Film historians often attribute the origin of the term “cliffhanger” to the 1914 silent film serial “The Perils of Pauline” in which the main character clings to the Palisade cliffs near Fort Lee. Many people are unaware that New Jersey has a long history in the film industry, dating back to Thomas Edison’s invention of aspects of photography and film production in Newark and his laboratories in West Orange. And one of the early companies that eventually evolved into Universal Studios started as a small silent film studio in Bayonne.
Numerous places in Hudson County and New Jersey have served as locations for films such as “A Beautiful Mind,” “Grosse Point Blank,” and the HBO series “Oz.” But the state has long lived in the shadow of New York City, which has always competed with Los Angeles as a setting for film production. Yet, more than 18,000 union workers associated with movie and TV production live in New Jersey.
For a brief time, both Secaucus and Bayonne were considered as possible locations for major studio production facilities. But those plans fell through in part because New Jersey does not provide tax incentives the way New York and many other states do. Towns in Canada such as Vancouver and Toronto have also been luring producers over the years.
State needs to restore incentive program
Nancy Giles, a Weehawken resident, actress, and commentator best known for her appearances in the series “China Beach” and on CBS News Sunday Morning, said the film industry spends as much as $9 billion in production in New York annually, partly because the state provides up to $400 million annually to encourage them. Many of those companies would do business in New Jersey, too, if the state also provided similar tax incentives, she said.
The late actor Frank Vincent, a Jersey City native, had told The Hudson Reporter as early as 2004 that he supported developing movie studios in New Jersey. He made an appearance before the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission in support of a proposal that would establish studios in Secaucus. He said that New Jersey has big advantages over New York, including less traffic and cheaper production costs.
“It’s cheaper to shoot in New Jersey,” he said. “People from New York can get here easier than it is to get people around in New York.”
The state once had a tax incentive program that attracted a number of film productions to the Garden State, including Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds.” But the incentive program was done away with in 2010 when Gov. Christopher Christie took office.
Statistics show the production tax incentive program worked, creating more than 7,000 jobs directly associated with film production in 2008 with spillover to local businesses estimated at $500 million, according to a report by Motion Picture Association of America.
Getting back to where they started
On Sept. 12, Giles and members of the Fort Lee Film Commission came to Jersey City’s Loew’s Theater to hold a symposium in preparations for drafting plans for a revived tax incentive plan.
The group included some of the same people who helped uncover the 2013 lane closures on the George Washington Bridge, commonly referred to as “Bridgegate,” orchestrated by several people close to Gov. Christopher Christie. Among these were Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, who was instrumental in uncovering the wrongdoing associated with Bridgegate, and Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, who was allegedly targeted by the closures for refusing to endorse Christie for reelection. Their appearance at Loews, however, was not to blame Christie for closing lanes, but for vetoing legislation in 2016 that would have established a tax incentive program to encourage film companies to do business in New Jersey.
Sen. Weinberg is a founding member of the Fort Lee Film Commission. She has been a long time advocate for an aggressive tax credit for film and TV production in New Jersey. Fort Lee was the beneficiary of much production until the tax credit was extinguished. “Law & Order SVU” was one of many programs that shot on the streets of Fort Lee thanks to the efforts of the Fort Lee Film Commission, but relocated to Manhattan after the tax incentives were ended.
A who’s who in New Jersey film
Hosted by Golden Door Film Festival and moderated by Giles, the panel included a who’s who of New Jersey film people, such Gary E. Donatelli, an Emmy Award-winning television director and producer; Craig DiBona, known for his work on “Blue Bloods,” “Die Hard with a Vengeance” and “The Godfather: Part III;” Diane Heery of Loftus Casting, a Primetime Emmy nominee for casting; Michael Kriaris, a location manager known for his work on films like “A Beautiful Mind,” “American Gangster,” “The Big Short,” and “Men in Black 3;” Adam Himber of Parlay Studios, an award-winning writer, producer and production executive for national and international clients in film, television and photography.
Others included Carol Cuddy, a producer and production manager for television shows like “Elementary” and “True Detective,” “Rachel Getting Married” and “The Departed,” and Doug Pelligrino, a director of photography and cinematographer, best known for “Bluebloods,” “Law & Order SVU,” “Orange is the New Black,” “Analyze This” and “Glory.”
The audience also included representatives from film companies in Secaucus and Jersey City.
Getting around Christie
In 2016, Weinberg sponsored production tax incentive legislation that passed the state legislature by a sizeable majority but was vetoed by Christie.
Giles said most people understand the huge benefits associated with having film production take place in New Jersey, especially the economic spill over to local businesses. She said there are opportunities for diversity such as location, people and character stories.
“It just makes good sense,” Giles said. “We get it, but obviously our governor does not.”
Christie in his veto said, “The state legislature chose to advance an expensive bill that offers a dubious return for the state in the form of jobs and economic impact.”
Weinberg said, “For some reason, the state treasurer seem to hype this up with some resentment and turned it into what they called ‘The Brat Pitt Tax Relief Program. We are getting ready to kind of tweak the bill but we’re not going to pass it because we’re in a lame duck session. So this legislation will go out with the legislature on Jan. 20.”
She said she’s had long talks with Phil Murphy, the Democratic candidate for governor.
“And he is very well educated on this subject, and he will have a new bill on his desk when he comes into office in January,” Weinberg said. “We added some things such as an extra incentive for Atlantic City with the hope of getting some of the southern legislators on board. We are encouraging public private partnerships with universities to allow students to be involved.”
Sokolich said the Fort Lee Film Commission will soon have a home in Fort Lee in anticipation that a new governor will be more sympathetic to the tax incentives for film.
“The original idea was $4 million or $5 million, we’re up to $15 million, but we’re going to do it anyway,” he said, criticizing the governor for the veto. “This is a selfish move. There is not much impact off the bottom line. Look at what this did for Brooklyn and a lot of other places. If Fort Lee was to have a regular traffic of these productions which we did for a time, our restaurants were full, our businesses were full with 95 percent of the soft costs for films spent locally.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com.