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On Location: New York City's TV production surges to record level

June 14, 2011 |  4:14 pm

Boardwalk

Arch-rival New York City is stealing the show from Los Angeles.

New York is experiencing a historic surge in television production thanks to its expanded film tax credit program, cutbacks in other states’ incentives and the weak U.S. dollar, which has made it more expensive to shoot in the Canadian cities of Vancouver and Toronto.

In the most recent TV season, New York City drew a record number of cable and network pilots: 22, up from only three the previous season. And in the coming year, the city is expected to also host that many TV series, including “Person of Interest,” a CBS drama from producer J.J. Abrams about an ex-CIA agent, the MTV comedy “I Just Want My Pants Back” and the HBO series “Girls” from producer Judd Apatow.

“We’ve never seen numbers like this,” said Katherine Oliver, New York City’s film commissioner since 2002.

New York’s gain comes as Los Angeles is struggling to hold onto its share of TV production. A recent survey by FilmL.A. Inc., the nonprofit permitting group, found that although 87 pilots were produced in L.A. last season, up from 76 the previous season, the region’s share of pilot production has fallen to 51%, down from 58% the prior season and 82% six years ago.

At the same time, New York more than doubled its share to approximately 10% of all pilots, according to FilmL.A.

The two cities have had a long rivalry in TV production. Los Angeles often stands in for New York for such shows as “CSI: New York” and is home to studios such as Universal that have entire back lots dedicated to New York streetscapes and landmarks. New York lured the ABC sitcom “Ugly Betty” away from L.A. in 2008, which prompted the California Legislature to enact the state’s first film tax incentive program.

Although California’s tax credit program, which took effect in 2009, has slowed runaway production, it’s still less competitive than that of New York and other states. California provides a 20% tax credit for TV production, compared with New York’s 30%, and allocates only $100 million annually, a quarter of what New York doles out.

After a period of uncertainty about whether the program would be funded, New York lawmakers last summer beefed it up, allocating $420 million annually through 2014.

“I think there’s no doubt that the fact that we were able to expand the tax credit and extend it for five years had a great impact,” said Pat Swinney Kaufman, executive director for the Governor’s Office for Motion Picture & Television Development.

New York also has picked up more business as some states grappling with budget deficits have cut back or suspended their programs, as in the case of New Jersey. While HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” is set in New Jersey, the series is being filmed in New York, including the Brooklyn neighborhood of Greenpoint, where a full replica of the Atlantic City boardwalk was constructed. HBO’s recent miniseries “Mildred Pierce,” set in the 1930s in Los Angeles, also was filmed in New York.

“Boardwalk” is among 14 primetime series that are returning to New York in the coming months, including NBC’s “30 Rock,” Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie” and “The Good Wife,” the CBS drama starring Julianna Margulies that is set in Chicago.

Oliver, the New York film commissioner, also credits other services for helping make New York attractive, such as free police assistance provided to crews, a 10% discount to filmmakers for using local vendors and a program run by a Brooklyn organization that supplies well-trained production assistants from low -income, minority backgrounds.

“I’ve always said we can’t control what other territories are going to offer in terms of tax incentives,” Oliver said, “but what we can control is the services we provide.”

Photo: The HBO series "Boardwalk Empire" is set in Atlantic City but is filmed in New York, including at Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Credit: HBO

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-- Richard Verrier

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