New York production rebounds as restrictions lift

As an increasingly vaccinated New York City lifts virtually all of its COVID-19 restrictions, a turf war is brewing between New York productions and
restaurants, with the mayor’s office of media and entertainment caught in the crossfire. Ask Awkwafina.

“The most difficult – but exciting – part of filming in New York, both before and after the pandemic, is that you really have no idea what’s going to happen at any given time, or who will be very pissed off. that you’re filming in their neighborhood, ”jokes the star and executive producer of Comedy Central / HBO Max’s“ Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens, ”which is currently filming its second season.

Without a doubt, the New York production has been a roller coaster. It was at an all time high just before the pandemic, generating more than $ 60 billion in direct economic activity and $ 3 billion in tax revenue for the city. Still, the number of productions shot in the field in May 2019 – 306 – fell to zero a year later, making last month’s tally of 179 projects a promising turnaround.

All of the film and television professionals interviewed by Variety want local businesses to experience a similar rebound. “There is a grim acceptance of reality and realize how different it was before,” Awkwafina notes.

But as many COVID-19 regulations have recently been lifted, allowing for larger localization teams, there have been conflicts around certain rules, as well as New York’s Open Restaurants and Open Streets programs.

In the first, more than 11,000 restaurants have built some 6,000 outdoor dining sheds, many of which are stationary and placed in traffic lanes where trailers and cameras could once sit in desirable neighborhoods. And in the latter, access to more than 350 streets has been completely blocked.

Fortunately, sound stages such as Steiner Studios and Silvercup Studios offer much-needed alternatives, and productions find creative solutions that can benefit local businesses.

For now, however, there are headaches. Sharon Lomofsky, production designer for Focus Features drama “A Thousand and One,” struggles to recreate the Lower East Side of the ’90s before her film debuts on July 12.

“We can’t clear both sides of the street, so we can’t put vintage cars in there,” she says. “Then the next street is great, but it’s full of outdoor restaurants. They get in the way everywhere – which I like in real life, but not for filming. “

It may camouflage some with trucks or construction signs covered in graffiti.

“What’s most difficult for stunts is that we’re only allowed to stand one side of the street,” echoes “Law & Order: Organized Crime” location manager Dennis Voskov. “If I crash into another car, having a bunch of real cars on the street is a problem,” he laughs.

But the show has “embraced alfresco dining,” replacing an indoor restaurant scene with this one.

Production manager Dhana Gilbert, who wraps Season 4 of Amazon Prime Video’s “Wonderful Mrs. Maisel” in July, says she “hopes the mayor’s office will adjust some of its rules. Open streets close streets [to us] seven days a week, but if the restaurants are only sitting outside on Saturday or Sunday, we should find a way to work on it Monday through Friday. And we should start to be able to park on both sides of the street again right now. He will keep our footprint smaller and have [less] of an impact on a neighborhood.

But even with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s June 15 lifting of most COVID-19 regulations, New York Mayor’s Office Commissioner for Media and Entertainment Anne del Castillo – who is handling the return of production of the city ​​and publishes weekly updates online – keeps that balance stable for the time being. “I don’t think our production guideline is going to change much as the city settles into this new world order of open spaces,” she said. “Some people asked about [using both sides of streets], but the productions have largely succeeded in getting around this. It is something that we observe. We are keeping it in place now because there is a lot of activity on the streets, and we want to give productions and communities a level of predictability, and find a balance so that both industries can thrive. [along with Open Culture live performances]. I don’t think there is any point in continuing to change the guidelines until we get a feel for how these programs all work together.

Some things are improving for productions. Gilbert has seen great improvements since the recent expiration of the 50% occupancy limit and oversized vehicle limit rules, which forced “Maisel” to switch to larger soundstages.

“In the small comedy clubs with a capacity of 100 people, we couldn’t even fit our team, let alone the actors,” she recalls. “Now that people can operate at 100% occupancy, we can use locations as locations and we are again allowed to stage equipment on the sidewalk. “

She found adaptable neighborhoods. “In Chinatown, they were amazing – they put dining sheds on wheels! We could run them and transform it in 1959. “

His show also made a deal with mid-20th-century West Village restaurant La Bonbonniere to move and replace its log cabin.

“If we had a particularly difficult location,” Gilbert adds, “we would build it” at Steiner Studios, where owner Doug Steiner owns 780,000 square feet on 50 acres in the Brooklyn Navy Yards, she adds. He has nearly two acres of outdoor land surrounded by shipping containers where he plans a studio apartment with “quintessential New York buildings and faux-front neighborhoods.”

And a nearby area called the Annex, featuring a WWI military hospital and other historic buildings, will be fully restored for production offices, post-production, and various support spaces. The buildings were used as a backlot, and that will resume when their restoration is complete this fall. “Under construction, [the studios] will be 1.6 million square feet, ”Steiner said, with a new Sunset Park facility he hopes to complete in three to four years.

Shows looking for an outdoor backlot can now find it at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, which recently opened two new sound stages. And Robert De Niro’s under-construction Wildflower Studios is slated to be built in Queens by 2023.

While it can be assumed that some shows have fled New York City for less crowded areas, Queens-based Silvercup Studios co-owner Alan Suna says: “Only one [of ours] considered leaving New York for a more exurban location last year. But when they’ve assessed everything – the facilities, the crew, where
talent lives on – they decided to stay put.

Another factor that has led productions to continue to seek out nearby locations – compared to, say, less crowded locations on Staten Island or the Bronx – is their proximity to sound stages and the need to minimize times. expensive journey, notes del Castillo.

The shows have long fought angry locals whose complaints sometimes turned areas into “hot spots” blocked off for filming. But Suna, who rents equipment for outdoor shoots, is seeing this improve.

“I guess, at least for the near future, people will be a lot more tolerant when they see production happen,” he says. “During this pandemic, people watched a lot more television, so there is a greater appreciation for the jobs created by these shows. “

And, perhaps, a greater tolerance for the circus environment that the shoots can bring. “One thing all New Yorkers have in common,” Awkwafina points out, “is utter disillusionment with the craziest things.”

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