Westchester shoots for 'Hollywood East' action
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Much to the delight of fans, an increasing number of films and television shows have been shooting on location throughout the county. And with local officials brainstorming ways to reduce the hassles that production crews face in navigating the 'burbs -- while keeping wary residents happy -- even more star sightings might light up the area in coming months.
"We are communicating that Westchester is film-friendly and we want your business," said Natasha Caputo, director of the county's office of Tourism & Film, which is aggressively promoting itself as a one-stop shopping resource for location scouts.
As proof that the strategy is working, Caputo cited the rising number of inquiries from companies seeking to shoot movies, TV shows, commercials and photos. She has fielded 167 inquiries so far this year, a 38 percent increase from 2011, with nearly 50 projects booked and 20 to 25 pending.
While the county and municipalities can charge the companies various fees -- ranging from $50 to $5,000 per shoot -- these permits and licenses don't generate much revenue because location shoots can be few and far between. Westchester's goal is to ignite a Hollywood romance that will bring in both visibility and tourism dollars as production crews patronize restaurants, hotels and services along with renting locations, Caputo explained.
This month, the movie action heats up with the arrival of two star-packed flicks. Early this month, Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street" is expected to set up in Ardsley. The movie is about securities fraud and mobsters, and stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Matthew McConaughey.
In Yonkers, Will Smith, Russell Crowe and other luminaries will be on a closed set through New Year's for "Winter's Tale," a movie based on the best-selling 1983 Mark Helprin supernatural novel set in Victorian New York.
TV shows keep coming
The real growth for the county has been with television shows that keep coming back to shoot new episodes. The trend began in 2010 with HBO's Atlantic City Prohibition era series, "Boardwalk Empire," featuring Steve Buscemi, Kelly Macdonald and Michael Shannon, and the CBS drama, "The Good Wife," starring Julianna Margulies as a lawyer dealing with a philandering, politician-husband reminiscent of former state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer.
In 2011, three more shows found their way to Westchester: USA Network's "Royal Pains," Investigation Discovery cable network's "True Crime with Aphrodite Jones" and the BBC's "Criminal Justice." This year, the CBS crime drama "Person of Interest" and HBO's "Girls" joined the pack, along with the CBS pilot "Made in Jersey."
Local officials are marketing to the Hollywood crowd as a well-priced, less congested alternative to nearby Manhattan. Based on industry per diem practices and union rules, a company can shoot within a 25-mile radius of Columbus Circle without having to pay overtime and other expenses. Any production within the state also benefits from a 30 percent tax credit, which has helped lure business to Westchester.
One hitch is that shooting in the suburbs involves working with individual municipalities, each with their own quirks and rules, while a Gotham-based shoot only requires dealing with one local government with one standardized set of permits. Still, the county and cities such as Yonkers are making a push to minimize bureaucracy.
"We can offer a lot of what New York offers," said Jason Baker, the recently-appointed director of Yonkers' Office of Film & Photography, which will soon be announcing its new website and new policies, including the elimination of certain long-standing fees.
In cutting expenses to prospective productions, Yonkers will collect less than the usual "tens of thousands of dollars" from crews that are in the city nearly every week, according to Baker. But he said Yonkers is banking on its streamlined permit process to generate more spending by production companies on local restaurants, stores, hotels and other businesses.
While Yonkers and Westchester have always been film-friendly, growing the industy is a steeper learning curve for "people in the towns who don't always understand the transient nature of filmmaking and television," noted Roger Paradiso, co-owner of Yonkers Stage, a 60,000-square-foot production facility.
In addition to hosting the upcoming "Winter's Tale," its stages and editing rooms have been used by countless movies, including "I Am Legend," "Wall Street 2," "Maid In Manhattan," "Rollerball" and "Finding Forester."
'They can make it onerous'
Working with individual municipalities is "hit or miss," agreed location manager Rob Striem, who recently used Tarrytown for director Steven Soderbergh's "Bitter Pill," a psychological thriller starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and Jude Law that is set for release in 2013.
"They say, 'Yes, come,' but sometimes they can make it so onerous that once you get there, it's not even practical."
Westchester, however, has its cost-effective charms. "It can easily be a stand-in for other places," Striem explained. "You can basically make Tarrytown look like the Berkshires."
Each of Westchester's 44 municipalities has its own rules, which range from no formal policies at all in the town of Mount Pleasant to traffic guidelines in Tarrytown which limit filming hours and ban street parking by crews on weekends.
Bedford, the northern Westchester hometown to celebrities who include Glenn Close, Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds, Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas and Chevy Chase, has some of the most restrictive policies.
A 1988 town ordinance requires production companies to actually appear before the town board with their applications, show proof of adequate insurance coverage and only work between 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Any particular location can only be used for a maximum of three days. And the fee for hiring a police officer on the set is $250 per hour -- compared with an hourly cop rate of $70 in Hastings-on-Hudson.
'Plans can change'
"The film industry is a totally different world" because their plans can "change in an instant and the town doesn't move that fast," said Marcy Marchiano from the Bedford town supervisor's office. Still, the movie people come: Last year, Bedford collected a $5,000 permit fee from "Robot & Frank," a buddy caper rolling out now, starring Frank Langella as an elderly ex-jewel thief and the robot that takes care of him.
The issue is knowing how much disruption is tolerable, said Richard Slingerland, village manager for Mamaroneck, which hosted four shoots this year. "We don't want to harm the businesses," he said.
So far, that hasn't been a problem. In fact, The Bridal Shop made $2,000 in April when it rented out its Mamaroneck Avenue store for the making of a commercial for Compound W, the over-the-counter wart remover.
For three days, dozens of production people "turned the place upside down," recalled Samantha Warshaw, whose father Merrell Warshaw owns the family business."It was very stressful but they did clean up."
Would she be interested in being a location again?
"Of course," she said.