ALBANY – Can Buffalo become the Tinseltown of upstate?
That’s the hope of local economic development officials after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo late Wednesday night vetoed a bill that critics say would have watered down a tax credit passed just seven months ago to lure film production crews to economically battered communities like Buffalo.
By Thursday morning, Buffalo film officials were already talking about jump-starting efforts to spread the word about the tax credits available to the movie and television industries. The hope is to get them to come to the area for the financial benefits as well as the diverse visual backdrops of waterfronts, architecture and silos.
“I think this is probably one of the most lucrative places to now shoot in North America. I think we’ll see a lot of Canadian and East Coast and West Coast companies now looking at upstate New York,” said Tim Clark, commissioner of the Buffalo Niagara Film Commission, following the governor’s veto of the bill that would have extended the tax credits to Hudson Valley counties close to New York City.
“As they say in the film business, we’re ready to roll,” Clark added.
The benefits of films being shot in a community can be tangible.
Consider Malcolm D. Lee’s “Best Man Holiday,” which opens today. The Universal Pictures film was being shot in Toronto when location scouts called Buffalo film officials. They wanted to use Ralph Wilson Stadium as – Bills’ might take a deep breath here – the fictional home stadium of the New York Giants.
A film crew spent five days here in May, painted a Giants logo on The Ralph’s artificial turf, hired more than 1,500 local extras and spent money on everything from hotels to restaurant meals to new temporary signs placed around the stadium, jettisoning anything that might have suggested “Buffalo.”
In all, local officials were told the production spent $1.2 million in direct costs during the stay.
“It’s amazing the kind of money movies leave behind,” Clark said.
The vetoed legislation would have added 14 counties to the 40 counties previously approved for additional tax credits that could be offered to film companies making movies and television shows. The film companies would get an additional 10 percent New York State tax credit – beyond the 30 percent already offered – for certain “below the line’’ labor expenses, which cover camera crew, sound teams, carpenters, grips and gaffers, but not the salaries of directors, producers and actors.
The bill would have extended the tax credit to economically vibrant counties, such as Saratoga, as well as those close to New York City, such as Rockland and Putnam. And that additional credit, critics said, probably would have removed the advantage for the more distant and economically distressed communities like Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse. Film companies would more likely shoot in the Hudson Valley counties so they could be closer to New York City.
Supporters of the bill said New York City already is where 90 percent of the state’s film industry tax credits are spent – out of a total of some $420 million a year – and that it was only fair to include more upstate counties in the tax break program.
“I am extremely disappointed that Governor Cuomo vetoed legislation I sponsored to expand the state’s film tax credit to the Capital Region and Hudson Valley. All parts of the state should be treated fairly and equally when it comes to offering this credit,” said State Sen. Hugh Farley, a Republican from the Schenectady area, where officials are hoping to lure a new movie production studio along the banks of the Mohawk River.
While the legislation passed overwhelmingly in June in both houses, Farley and Assembly sponsor Angelo Santabarbara are not planning to set off a war with Cuomo by seeking a veto override. Such a move would have to be done by the end of the year anyway, and neither house has plans to return until January.Instead, they plan to try to get the tax breaks expanded during next year’s budget talks. Cuomo left that opening in his veto message Thursday.
“It’s a question of putting certain counties at a disadvantage,” Santabarbara said of the veto, which that ensures the additional tax breaks go to counties only in Western, Central and Northern New York. “We’re trying to make sure we have the same opportunities as other counties.”
Critics, though, said the geographic expansion of the program would undermine the new initiative, especially by allowing so many counties close to New York City to get the additional tax break. In his veto message, Cuomo noted that he signed the state’s budget this year that included an additional 10 percent – atop the 30 percent already offered – tax credit for labor costs incurred by film companies doing work in 40 upstate counties.
In his veto message, Cuomo said the 14 counties that lawmakers were trying to add to the list already have an “established and robust film production industry by virtue of their proximity to New York City.”
The 40 counties he approved in March have “historically lagged” when it comes to film production, Cuomo said.
Cuomo also noted that extending the tax credits to 14 counties would have a fiscal impact on the state.
“Any such extension of the credit should be discussed in the context of the upcoming 2014-15 (state fiscal year) budget negotiations and not implemented in an ad hoc manner in isolation from budget discussions,” Cuomo wrote.
Clark said a movie producer called him just this week about shooting scenes for a film in the Buffalo area because he had heard the region was in the additional tax credit zone. Clark declined to elaborate, but he said the additional 10 percent credit – which does not kick in until January 2015 – will make marketing the region to film companies far easier, especially to those with budgets in the $3 million to $10 million range that operate on far tighter margins.
“We’ve been successful in attracting smaller-budget to middle-budget indies, often non-union. Those will benefit quite a bit from this. They’ll find us very quickly. I’m excited about this because this is something we can go and market the hell out of,” Clark said.
Movies like “Best Man Holiday” and “Tammy,” staring Susan Sarandon and Melissa McCarthy, which was shot in Niagara Falls over the summer and is due out next year, have come for specific location reasons and did not need the additional tax incentives.
But Clark envisions that more films with an actual Buffalo setting will come to Western New York if they can get an extra tax break from New York.
“They realized the cost to come to Buffalo was extraordinary,’’ Clark said of the producers of “Henry’s Crime.”
How much a movie company might save in taxes is uncertain, because the “below the line” costs can vary so much from film to film.
“These filmmakers see something in the architecture, the rhythm of Buffalo. They see it from an artistic expression standpoint. They see Buffalo for its uniqueness…. Now, if they can convince the investors and accountants, it levels the playing field for Buffalo,” Clark said.
“If you are on the fence over where to shoot, that extra 10 percent is going to make a difference and will make our region a lot more attractive,” added Nora Brown, executive director of the Rochester/Finger Lakes Film & Video Office.