New York City owes a lot of its glamorous, iconic status to film. From King Kong climbing the Empire State Building to Robert De Niro’s You talkin’ to me? in Taxi Driver, the greatest city on earth is great in part because filmmakers have flocked here for generations to imprint New York in all its loud, proud glory on celluloid for generations to come. After all, New York City is a movie in itself – a rom-com walk in Central Park one moment, a Woody Allen gabfest the next, and navigating the crowds near the Rockefeller Christmas tree during the holidays can quickly turn into a nightmarish thriller.
But for the second year in a row, blockbuster movies filmed in New York have declined.
Of the top 100 highest-grossing domestic feature films released in theaters last year, only six were made in the Empire State, according to a study released May 23 by nonprofit organization Film L.A., whose mission is to keep production in Los Angeles. The number, which is down from seven the previous year and from a peak of 12 in 2014, puts New York in sixth place.
Georgia had the most top-grossing motion pictures with 17, followed by the United Kingdom with 16 and Canada with 13. California hosted 12 blockbusters, which put it fourth.
So what’s behind the trend?
“New York has become a TV town,” Film L.A.’s lead researcher, Adrian McDonald, told Crain’s New York. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The budgets on many one-hour shows rival that of large movies.”
According to the study, the state has so much television production that overall it ranked second in total film and TV production spending with an estimated $5 billion to $6 billion after California, where an estimated $30 billion is spent on production annually.
Indeed, the sheer variety of production in New York City is what keeps Misael Sanchez, founder and director of the International Film Institute of New York based in the city that never sleeps. He lived and worked in L.A. for a two-year stint in 2011 and ‘12 before returning to New York.
“My personal experience with the two towns is a perfect example of why new opportunities seem to be opening in New York,” Sanchez says. “New York is more than movies. It has fashion, advertising, corporations, health organizations, small businesses, theater, all looking for content. Filling that production void is what called me back east.”
So where should an aspiring filmmaker put down roots – New York or L.A.? It’s an age old question that Sanchez fields from students every year.
“As a film professor I spend quite a bit of time discussing with my students the opportunities related to staying here or moving out west,” says Sanchez, who spent 15 years as a professor and director of production at Columbia’s Graduate School of Film before moving to Sarah Lawrence College to teach film production.
“Both cities offer incredible opportunities in the television, film, and theater industry. L.A. is known for being the heart of the film industry but New York has always been a city for independent filmmaking. Everything about the city’s resources lends itself to the smaller budget projects,” he says. “That, in turn, provides opportunities for up and coming filmmakers. In addition, being in a town where everything is relatively close to everything else makes networking and meeting others outside of your field much more accessible.”
The other driving factor behind production location is simply the bottom line: New York’s $420 million annual tax-incentive program is a huge attraction, but it only covers so-called “below-the-line costs” such as crew salaries and production expenses. The tax incentive in Georgia offers 30% on the entire movie budget, including star salaries, and has no annual cap.
But when you need to set a story in New York, there’s no substitute for the real thing. And New York City’s scrappy reputation means it will always be home for young, hungry artists.
“I do feel that the best is yet to come,” Sanchez says. “More opportunities are on the horizon as film professionals continue to call New York City and the surrounding cities home base. Los Angeles will always be a huge part of what makes the film industry but New York is what will keep the torch alive and moving into the future.”
Misael Sanchez: Founder and director of instruction at The International Film Institute of New York, currently working in collaboration with Sarah Lawrence College. BFA, New York University. Certificate in Producing, The New School. Recent production credits include a feature-length documentary, Last Call (director and cinematographer), now in post-production and producer on the feature-length narrative, Central Avenue, scheduled to cast Marisa Tomei and Lorraine Bracco. A book-in-progress on cinematography lighting techniques is titled Lighting Tricks and ShortCuts. Staff member, faculty member, and head of the cinematography concentration at Columbia University’s Graduate Film Division, where he supervises students on thesis productions. Past work includes four one-hour specials on Latinos in the media for network television, short documentary projects, films, music videos, and industrials. SLC, 2009–