Angelina Jolie almost filmed an elaborate fight scene in Buffalo for the action thriller “Salt,” using the Skyway, the I-190 ramp and the railroad tracks below as a backdrop.
A location scout wanted it to happen, but it was just too costly to film here.
So the production went to another city.
It’s a problem that has kept many film studios away, despite the enticement of Buffalo’s picture-perfect settings, according to film promoters here.
“The things we have that always blow these filmmakers away – and it’s probably a testament to the preservationists here – is that our architecture is so preserved and so pristine. They see our grain mills, the grittiness of the First Ward, the Cobblestone District with real cobblestone streets,” said Tim Clark, head of the Buffalo Niagara Film Commission.
It is just the costs that stop movie crews from coming here.
Big productions must bring in crews from New York City, and that means paying additional costs for transportation, rental vehicles, hotel rooms and per diems.
“The experts tell me it’s close to a 45 percent difference between shooting a movie in Buffalo versus shooting a movie in Staten Island,” Clark said.
Now State Sen. Patrick Gallivan has proposed legislation that he feels could level the playing field and make Buffalo much more competitive with other cities. His bill calls for raising the state’s 30 percent film production tax credit – the amount of expenses a film studio can deduct in taxes – on an escalating scale upstate. For Western New York, it would be 45 percent.
“The farther you get from New York City, the more expensive it is to bring films to Buffalo,” the Elma Republican said. “But over time, we can build the industry and workforce, and the costs will naturally go down.”
His proposal follows a change last year that boosted the state’s tax credit for post-production work – such as titling, color correcting and special effects – from 10 to 30 percent, with an additional 5 percent bump for upstate and Western New York.
“We have a very good number of small-budget films being made in and around this area. But we’re relegated to the non-union, smaller-budget movies,” Clark said. “They are good bread-and-butter kinds of projects for us, but we’re likely not to see the bigger stuff until we get some sort of relief in the tax credits here.”
For example, a little over a week ago, director Ivan Reitman and a location scout were in town to consider making “Draft Day,” which would star Kevin Costner as a fictitious Buffalo Bills general manager.
But Lionsgate studio also is considering Cleveland for the movie because it offers a variety of incentives not available in Buffalo. Another example: Producer Don Carmody, whose credits include “Good Will Hunting” and “Chicago,” set his latest film, “The Factory,” which came out direct-to-video on Tuesday, in Buffalo.
But the movie, which stars John Cusack, was filmed in Montreal.
“There is huge competition with the tax credits all over the place, and when we made ‘The Factory,’ even the New York State rebates weren’t that big a deal. It was just better for us to shoot the thing in Montreal and take advantage of their tax credits,” Carmody said.
Gallivan said he is hopeful fellow lawmakers will support the four-tiered film production tax credit boost – from 30 to 45 percent – that would give upstate and Western New York the maximum boost.
It’s the only way, he said, that regions outside New York City can have a level playing field.
“I don’t know if we need four or three tiers, but the general concept essentially is to level the costs so every region can compete equally to bring film production to upstate and Western New York,” Gallivan said.
His bill has the support of John Ford, president and business manager of Motion Picture Studio Mechanics Local 52, based in New York City. More than 100 members are between Buffalo and Rochester in the various locals and he would welcome the chance to add more, he said.
“You need the employers to bring the work here. Once the shows start coming, then you get as many local people on as you can and they learn over time,” Ford said.
Clark said the legislation to provide equity is overdue.
“In 2006, ‘The Savages’ shot here two or three days and went to Staten Island, where it was made to look like Buffalo,” Clark said, referring to the film that co-starred Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney.
Clark said representatives from several major movie studios have assured him that they would shoot more pictures throughout New York State if the production tax credit went up.
Other upstate movie promoters agree.
Based on conversations with line producers who budget movies, “the magic tax credit number is 42 percent,” said Nora Brown, who heads Rochester’s film commission.
That would help Rochester retain films she said have been lost lately to Massachusetts. Some other states, for instance, allow a portion of salaries paid to the director, writer and leading cast members to be deducted from taxes.
Downtown Rochester is slated for 10 days of shooting this spring for “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” according to John Scardino, regional representative for the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees 52. But the amount of film, which reprises Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker/Spider-Man, being shot there was cut in half due to added costs.
Efforts also are under way to increase critical post-production work in parts of the state outside of New York City.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo last July signed legislation that raised the state post-production tax credit for upstate and Western New York to 35 percent – 5 percent higher than for New York City, where most of the industry is located.
The governor announced his support in January for extending the tax credit five years, something the Legislature still has to approve.
Increasing the post-production tax credit is working, said Kenneth Adams, president and CEO of Empire State Development Corp.
“For the first couple of years that the post-production credit existed, there were 17 projects that sought support. In the six or seven months since, we’ve had 34 projects sign up for the credit, indicating there is strong interest,” Adams said.
It’s a need Daemen College has recognized.
Later this year, the school plans to begin a visual-effects certificate training program to train students to work in the post-production industry.
Sam Hoyt, a member of the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council, said there have been “advanced discussions” about how to support what Daemen is doing.
“We think Daemen has something that is very unique based on our discussions and our due diligence, and we’re in discussions with the team there as to how we can make it become a reality,” Hoyt said.
Adams said the growing industry could help retain a highly skilled and well-trained technical workforce in Buffalo.
“If this works, it’s another strategy in keeping young people in Western New York. It’s a very cool industry,” Adams said.
Ben Porcari, who operates IBC Digital, a production company in Buffalo specializing in post-animation and digital effects, said the post-production tax credit makes Buffalo much more competitive.
“Companies can benefit from the low cost of operation in Buffalo and take advantage of the extra 5 percent tax credit. On a $1 million job, that’s a decent amount of money,” Porcari said.
With possible changes to production tax credits along with the change last year in the post-production credit, Buffalo and Western New York’s film industry could be turning a corner, said Clark of the Buffalo Niagara Film Commission.
“I truly believe we are on the cusp of something really big here,” Clark said. “It’s also really sexy. You have movie stars in town, you have lights, camera, action. It’s a great way to boost the economy.”