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Unions Praise Tax Credits

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The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) seemed to be nearly tap dancing for joy in New York this week, and with good reason.

Last week, Gov. George Pataki signed into law a bill creating landmark tax incentives for film and television production that would help fight runaway filmmaking to other areas, particularly Canada. And SAG and AFTRA were part of an industrywide coalition that united to push heavily for the legislation.

The new law provides $100 million over four years—$25 million annually—to cover tax write-offs for films and TV shows produced in New York state. The bill also allows New York City to provide as much as $12.5 million in annual tax credits for production in the city. The legislation covers below-the-line costs for feature films and TV series that shoot 75% of their productions in New York.

Cynthia Vance, a SAG/New York board member deeply involved in the coalition, told Back Stage last week that a steering group—called the New York Film and TV Initiative—has been working for several years on the runaway production issue. That group covers a broad base, including the entertainment unions, the New York Production Alliance, the Creative Coalition, and the Motion Picture Association of America.

Terry Casaletta, AFTRA/New York's assistant executive director, said on Monday that the group worked closely with the Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre & Broadcasting and the state film office in educating and convincing key legislators that the film business in New York is indeed a business.

"The city and state film offices set up meetings and participated in meetings, bringing everybody together," Casaletta said. "In my opinion, without their participation and without the production community as a whole behind this, we wouldn't have seen the success we saw."

Rising in June

The effort really coalesced in June, when Assemblyman Joseph D. Morelle of Rochester, who is chairman of the Assembly Committee on Tourism, Arts, and Sports Development, introduced a bill to create the tax incentives.

"In June, we sent a letter of support to the governor as well as to Assemblyman Morelle," Vance explained. "It was shortly after the bill was introduced that we started working to make it stronger."

Katherine Oliver, commissioner of the mayor's film office, worked to include all of the city's studios, Vance said. The original bill had included only studios within certain economic zones.

"We got involved to help along with that," Vance said, "and to increase the requirement that 75% of the shooting days be in New York. We advocated for that 75% trigger, and to include background actors in qualifying production costs. That creates more jobs. It's really important for folks to understand the way background actors are hired; it's so vital to so many in New York production."

It doesn't matter where the stars of a film live. Production companies take care of their travel to every location for shooting. But companies don't pay to transport background performers. They hire background actors in the location where the company shoots its footage. So the 75%-of-shooting requirement should assure jobs for backgrounders.

The same goes for TV series, with a 10% tax credit for eligible production costs. AFTRA's members also will benefit from that.

"AFTRA has become very successful in the digital area," Casaletta confides. "As more and more work is being done under digital, we'll see more and more work opportunities. We really think this legislation is the first step in creating more jobs and leveling the playing field."

John McGuire, SAG's senior advisor, emphasized that the new legislation benefits the entire production community.

"Spending at least 75% in New York, or using 75% as the gauge of how much work is done in New York, means that stage facilities, post facilities, etc. will all see increased business," McGuire said.

Added AFTRA's Casaletta, "The real story here is, for the first time in all the years I've been in the business, you had a coalition of labor organizations, studio owners, and producers all working together to get an incentive through the state. You really had to put personal agendas behind you to push for more jobs, more work opportunities in New York. You had actors working alongside the Teamsters, the MPAA, the studios like Silvercup, Steiner, Kaufman, all working with vendors, and the New York Production Alliance. It's extraordinary when you think about everybody working together like that."

The industry's universal involvement led the veteran McGuire to recall another united effort some 30 years ago.

"To put it in historical perspective, SAG back in the '70s got involved with the other unions in trying to save the old Paramount Studios that then became the Kaufman studios," McGuire remembered. "That whole project had a wonderful coalition of unions, business, producers, city officials, and key state legislators and the federal government. The state came up with the money to help save and expand the area. That's when Kaufman came in and private investors got involved.

"That effort eventually led to Silvercup and other facilities forming," McGuire continued. "But the interest of key legislators dropped off after that. So this is a tremendous rebirth of the legislature in understanding and getting involved in helping build the filmmaking community."

To Commissioner Oliver, the landmark law represents a continuum for the thriving industry.

"New York City has always offered filmmakers the most incredible locations in the world, and this new legislation makes it more attractive to shoot interiors alongside the city's unparalleled exteriors," Oliver said. "New York City's production industry employs 100,000 New Yorkers and contributes $5 billion to our economy on an annual basis, and we are committed to maintaining our competitive position in this sector."

The next effort for expansion appears to be into commercial and other production areas.

"I'm very passionate about this part of the industry," Vance said of commercial production, a lucrative income market for New York's SAG members. "We didn't have as much time as we needed to educate legislators to the value and crucial role commercial production plays in the economic life of our industry, our union members, everybody. But we've been working with Matt Miller and the AICP in giving them more data." Miller is president of the Association of Independent Commercial Producers, whose national headquarters is located in New York City.

Casaletta added that Cornell University is currently conducting a study "to substantiate where the work is going and how it's going to increase. Hopefully, it will include commercial production, daytime production, and independent production that may not meet the initial financial threshold" of the new law.

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