Weekly Feature

2018-01-10 / Local News

Local film industry workers decry bill aimed at repealing film production tax credits


Nearly one month after state Sen. Robert Ortt introduced a bill to repeal two film production tax credits, local film industry workers say the measure would not only eliminate their livelihoods, but also a local film industry that is just beginning to get off the ground.

On his website, Ortt claims the bill is aimed at stripping Hollywood executives such as Harvey Weinstein of saving millions on productions, so that the state can use that money to balance its budget and prevent cuts to disability programs, mental health treatment and other services.

But locals argue the bill would hurt smaller independent production companies that also benefit from the credits, which allow eligible productions to get 30 percent to 40 percent of production costs refunded by the state.

Buffalo-based film professionals also contend that a repeal would hurt a growing community of local film production workers, who depend on productions large and small to get work.

Chris Rados, owner of Allentown based film equipment rental company WNY Grip & Lighting, said that in the past two years, he’s worked on 12 films in Buffalo that have taken advantage of the credits, with budgets ranging from $50,000 to $10 million.

Were the credits to be repealed, he said his business would evaporate along with “an entire budding industry in Buffalo.”

“My bottom line would go to where it was when I started over five years ago — close to nothing,” said Rados, who works alone but said business has been good enough lately that he’s considered hiring a few workers to help maintain the warehouse where he stores his gear.

“I didn’t start seeing a profit until the credit passed, and since then I can’t even keep up I get so busy. It’s fantastic. I sank my life savings into this business, to have the equipment that’s needed when a film or commercial comes through the area. This gear isn’t cheap. The tax credit is solely responsible for my growth.”

Rados, who has called and emailed Ortt about his concerns, also said he wants an explanation from the senator on why he’s passionate about the bill and why he believes the credit largely affects big budget Hollywood productions filmed downstate.

“They aren’t all ‘big studio films’ like he thinks,” said Rados, noting that hundreds of local freelancers have been hired to work on independent productions that have also taken advantage of the credit. “To be ignorant enough to mention that this credit is helping sexual predators like Harvey Weinstein is so far beyond comprehension that it’s alarming and very concerning that this is his mindset.”

Other local film industry professionals were also concerned about the impact of a repeal, arguing that it would discourage independent companies from filming in WNY, and drive away work for crew members that support them.

Clarence-based film producer Keith Lukowski, who also runs a one-man outfit, said a repeal would mean he wouldn’t be able to support smaller productions and therefore wouldn’t be able to hire the local contractors who provide camera, sound and lighting services for him.

“They want to say Hollywood? It’s not all Hollywood. It’s all independent films, and that’s what kills me,” said Lukowski, owner of Macrocosm Productions, which hired 25 crew members through contractors to help with approximately 12 independent films in 2017. “I mean sure, there’s Hollywood films that come, but that brings money. It brings jobs. You’re talking carpenters, electricians, food services, craft services, designs, local businesses, hotels, restaurants, fuel.”

Matthew Nardone, CEO of Buffalo-based NDstudios, agreed, and said the 30 to 100 local crew members that his company has helped get jobs yearly with films coming to town will likely be out of work if the credits are repealed.

“NDstudios would also have a difficult time continuing to operate, as we have made significant investments that would not be sustained in an environment without these features,” he said.

Former Buffalo-based film producer Brandyn Williams, who has already left the region to pursue an acting career in Los Angeles, said a repeal of the credits would discourage his future plans to make another film in Buffalo.

“If this bill is passed, I’ll be taking it elsewhere,” he said. “Ortt seems to be looking at this in the abstract. He either doesn’t see or doesn’t care about how many people worked hard to build the local film community and what this will do to them.”

The Republican senator contended that the credit largely benefits New York City and Hollywood-based production companies, which has negative political implications for his party, and the constituents in his district.

“My concern is that having looked at the limited data available, we can clearly see that the film tax credit almost entirely targets one area of the state: New York City,” he said. “That is great for the city, but it is not great for my constituents in Niagara, Orleans and Monroe County.

“They see billion-dollar Hollywood studios receiving corporate welfare, and then these corporations contribute hundreds of thousands to the governor’s campaign. With our state facing a $4 billion deficit, every industry and every corner of the state will be impacted.”

In contrast, state Sen. Patrick Gallivan, a fellow Republican, said he supports the credit, arguing that it has been a boon to Western New York.

“As the sponsor of the original bill to enhance the upstate New York in film tax credit, I am opposed to legislation which would eliminate it,” he wrote, in an email response.

According to Tim Clark, commissioner of the Buffalo Niagara Film Office, eight of approximately 15 films produced in Western New York in 2017 were able to take advantage of the credit, helping generate approximately $40 million in revenue and roughly 2,500 jobs.

He also noted that the film credit does not allow production companies to be reimbursed for larger “above the line” costs, such as the salaries of screenwriters and actors, but only “below the line” costs, such as the wages of production crew members, and equipment expenses.

Those below-the-line costs are largely now being provided by Western New Yorkers, who have created enterprises to serve the needs of visiting filmmakers.

“There’s people here making a living now that if you told them five years ago they’d be making full time wages in the movie industry, they’d look at you like you were crazy,” Clark said. “But in fact, that’s what’s happened here.”

Currently being discussed by the Senate’s Rules Committee, Ortt’s bill will be considered during the 2018 legislative session, which was scheduled to convene on Jan. 3.

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