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City Hall role in Cellino & Barnes ad stuns lawmakers; 'Misunderstanding' blamed for Council Chamber shots

While ads touting the Cellino & Barnes law firm are hardly a television oddity, one new spot made a city lawmaker's eyes bulge.

Majority Leader Richard A. Fontana was stunned to see the publicity-savvy lawyers using Common Council Chambers as a backdrop to showcase their "experience and courtroom success."

The spot, which includes the firm's catchy jingle, was filmed on a Saturday in June.

Red-faced city officials said they didn't realize a respected local filmmaker who is finishing an upcoming movie on Buffalo also was producing a commercial for the law firm.

The city previously turned down "multiple requests" from other law firms to film commercials in City Hall, mayoral spokesman Michael J. DeGeorge said. The city doesn't permit commercials to be filmed in the building.

Fontana wants the law firm to pull the commercial.

But Daryl Ciambella, chief operating officer at Cellino & Barnes, said the firm does not intend to stop using the commercial, which cost "tens of thousands of dollars" to produce. The city's building superintendent, he added, was present for every minute of the filming and never objected.

"It's done very tastefully," Ciambella said of the commercial. "It promotes the city. It puts the city in a very positive light."

Council President David A. Franczyk, whose office controls Council Chambers, said he never was informed of any plans to film a commercial in the historic room.

"It's wrong, wrong, wrong," Franczyk said Monday. "We can't have our Chambers commercialized like this. What's next? A dog food commercial?"

Filmmaker Peter McGennis had permission from the city's special events office to film in the City Hall lobby and Council Chambers on Saturday, June 11. But he told officials he was reshooting some scenes for a film called "Queen City."

An apologetic McGennis insisted that he wasn't trying to pull a fast one when he decided to tape the Cellino & Barnes spot as part of the day's shoot. McGennis said the firm's spot is artfully included in the film. The commercial will be seen playing on a TV screen in one scene. He said the commercial helps to offset the costs of making his films.

McGennis said he had no idea the city objected to shooting commercials in the building.

"I'm sorry if there has been any misunderstanding," McGennis said. "I feel terrible that anyone has come under fire for this."

He added that had he known the city had objections to commercials being filmed in the building, he would have found other locations.

But Fontana said he finds it troubling that the filmmaker didn't make his intentions clear when he sought permission to film inside the building.

"I don't like the way this went down," Fontana said. "They fooled us. Integrity has to mean something. It's almost like offering to baby-sit for someone, then filming in their house."

Fontana added that the city should be reimbursed if the shoot resulted in any overtime costs. City Hall was open to the public until 1 p.m. on that Saturday, but the shoot in Council Chambers was done after the building closed.

Franczyk said he believes McGennis had been "underhanded" in not specifying to the special events office that a commercial would be made.

McGennis insisted he wasn't trying to do anything sneaky, saying he has spent years trying to promote Buffalo's architecture and history through his filmmaking.

"I would not want to jeopardize the relationships that I've built over the years, with City Hall being at the top of that list," McGennis said. "I don't want to burn any bridges."

City Building Superintendent William D. McGuire, who accompanied McGennis' crew during the shooting, said he thought the switch to making a commercial was odd. But the special events office had given McGennis permission to film, so he did not object.

Franczyk said he believes the controversy red-flags the need to put in writing a set of rules that specify what types of projects can be filmed in city-owned venues.

What's the difference between allowing the shooting of scenes for a for-profit film in City Hall and giving the green-light to a commercial?

Fontana and Franczyk said the difference is significant, insisting that Council Chambers should not be a venue for promoting products or services.

Fontana added that he was upset to see that crews even temporarily removed portraits of Council presidents from the walls of the Chambers. McGennis said the paintings were taken down because filmmakers do not shoot footage of artistic works without obtaining permission from the artists.

Ciambella said that unless viewers were familiar with the interior of City Hall, they wouldn't even know that the shoot was done in Council Chambers.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com