New York Fights Back

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The conventional wisdom about New York City's production industry after September 11 goes something like this: "Business wasn't good on September 10, but after? Forget it." Things, in other words, have gone from awful to worse. In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks, shoots were canceled, jobs that were about to be awarded were yanked from the bid process and many advertisers pulled back to regroup. "For the first couple of weeks, we just kind of looked at each other and made phone calls around town to see if everybody was all right," says Beth Kinder, executive producer at production house Cylo. "Then we went into a phase where we were wondering what clients were doing." Now, as wary clients begin to greenlight new projects, production companies and agencies are looking at what they can do to bring production back to the streets of New York. "This is where we live," says Peter Friedman, director of broadcast production at McCann-Erickson. "This is where we've made our living, and we've got to rebuild the business here, no matter what it takes."

There have been efforts large and small. Production company House Films, for example, pledged to waive its production fee for commercials shot in New York until Thanksgiving. "We had a really good summer, and after September 11 we thought this would be a great way to help out our crews and our vendors and people we work with," says president Ric DiIanni. But in a down market, even such fire sales are up against sluggish demand. DiIanni says he got a lot of response from vendors about his no-fee offer - which was advertised for a week in late September on the WheresSpot e-mail group- but none from agencies. "There's no easy answer," says Kinder. "I don't think I'm going to walk into the office one day and it's going to be 1997 again. We've got a big hill to climb."

In an attempt to climb that hill, a group of agency producers and production suppliers have formed a coalition dubbed the Advertising and Entertainment Industry Coalition to Help Rebuild New York. The loose-knit group grew out of an early October meeting that included heads of the broadcast departments from several New York agencies and representatives from the production community. For all, the mission was clear: "Do the best work for our clients, help the country and help rebuild the economy of New York," says Young & Rubicam director of broadcast production Ken Yagoda. Last year, commercials production brought more than $300 million in direct expenditures into the city, and, as Radical Media chairman/CEO Jon Kamen observes: "There are many people who live in New York and make their lives here who are going to be impacted the most by this work interruption. We realized we were going to have to do our part to restore an important part of the economy of the city."

"The whole mission was to get people to think about how their everyday business decisions can help the New York economy and the American economy to recover," says Matt Miller, president of the Association of Independent Commercial Producers. The coalition has big plans, including a trade advertising campaign, based around the slogan "We Love New York" and endorsed by a range of organizations, including the AICP, the Four A's, and the Director's Guild of America. "Whether or not every production stays in New York, that's immaterial," Miller says. "The fact that people are talking about helping the New York and the U.S. economy is the point."

The coalition's efforts have shown some results. Hot Headquarters' directing team Joe Public recently abandoned their home base of L.A. to shoot boards for Microsoft's Xbox game console in New York. "Every now and then there's a project that could go either way, and why not shoot it in New York if you can," says Headquarters executive producer Tom Mooney. Other anecdotal evidence abounds that shoots that might have gone to L.A. or Toronto are landing instead in New York. "We had a two day shoot scheduled, but at the last moment it came down that we had to cut money, and there was a request to rebid it to Toronto," says Cylo's Kinder. "So we worked with the agency's creative requirements and we cut costs down to the bone to keep the job in New York." McCann-Erickson's Friedman reports that in addition to the Microsoft shoot, McCann has shot an installment of its "Priceless" MasterCard campaign and work for Johnson & Johnson in New York since September 11. "We're trying to shoot everything we possibly can here," he says. "Clients have been very responsive. Hopefully, we're making a dent." "There's definitely an uptick," agrees Y&R's Yagoda. "And definitely what's happened is the opening of communication between the agencies' heads of production and their counterparts on the supplier side."

"Whether it was a happy coincidence or by design, there have been a fair number of jobs that could be shot, or were always intended to be shot, in New York," Kinder says. There is a limit, however, to how much producers and production companies can affect how clients spend money. "Once you strip away the layers of patriotism, the layers of pain, and the layers of anxiety, what you're left with is the bottom line," says Rick Wagonheim, executive producer at New York effects house Rhinoceros. "Ultimately agencies have to look after their clients' best interests, and that becomes a financial decision." Since September 11, however, there are new factors affecting advertising decisions. "Money is still going to make the decisions," says Saatchi & Saatchi broadcast production head David Perry. "But now there are additional factors that weren't there before. We're taking into account, and clients are letting us take into account, factors like travel safety and keeping the work in the country. A job we were going to do in Los Angeles is coming here because of those factors."

The rally to bring work back to New York has also opened a new front in an old battle - the war on runaway production. "Most of our clients don't care too much where we work," says Perry. "They care more what it costs them. This is less about keeping work from going to L.A. rather than keeping work from going out of the country. In my 31 years in the business, there's always been some coalition or other trying to get work to come back to New York, but they've never been successful because the directors aren't here and the work follows the directors." However, Perry adds, clients have become more willing to consider arguments about helping the nation's economy by filming at home. "Our sense of needing to keep the U.S. economy up has been sharpened since September 11. To me, keeping work in America is as important as building back the film business in New York."

The AICP's Miller agrees that new light has been shed on the problem of runaway production. "They need to remember that this economy is based on people fueling it," he says. "And a big chunk of business in the U.S. and New York has been lost for no good reason. So this can serve as a reminder to people that their decisions can affect the economy." And just as last year's SAG strike showed clients how easy it was to shoot overseas, the current climate might show them how easy it is to shoot at home. "We're trying to shrink the financial gap between shooting somewhere else and shooting here," says Headquarters' Mooney. "If you look and you make calls, you find out that the gap isn't that large. We just didn't make the effort before. I'd love it if everything was shot here. I say let's keep an open mind and close the gap. We're getting that signal from agencies and from clients."

How far along the supply chain such signals travel, however, is another question. "I personally have not benefited from a desire to keep work in the U.S.," says Rhinoceros' Wagonheim, who has been vocal about challenging clients to do just that. "I'm seeing the same amount of boards after September 11 that I saw before September 11. I think that rather than the industry having a single vision of keeping the work in the U.S., it's a very fractured industry, and the points of view are splintered. There are some agencies that are absolutely committed to keeping work in the U.S. rather than sending it overseas. But there is still work that is going to Canada, to London and to Australia." And Wagonheim thinks that has little to do with September 11 and everything to do with the effects of last year's strike by the Screen Actor's Guild; particularly the fact that the current contract requires clients to pay residuals to talent rather than a one-time fee. "The single biggest issue that still looms is one thing and one thing only, and it's residuals vs. buyouts," he says, voicing an oft-felt but rarely stated view within the industry. "Until SAG realizes that a buyout is cheaper than a residual, the work will continue to go overseas."

"That's an old issue that we shouldn't be worrying about right now," says Chelsea Pictures executive producer Steve Wax, highlighting the divergent views within the industry. "I think those two things shouldn't be mixed together. The real problem is to get shoots that are shot in L.A. to shoot in New York. The only way that's going to happen is if the people who really make the decisions, the directors and the agency creatives, decide to shoot in New York." That, Wax argues, will continue to be an uphill fight. "I think what nobody is talking about is that people probably want emotionally to shoot in New York, but our business is all about avoiding risk," he says. "We're paid a lot of money to reduce risk. And shooting in New York, I'm sure feels like a more risky venture than shooting in L.A."

Particularly to people 3,000 miles away in L.A. "It's not so much that people are afraid to fly; it's just that people are afraid to be away from their spouses and families," says Bryan Farhy, executive producer at Los Angeles-based BrandTV, adding that he hasn't seen an organized West Coast push to keep production in the U.S. "I haven't noticed any kind of collective 'let's keep production in America' movement right now," he says. "If people are saying it, it's really because they don't want to travel."

And so the uphill climb continues, in an industry rattled by strikes, a plunging economy, and, now, domestic and international uncertainty - the only certainty being that things will never be quite the same. "There are going to be low-end guys who are going to get hurt and there are going to be giant guys with huge overheads that are going to go out of business," says Headquarters' Mooney. "We're all forever changed," adds Y&R's Yagoda. "It will never be business as usual. It will be business as it is after September 11."

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