New York Film And TV Producers Navigate Treacherous Path Back To Action In COVID-19 Epicenter

EXCLUSIVE: At Steiner Studios, along the river’s edge in Brooklyn, the mailroom is still open.

The rest of the city may be empty, its famous avenues deserted, but workers at the film and TV companies based at Steiner’s 50-acre complex don requisite mask and gloves to check their mail. They’re hoping to see a check, a reply, or any other material sign that their business may soon get back on its feet.

Production, like much else, has been shuttered for the past month and a half, creating a desperate situation. The high-water mark of 2019, a year that boasted a range of splashy, quintessentially New York titles like The Irishman, Joker, Uncut Gems and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, now seems a distant memory.

Many industry capitals are experiencing pain and uncertainty, as Deadline’s recent close-ups on LA, the UK and Atlanta have shown. New York, though, is the global epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, with nearly 300,000 people infected with the disease and 18,000 people dead, making its path forward far more treacherous.

The anguish is palpable for a production hub that is also an irreplaceable on-screen character, its skyscrapers, monuments and delis seared into the collective memory. Not that anyone is spending time reminiscing about The Sweet Smell of Success or that park bench in Manhattan, of course. “It’s been about survival,” said Jeff Sharp, a veteran producer who now heads the Independent Filmmaker Project. “We’re in a life-or-death situation,” agreed Cinetic Media founder John Sloss.

The Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment plans to host “town calls” on Thursday and Friday, with hundreds of industry stakeholders expected to dial in to hear updates about the city’s plans. Hanging in the balance are the livelihoods of tens of thousands of workers, and many times that across adjacent industries. Matthew Gorton, a spokesman for the Empire State Development Corp., said the state has “conducted extensive outreach to key industries and businesses, including the film production community, since New York State on Pause went into effect. Film production is an important part of New York State’s economy, and will play a critical role in its economic recovery.”

New York City and the state were in the vanguard of early tax incentive programs, with the state rolling out a 30% tax break on costs incurred in the state, which added up to $25 million in savings in the first year, 2004. That sum grew to $425 million in 2017 after a surge in high-end productions — Marvel series for Netflix, studio tentpoles like Spider-Man installments, and big-budget shows for HBO, Amazon and dozens of others. Shooting in the state — most of it in New York City — generated an estimated $8 billion of direct spending in 2017 and 2018, a figure that also includes things like tourists flocking to Today in Rockefeller Plaza or a Late Show with Stephen Colbert taping.

​”We’re in daily touch with the creative community, asking what they need to keep going today and to be part of a smart, lasting recovery tomorrow,” said Anne del Castillo, Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, in a statement provided to Deadline. “We’re listening to their questions, concerns and suggestions to make sure they’re part of the conversation at City Hall.”

What does that “recovery tomorrow” look like, though, in a city where cast and crew alike travel by packed subway train, crowd around monitors and eat from craft-services tables set up on sidewalks?

Doug Steiner, the real-estate developer who founded the facility on a once-blighted piece of land next to Brooklyn’s South Williamsburg neighborhood, is among many who believe it starts with comprehensive testing.

On a typical week, anywhere from 2,500 to 4,500 workers typically fill the 50-acre layout of the Steiner complex, shooting series like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel or films like Joker. “Without testing, I think it’s a tough thing to open any kind of business,” Steiner reasons. “It’s a problem. I could see facemasks or gloves. People adapt.”

Most of Steiner’s 780,000 square feet of space is indoors — and unlike movie theaters, each production has a different physical setup within those four walls. It’s up to them to create and monitor their spaces. Producers also mentioned temperature-taking as a key step, something many major businesses have adopted.

Until a vaccine and treatments are more readily available, most New York industry figures see a period of experimentation both in front of and behind the camera.

“Animation and archival documentaries are showing a pulse” even during lockdown, Sloss said. “But full-blown crew productions, it’s hard to know when that could happen.” A shift in mindset will be required, Sloss believes. “The idea that you would take a risk and rely on insurance to cover you [in the event of a COVID-19-related shutdown] is not realistic,” he said. “There needs to be some accommodation that people will assume risk. … There’s going to be an allocation of risk somehow. I don’t see insurance companies going way out on a limb.”

During the last major trauma to strike the city, the 9/11 attacks, insurers were overwhelmed by terrorism claims and wound up having to move forward with government backing for some of those liabilities. Early on in the current crisis, the new model for coverage has not yet emerged, but if a production had to suddenly shut down after a positive COVID-19 test, the fallout would be significant.

Logistics-wise, soundstages like Steiner or Silvercup in Queens at least offer a containable space. But what about the 766 productions issued permits by the city last year to shoot across all five boroughs? One industry figure suggested that a new revenue stream could emerge for owners of retail storefronts or other buildings, especially given the minimal traffic expected in the city over the near term. “Logistically, in some ways, it’s never been easier to maneuver around the city and business owners, especially in retail, can certainly use the support,” the person said. More than one disoriented New Yorker has summoned the memory of Vanilla Sky, the Cameron Crowe-Tom Cruise film from 2001 that managed to shoot a sequence in an empty Times Square at dawn — hardly a mean feat in 2020.

Post-production, special effects and creative thinking are all going to be highly valued assets as the industry navigates through the coming months and years, according to producer Paul F. Bernard. The producer of Hulu’s Dollface and S.W.A.T. on CBS is now based in LA but grew up in the New York area and spent 15 years working there in the industry.

“The crowd scenes are not going to happen,” he said. “Maybe night scenes become the new thing.” Advances in effects technology, though, could allow for a close facsimile of bustling New York visuals. Strict discipline about which members of a crew or company come on set will need to be enforced. Smart watches that enable contact tracing could become a mandatory on-set accessory. Guest stars on TV shows will do their own hair and makeup.

Tom Bernard, Paul’s brother and co-president of Sony Classics, is convinced a recovery is imminent. “Once there’s a vaccine, things change dramatically,” he said. Even before then, Bernard is optimistic about the theatrical business, festivals and awards shows, all onetime industry fixtures that now feel as inaccessible as a prime table at Michael’s.

Dan Crown, a New York-based producer whose credits include Beasts of No Nation, says he would not hesitate to roll cameras once the green light from New York government officials is given. “The idea of letting people come home at night is an incredible plus given that it’s going to be an uncertain time for hotels and communal spaces,” he said.

Creatively, too, new forms will emerge, just as the invention of the paperback changed fiction and the advent of television and the internet changed storytelling. “The talent is there,” Tom Bernard said. “They just have to work a little differently.” Saturday Night Live, a quintessential New York media property, looks radically different now due to production constraints, but managed to make strides between its first and second lockdown episodes. Nanette Burstein, who directed the multi-part Hillary Clinton documentary for Hulu, anticipates a boom in inspiration. “You’ll see movies and TV that are very creative – you can see great movies on an iPhone,” she said. “It could be really fascinating.”

Despite the apocalyptic spring of 2020 and the complexities of navigating the post-shutdown landscape, Steiner and others in New York see one key advantage in their town. As with LA, major talent and a deep bench of craftspeople live here. “I don’t see people going far from home to shoot something,” Steiner said. “They don’t want the hassle with travel and finding crews and everything.”

Tom Bernard, even though he has championed Woody Allen films and foreign-language fare embraced by New York cinephiles, has long touted his home state of New Jersey as a production force. The state, which has the nation’s second-worst COVID-19 numbers after New York, has risen in the ranks of production destinations.

In 2018, New Jersey matched New York by passing a 30% tax incentive. After the state was deluged by applications, lawmakers raised the budget cap and extended the program through 2028. Bernard estimates that about 10,000 to 12,000 seasoned production pros live and work in New Jersey, and the state offers one commodity that is harder to come by in New York: space. Pent-up production demand, once released, will mean more than enough shoots to go around. “There is so much work that needs the locations that the Tri-State area has,” Bernard said.

Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman — perhaps the ultimate sprawling Gotham production, whose 309 scenes were shot in 117 locations — would be a different movie if shot in New Jersey. But Bernard argues downtown Newark would fool most viewers.

The IFP is moving forward with its annual IFP Week in September. The series of panels and workshops, traditionally hosted at its Brooklyn headquarters, a stone’s throw from Steiner, will be dominated by COVID-19 topics. IFP also is maintaining an ongoing lab program that has lent support to breakout titles over the years like Moonlight and Knock Down the House. “It will be one of the first opportunities that we as a community will have to come together and discuss these topics about this new world we’re living in,” Sharp said of IFP Week.

The organization’s Gotham Awards, an early red-carpet ritual that helps kick off Oscar season, will proceed on November 30, Sharp said, albeit likely in a different form, perhaps even online. “It will be a big night” regardless of what form it takes, Sharp said. “We want to celebrate but also be sensitive because our community is suffering right now.”

Even though the industry is on its heels, it will move forward, Steiner said. “New York got hit the hardest and the soonest” by the virus, he reasons. “And will come out of it soonest.”

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