as an eligible production cost in either state.
“All these shows are shooting here and almost 80-90% of them that are shooting here are written in L.A.,” Leight said. “You have all these writers who come up through the ranks, go to NYU writing schools, break into it through off-Broadway theater, finally get their first break in a successful off-Broadway play, and they can’t make a living here and they have to move to L.A.”
The group hired a lobbyist in Albany about five years ago to start working on an amendment to the tax law. The team was advised to narrow its proposal to minorities and female New York-based writers in this initial stage, Fontana said, in order to “better speak to legislators” in the state.
According to the 2014 Hollywood Diversity Report by UCLA’s Ralphe J. Bunch Center for African American Studies at UCLA, during the 2011-2012 television season, 62% of the writing staffs on broadcast comedies or dramas were “10% minority or less.” If passed, the bill could be the first to incentivize diversity in writers rooms.
The bill proposes a tax credit of up to 30% of compensation with a maximum of $15,000 for each New York-based writer that is a women or member of a minority group. The tax credit can’t exceed more than $3.5 million a year, a portion that will be removed from the already existing $420-million rebate pool.
“New York has been making inroads in terms of the entertainment industry,” said New York Assemblyman Keith Wright, who has sponsored the bill. “I think it’s important that writers be given some sort of benefit if it helps spur economic growth. I think it will pay dividends ten thousand times over if we’re able to get this bill into law.”
The New York State Senate is considering a similar proposal. The Writers Guild East asked members in March to urge legislators to put the proposal on the state budget. The guild estimates there are about 2,000 television writers in New York.
One reason L.A. has traditionally been the main hub for TV writers is because studio executives prefer them to be nearby, Peterson said. Show runners also tend to live in Los Angeles, offering another reason to keep a writing room on the West Coast.
Lisa Takeuchi Cullen, a writer based in New York, is hoping New York legislators can push through the incentives. She considers herself lucky to have a deal to develop a pilot for CBS Television Studios.
“I know a very established TV writer who commutes to L.A. and she has children, and that’s a tremendous hardship,” Takeuchi Cullen said. “It’s such a difficult job to get and a career to break into, and I think a lot of people will do anything it takes. I think that in this day and age there’s no need for studios to insist that the only place that you can write a TV show is L.A.”