Trying to get a grip on film shoots


By Rania Richardson

“We are asking the film companies to work with the community. We will make your life easier,” said David Gruber, president of the Carmine Street Block Association. In exchange, the residents want the film companies to make the residents’ lives easier, or rather, to stop making their lives so miserable.

There were 180 films shot in New York in 2003, according to the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting. Of the top shooting locations listed — Times Sq., Central Park, the West Village, Wall St. and the Brooklyn Bridge — only the West Village has the distinction of being residential on virtually every street. Some Village residents feel as if they are on a Hollywood back lot. So do many businesses.

According to Art Strickler, district manager for Community Board 2, “The Village has been overburdened, not the same as the rest. We get more than our fair share.”

Members of the Greenwich Village Block Associations recently met with the Mayor’s Office to discuss how to avoid the type of problems caused by the filming of “Spider-Man 2” and other commercial productions. “This shoot took an enormous swath of real estate over several days. It froze the Village,” Gruber said. He suggests a dialogue with the community before large-scale or intrusive film shoots. Contact information for all 32 members of the G.V.B.A. was given to the Mayor’s Office.

There are good reasons that location managers choose to shoot Downtown. The area can be used for both modern and historic productions. The low-rise nature of the area provides access to natural light. Pretty streets and one-of-a-kind buildings have personality that high-rises environments can’t match. Although the Mayor’s Office tries to encourage filming in other boroughs, the overwhelming majority of permits issued are for Manhattan.

According to Assemblymember Deborah Glick, “The Mayor’s Office views their job as one to provide permits to maximize jobs in New York City. That includes support business such as caterers, lighting rental, makeup, costumes, post-production [and a host of other services]. They are aware of, and are trying to address problems, but their mission is to give permits — from student films, where there is little impact, to major film shoots.”

Julianne Cho, assistant commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting, stated via e-mail, “Entertainment production employs over 100,000 New Yorkers and contributes $5 billion to our economy on an annual basis. It also supports 4,000 production support businesses. The city competes for this business with other locales, in order to keep New Yorkers employed in this industry. Our expedited permit service is one of our strongest competitive advantages.

“Permits are considered and granted on a case-by-case basis, due to the wide range of production footprints [size of area needed] and crew sizes,” Cho said. “Each permit is a unique contract whose elements have been carefully negotiated.”

In fact, the free permits can be obtained just a few days in advance of the shoot, giving filmmakers flexibility, but leaving the community without much warning. Copies of all permits do go to the local community board and police precinct. But where does that leave a resident with a complaint regarding noise, light, street or building access, parking, days or scope of work, garbage or damage to property or plants?

Cho said, “Residents wishing to resolve a conflict related to production should address the problem while the project is still on location. We recommend contacting the location manager first, whose name and phone number is routinely included on signage informing the neighborhood about pending work. The next course of action is to contact our office by dialing 311. Our field representatives are also on hand to address production-related issues.”

To complete a permit application, a location manager must be named, along with a contact cell phone number. As Cho indicated, this number should be specified on leaflets that alert the neighborhood of the days and hours of the shoot. However, Gruber observed that this information is indicated only about 25 percent of the time.

Call center attendants at 311 direct callers with filming complaints to the Mayor’s Office at 212-489-6710, but outside regular business hours (Mon.-Fri., 9 a.m.-5 p.m.), there is no option to leave a message. During business hours, complaint calls to the Mayor’s Office are directed to John Battista.

If a 311 call attendant is specifically told there is an immediate complaint (outside business hours) they will contact the local police precinct, but only if the complaint falls within their guidelines. Criminal or quality of life issues — illegal entry, illegal parking or noise qualify, but not bright lights at night or extended duration of shooting.

The Police Department’s Movie/TV Unit is comprised of about 25 officers primarily dedicated to monitoring film work. An officer from the unit is on set if the shoot involves pyrotechnics, actors in police uniform, stunts, changes in traffic or any other safety issue. An immediate concern can be addressed to the police officer on set. The Unit can be reached at 718-281-1235, but the phones are not always manned.

Elected officials and community boards, with their established histories of tackling complaints, are often the first to hear the community’s concerns. “It is important that people not suffer in silence,” Assemblymember Glick said. “There should be a clear understanding of the public that they have a recourse…. but not hanging out of windows banging pots and pans.” Glick was referring to the ruckus caused on a Barbra Streisand set in the late 1990s when residents on the Upper West made noise and threw eggs out their windows at Streisand and Jeff Bridges in “The Mirror Has Two Faces.”

Susan Stetzer, former chairperson of the Public Safety Committee of Community Board 3 and now the board’s district manager, said, “It’s important to stress that the city and production people need to work together with the community. Shouting matches don’t solve anything.” She sees a recent improvement in the working relationship with the Mayor’s Office.

“Parking is a big issue. More and more premium spaces get taken up and the community is upset,” Stetzer said. “Cars are towed and people can’t find their cars. My feeling is that the production companies are good with giving their required 48 hours notice, though.” She also feels that popular locations should have limits on how often shooting can occur.

Strickler shares the same concern for the West Village. “It causes mayhem when there are five to six shoots in a row — but then that area is taken off [availability] for a while.” Each production is unique and some filmmakers are better than others. “Sometimes the permit is for four blocks, and they take up seven,” Strickler noted. “Some [crews] have attitude, some don’t.”

Stated Cho, “Our production department continuously monitors the impact of film and television production in city neighborhoods over time, which is measured by the quality and quantity of projects in specific areas. Alternatives are suggested when deemed appropriate.”

The overused area of Bedford, Barrow and Commerce Sts. could use an alternative. The desirable location has streets that can easily be blocked off and the area is removed from traffic. A Bedford St. resident recently called Glick’s office in a panic. A shoot was scheduled on the day the resident was to move. They worked out a plan for the production company to allow for the moving truck on that day.

Said Gruber, “Lazy location managers just continue to use the tried and true neighborhoods.” He cited Carmine St., which he called “the heart of the commercial Village,” as another overused area, and he is ready to show location people similar, but lesser known parts of the Village.

For goodwill, production companies occasionally make a contribution to the block association, if it is an identifiable 501 c 3 (a nonprofit). The practice can’t be mandated, but many block associations feel it is appropriate and reasonable to make a request.

It is true that filming in New York is good for the economy, but, noted Glick, “It bears on the economy when residents lose sleep because of nighttime shooting that interferes with their ability to work the next day. Responsible taxpayers should not be sacrificed to fit into a film crew’s schedule. They have the right to ‘quiet, peaceful enjoyment.’ It’s no longer amusing, appealing or exciting. It’s an ongoing inconvenience.”

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