Production boom brings prosperity and questions at Crain's New York Entertainment Summit

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The first annual Crain’s New York Business Entertainment Summit: Preparing for the Next Stage, held Wednesday morning at the New York Marriott Downtown, featured a keynote from MPAA Chairman & CEO Christopher J. Dodd and an ensuing panel discussion. The gathering was as much a celebration of the area’s production explosion as it was a pervasive lobbying call from participants to the state government to, in 2019, renew the five-year-old tax credit program behind the explosion. A background ticking clock effect in the room would not have been out of place.

Before Dodd even stepped to the podium, attendees were reminded that since 2009 the local industry, generating many jobs and billions of dollars, has grown 78%. After praising New York’s production and post facilities, film schools, locations, work force, the state’s incentive program, etc., Dodd called the surge “a kind of rebirth.” He eloquently reminded—with statistics and examples—how important the movie industry is in general and how attentive it is to a growing diversity. The magic of movies and their cultural meaning were not left off the table.

Although primarily a New York event with the local production industry its focus, the Summit sent signals that might resound beyond New York's borders and production sectors. While the industry is already hard at work bringing in more minorities, this increasing push for diversity (on-screen, off-screen and below the line) is not immune to some resistance. For instance, panelist Beau Willimon (“House of Cards,” The Ides of March), a showrunner/screenwriter who works closely with the WGA, touted a proposed tax program amendment for 2019 that would benefit minority writers. But some panel pushback from the prospering studio facility side (prospering in large part because of the incentive program and the many productions it brings in) voiced fears that any tweak, however worthy, might endanger the all-important 2019 renewal being sought. When goals are sound, sometimes the m.o. to get there isn’t in the best interests.

And while the panel, including Julie Menin, the city’s Mayor-appointed Commissioner for Media and Entertainment, made clear with comments and stats how business is bustling (around 60 programs are being shot this week on city streets), not all is rosy. Features blow in for shorter stays as TV more and more dominates the activity.

The great news it that sound stages (like Silvercup, Kaufman-Astoria, Eastern Effects, etc.), some of which are challenged to expand because of real estate values and other real estate complications, are booked to the gills. But feature films are being squeezed by something more subtle than space issues: the stages prefer longer-term episodic TV players, including newer ones like Netflix and Amazon, which are the equivalent of the dependable long-term tenants landlords favor. Silvercup CEO Alan Suna, further suggesting the TV bias, allowed that currently there was only one feature among the many shows booked at his facility.

So as the “next stage” is being set for the fight to ensure that beneficial tax programs continue, a next “stage” that is more level might befit the feature film sector as it continues to face greater financing and exhibition challenges and an upstaging TV sector that hasn’t quite stolen the show.