NYC Film Chiefs Anne Del Castillo & Kwame Amoaku On Luring Production: There’s Been A “Restart Of The Entire Process”, So “Take Another Look” – The Deadline Q&A
As New York City emerged from Covid facing challenges from economic flight to rising crime, Mayor Eric Adams put filmed entertainment at the center of a comeback. His Blueprint for Recovery released in August (read it here) created a film council with a seat at the table for studios, producers, unions and trade groups and mandated film industry liaisons at every city agency — in tandem with a major hire, Chicago’s well-regarded film chief, Kwame Amoaku. The new Deputy Film Commissioner reports to Anne del Castillo, head of the Mayor’s Office of Media & Entertainment (MOME), whose sprawling portfolio also encompasses theater, music, publishing, digital media, workforce development in the creative industries, press credentials, and the Office of Nightlife.
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“The pandemic really showed the city how important our creative economy is. These are the crown jewels of New York City,” del Castillo tells Deadline. “And it gave us at MOME a real focus and purpose, whereas prior to that we were struggling a little bit.” We had gone from an agency of two divisions to five divisions in five years.”
With Amoaku, the city now has a highly visible go-to person for production. Addressing the logistical headaches of filming in NYC is key as competition grows — including from across the river in New Jersey — content spending dips, and production generally is squeezed by inflation, interest rates and the ongoing cost of Covid contingencies and insurance.
“It’s kind of just been like a forced, quick restart of the entire process,” Amoaku says. “I think it’s a good place for us to start, and kind of clean the slate and work from a new place.”
As the year draws to a close, del Castillo and Amoaku sat for interviews with Deadline about why New York City needs production, and why production needs NYC.
A study by MOME released in 2021 showed New York City’s video and motion picture production provided 46,700 jobs, $4.7 billion in wages and $14.9 billion in economic output in 2019, reaching a high point of 80 television shows and 300 feature films. That’s a subset of the city’s total film and television industry, which generated $64 billion in direct economic output, $12.2 billion in wages and 100,000 jobs that year. Pandemic 2020 “of course was horrible, 2021 was a huge comeback, I would say around 75% of the way back,” said Amoaku. “Then, 2022, we’re still doing that. [We’re] not exactly at 2019 numbers but we’re getting close to that.”
According to the latest data from MOME, in this year an average of 736 permits were issued monthly through November for an average 182 projects. That compares with a monthly average of 667 permits per 166 projects in 2021, and 850 permits for 238 projects a month in 2019 — counting the full 12 months through December for the latter two years. Projects can require multiple permits. The figures include film and TV, commercials, music videos, still photography and the web. They do not reflect total projects being filmed at various studios in the city, only those requiring permits.
As the year draws to a close, del Castillo and Amoaku sat for interviews with Deadline about why New York City needs production, and how production needs NYC.
Editor’s note: Questions and answers have been condensed and edited for brevity.
DEADLINE: Anne, why the focus on film and television in the Mayor’s Covid recovery plan?
ANNE DEL CASTILLO: I feel like the pandemic helped us realize that we cannot take [the city’s] allure for granted. Seeing empty streets in New York, missing that bustle of tourists and that energy. This is the stuff that the city is made of, that people want to come and participate in. It’s not about creative for creative’s sake. It’s why companies want to be here. Yes, it’s the financial mecca, but part of the reason why it’s the financial mecca is because we also have this incredible arts and entertainment mecca. They go very much hand in hand. We have to ensure that New York City continues to be a center for creativity.
Now, having a strong division head in Kwame allows me to focus on how we make all of these pieces fit together. He understands the real operational needs but can also project into the future and how we need to grow. One of the reasons why film and TV has grown here — outside of the tax credit, we all know that’s a driving force behind production — is the intersection of theater, music [and] publishing that all fuel it. There are shows that are based on books that are published here. There are actors that are working on Broadway, then on television. Then they’re doing their soundtracks over at BerkleeNYC Power Station. [The recording studio reopened last year after a major renovation].
DEADLINE: Bustle, tourists gives the city its character, but make it hard to film. Wasn’t Fifth Avenue closed to traffic during the holidays?
DEL CASTILLO: Just on Sundays, and I think that’s helping some of the businesses. You know, people are like, “Fifth Avenue, do you really need help with that?” Yes you do, actually. People want to shop. They want to see the tree. They want to see the windows. So, I think it is helping. And it’s a good time for us because it corresponds to when shows go on hiatus.
So that is the ongoing balance. Balancing the changing landscape of the city with the ongoing need to preserve space for creativity whether it’s film production or shows. People think about parking the trucks, but [producers] also just need to film the street. I always think of that scene from In the Heights when [Melissa Barrera’s Vanessa] is running down the street, and it’s just her. You can’t get that if you can’t close a street. And that’s what makes people want to come here too — seeing the city and all its splendor with these incredible shots of the different faces of New York, whether it’s the Brooklyn Bridge or Washington Heights or Fifth Avenue. But you can’t get that unless you actually shut down a street and film it. And you can’t grab that in 15 minutes. So it’s an ongoing preoccupation for our office to make sure we preserve those spaces for creativity in New York. Because it’s the most amazing marketing for the city as well.
DEADLINE: So Kwame, what’s changed? What is the new council doing? What are you working on?
KWAME AMOAKU: I feel I was a part of this initiative to kind of re-prioritize film production in city government and the way it works with different agencies. We’ll meet with the [Film Industry] Council about once a quarter. There’s constant communication with them and the different subcommittees that they’re forming. It’s a work in progress, but the constant feedback of information — just even in the initial meeting where they addressed some of their concerns and we were able to address some of our concerns — I think that communication link that’s been set up between us and all those different stakeholders is already affecting the process in a positive way.
They are focusing in three areas: workforce development, financial impact and [production] operations in general, the permitting process.
Just immediately, the level of communication I think on the ground in our interaction in the preproduction process has made a huge difference going forward, because now we’re inserting ourselves in the scouting, in the preproduction and it helps [producers] to develop their logistics in a more streamlined workflow.
[For instance] we were able to reconstitute the tow unit and get them going again after three years.
DEADLINE: What’s that?
AMOAKU: The Movie TV Tow Unit — MTVU.
The pandemic and a lot of the changes that came with it — open streets, outdoor dining — take away parking, and parking is already a challenge for production. The unit helps with predetermined permitted areas. Without that, trucks would arrive and they’d have to find parking wherever they could. At that point, they’d have to [move] the equipment to the original location, and that just takes away time and money from production. We’re able to clear parking ahead of time for productions, rather than them just sort of finding what they can find and trying to figure it out. We can stick to the permanent area that we designated that helps to cut down the congestion of the film production crews in neighborhoods.
We were able to start that pilot program back here in Brooklyn. We’re hoping to expand into the other boroughs next year. [The Tow Unit works with the NYPD’s specialized Movie TV Unit].
DEADLINE: And what about scouting? You said you’re more involved.
AMOAKU: Yes, absolutely. The ability for us to get in and for me to personally look at some of these scouts, look at some of these locations and figure out how to talk through some of these larger asks. We had Isle of the Dead filming in Lower Manhattan around the Wall Street area, and it was a huge production, with helicopters crashing in the middle of the street and zombies falling from the sky. If you go during the day, there’s no way that you would think the area could be transformed into a postapocalyptic zombie wasteland. But it was. And it was done in a very contained and organized way. It was an example of how we’re capable of pulling off large-scale production here in a very densely populated urban center, and I just want to communicate that to everyone and let people know that we have the versatility to do that. It’s possible here.
DEADLINE: Can you talk about the city’s mix of TV and film production? Of the 35-40 projects on the ground at any given time, the majority are television. Independent film, in particular, has always been a staple of NYC, but New York State’s tax credits now require a $1 million budget for projects to be eligible, and that’s discouraging indie production.
AMOAKU: Definitely, the market has changed to more of an episodic television model. Economically that’s regular work on a consistent basis. That’s stages that are booked for a consistent amount of time. Economically, it makes a lot of sense and it works out very well, especially for labor and the infrastructure here. It provides a level of security. I feel that it also kind of taxes the city in ways that normal production wouldn’t as far as recurring locations in neighborhoods. So, it requires us to interact with neighborhoods on a regular basis and make sure that production is not encroaching in neighborhoods excessively and making life miserable for residents. So, trying to achieve that balance with the amount of production and still making the city a livable place that’s the thing that we pay very close attention to here.
But for me, it’s a cultural thing, being a filmmaker and understanding how important New York is to the culture of film. It’s important that we encourage that and keep that going and figure out different ways to do that. I’m definitely open to exploring different ways the city can do that to support independent films.
The loss of indie film I think is not something that’s unique to New York. I think it’s something that happened on a global level, and of course I’m a filmmaker. I love to see independent film thrive. I think it’s important for the future of the economy to make sure that independent film drives us. You mentioned the tax credit. That’s a state program so we don’t have a lot of control over that. But anything that we can do to attract independent film and feature film work here that’s something that I feel like I’m actively involved in, and I encourage that whenever I’m talking to filmmakers. Whenever I’m in a situation where I’m with a large group of independent filmmakers like a film festival or anything I’m always pulling them to the side and letting them know, hey, this is a viable option. I know that it might seem challenging, but you can make it work here. This environment is not like any other in the world cinematically.
DEADLINE: What do you tell them?
AMOAKU: I let them know logistics-wise we’ll work with them as far as permitting and getting them the sets that they need and making sure they can film what they want to film. I let them know, “Hey, you might have had challenges in the past. This might have been logistical issues, but I’m here, we can work with these issues. We can make things happen.” I think my experience puts me in a unique position to be able to communicate with production in a way that a lot of people might not be able to because I’ve been doing this for 30 years and almost everything that’s on a call sheet, I’ve done. Location manager, production manager, producer. So whenever I have conversations with folks, I’m able to talk to them like another filmmaker and really kind of understand what their vision is and try to work with their vision as much as possible, as much as the city allows.
The economics are challenging, for sure, but l like to align this place with some of the other, very unique locations that you could find all over the world.
DEADLINE: Like where?
You know, New Zealand, the Sahara Desert. This is a wonder of the world. This is a unique place that you can’t find anywhere else, with images and culture that you can’t find anywhere else in the world. So although it’s challenging the same way it might be challenging to shoot The Revenant or it might be challenging to shoot The Lord of the Rings because you can’t have the craft service truck right next to you in the middle of the desert or the swamp, or whatever. I’ve filmed all over the world, and there are just places that have geographical, economic, social challenges, and they’re difficult to film there but infinitely they’re worth it — and I would say that about New York. It’s worth it.
DEADLINE: New Zealand — like hobbits in New York City?
AMOAKU: Hey, let’s talk about it. I can get you some hobbits. The hobbits take New York. That’s right. Game of Thrones New York. Think about it. It can happen.
Brass tacks I’m telling the truth. I mean, you pick up a camera and point it in any direction here, and you’re going to strike gold. I mean, it’s amazing and there’s nothing like it. If you want to tell a New York story, I challenge you to tell it anywhere else other than here. That’s why I’m here, because there’s nothing that compares to this place. We have a unique commodity here. So you take that and you also take [productions] that might decide to relocate or move from other states — because there’s only so much you can shoot in these other places, especially if they’re city-based, urban-based stories. That’s the attraction. Shooting exteriors. I mean, you can do a studio anywhere. So we’re hoping that we’ll bring that work here as well, work that might have been hesitant about coming in the past, and also just soliciting feature films to come back to New York and take another look here.
DEADLINE: Take another look?
AMOAKU: Take another look. It’s not as scary as you think it is.
DEADLINE: What about the cost? The Economist just ranked New York alongside Singapore as the most expensive city in the world right now.
AMOAKU: Again, I think there’s enough attraction above the line to bring people here because, for creatives and people that are above the line in making a lot of these decisions, sometimes it doesn’t come down to money. Sometimes it comes down to what you’re doing.
There’s a lot more texture, more possibilities in the city as well as the state of New York because not only do we have this urban center but outside that we have a lot of rural land that can double for a lot of places. So, you know, a lot of possibilities here.
And artisans are here that are legends of the game in their individual crafts. This is the crew base here. The workforce here is amazing.
DEADLINE: Anne, could you talk about competition? New Jersey has new tax incentives, a handful of big new studio projects and has been making a lot of noise lately. It’s close to NYC.
DEL CASTILLO: The competition is global. I’m not as worried about New Jersey as I am about Canada or Atlanta. I have been asked that question, “How do you feel about New Jersey?” It’s like, I don’t worry about New Jersey. That’s not what we have to worry about. It’s the rest of the world.
It’s a lot easier to travel between New Jersey and New York than it is between Canada and New York. …If you’re that close, you’re going to come film New York, but if you’re in Atlanta, that’s a little harder.
DEADLINE: The Mayor’s Blueprint also included video games, including a B.A. in Game Design at City College and a Digital Games Council, similar to the Film Industry Council. That’s a focus too?
DEL CASTILLO: I think New York is poised to become a center here in the Northeast.
There’s so much overlap between video game production and film production. If you walk into a motion-capture studio, you feel like you’re on a film set. We have the storytellers. We have the graphic designers. We have some of the best art schools in the country here, and we have some of the best tech innovators here. So I really do see games being sort of the next creative frontier for New York City in terms of putting a stake in the ground.
I really am looking at those councils as models for how we engage our stakeholders in a thoughtful ongoing conversation with city government, which is not something that we’ve had before.
When we’re bringing these players to the table there’s a lot of commonalities in what they need. The game industry needs studios. They need actors. They need access to talent. They need post-production. They need to be able to land their businesses here but with a very specific lens, through the creative lens.
So yes, film is the largest most economically impactful of the creative sectors, but it can’t exist in a vacuum, and I think we’re stronger if we look at the entirety of the creative community and the creative sectors to really move that agenda forward. Broadway needs the buzz about New York to also thrive.
I think what’s most important to me is that people understand [MOME’s] expansion from film into the greater universe of media and entertainment is to lift all boats at the end of the day.
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