New York City Productions Navigate Roadblocks to Stage a Strong Comeback

As an increasingly vaccinated New York lifts virtually all of its COVID-19 restrictions, there’s a turf war brewing between New York City productions and
restaurants, with the Mayor’s Of­fice of Media and Entertainment caught in the crossfire. Just ask Awkwafina.

“The most challenging — but thrilling — part of filming in New York, both pre- and post-pandemic, is that you really have no idea what will happen at any given time, or who will be very pissed off that you’re shooting on their block,” jokes the star and exec producer of Comedy Central/HBO Max’s “Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens,” now filming its second season.

Without a doubt, NYC production has been on a rollercoaster ride. It was at an all-time high just before the pandemic, generating more than $60 billion in direct economic activity and $3 billion in tax revenue for the city. Yet the number of productions shooting on the ground in May 2019 — 306 — dropped to zero a year later, making last month’s count of 179 projects a promising turnaround.

Every film and TV professional Variety interviewed wants local businesses to have a similar rebound. “There is a somber acceptance of reality, and realizing how different it was before,” Awkwafina notes.

But as many COVID-19 regulations were recently lifted, allowing for larger location crews, there’s been contention around some rules, as well as NYC’s Open Restaurants and Open Streets programs.

In the former, more than 11,000 eateries have built some 6,000 outdoor eating sheds, many of them immovable and placed in traffic lanes where trailers and cameras could once sit in sought-after neighborhoods. And in the latter, access to more than 350 streets has been entirely blocked.

Fortunately, soundstages including Steiner Studios and Silvercup Studios are providing much-needed alternatives, and productions are finding creative solutions that can benefit local businesses.

For now, though, there are headaches. Sharon Lomofsky, production designer on the Focus Features drama “A Thousand and One,” is having difficulties re-creating the ’90s-era Lower East Side before her film’s July 12 start.

“We’re unable to clear both sides of the street, so we can’t put period cars on them,” she says. “Then the next street over is great, but it’s full of outdoor restaurants. They’re just in the way everywhere — which I like for real life, but not for filming.”

She may camouflage some with graffiti-sprayed trucks or construction boards.

“What’s most challenging for stunt shows is that we’re only allowed to hold one side of the street,” echoes “Law & Order: Organized Crime” location manager Dennis Voskov. “If I’m doing a car crash into another car, having a bunch of real cars in the street is a problem,” he laughs.

But the show has “embraced outdoor dining,” replacing one indoor restaurant scene with it.

Production manager Dhana Gilbert, who wraps Season 4 of Amazon Prime Video’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” in July, says she “hopes the Mayor’s Office adjusts some of their rules. Open Streets closes streets [to us] seven days a week, but if restaurants are only seating outside on a Saturday or Sunday, we should figure out a way to work on them Monday through Friday. And we should get back to being able to park on two sides of the street right now. It will keep our footprint smaller and have [less] of an impact on a neighborhood.”

But even with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s June 15 lifting of most COVID-19 regulations, NYC Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment commissioner Anne del Castillo — who’s managing the city’s production comeback and issuing weekly updates online — is keeping this balancing act steady for the time being. “I don’t think our directive for production is going to change very much while the city settles into this new world order of open spaces,” she says. “Some people have asked about [using both sides of streets], but productions have largely been able to work around that. It’s something that we’re watching. We’re keeping it in place now because there’s a lot of street activity, and we want to give both productions and communities a level of predictability, and strike a balance so both industries can thrive [along with Open Culture live performances]. I don’t think it’s helpful to keep changing directives until we have a sense of how these programs are all playing together.”

Some things are getting better for productions. Gilbert has seen big improvements since the 50% occupancy and oversized vehicle limit rules, which forced “Maisel” to shift to bigger soundstages, recently expired.

“At small comedy clubs with a capacity of 100 people, we couldn’t even get our crew inside, let alone any actors,” she recalls. “Now that people can operate at 100% of occupancy, we can use locations as locations, and we’re allowed to stage equipment on the sidewalk again.”

She’s found neighborhoods that are adaptable. “In Chinatown, they were amazing — they put eating sheds on wheels! We could roll them away and transform it into 1959.”

Her show also made a deal with the mid-20th century West Village diner La Bonbonniere to move and replace its wood cabana.

“If we had a particular difficult location,” Gilbert adds, “we would build it” at Steiner Studios, where owner Doug Steiner has 780,000 square-feet on 50 acres in the Brooklyn Navy Yards, she adds. He has a nearly two-acre outdoor lot enclosed by shipping containers where he’s planning a studio backlot with “quintessential NYC buildings and false-front neighborhoods.”

And a nearby area called the Annex, boasting a WWI military hospital and other historic buildings, will be fully restored for production offices, post-production, and various support spaces. The buildings have been used as a backlot, and this will resume when their restoration is finished this fall. “At full build-out, [the studios] will be 1.6 million square-feet,” Steiner says, with a new Sunset Park facility he hopes to finish in three to four years.

Shows looking for an outdoor backlot can now find it at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, which recently opened two new soundstages. And Robert De Niro’s in-the-works Wildflower Studios is expected to be built in Queens by 2023.

While one might assume that some shows fled New York City for less-congested areas, Queens-based Silvercup Studios co-owner Alan Suna says, “only one [of ours] considered leaving New York for a more exurban location last year. But when they evaluated everything — facilities, crew, where
the talent lives — they decided to stay put.”

Another factor that’s led productions to keep seeking nearby locations — versus, say, less-congested spots in Staten Island or the Bronx — is their proximity to soundstages and the need to minimize costly travel time, del Castillo notes.

Shows have long fought angry residents whose complaints have sometimes turned certain areas into “hot spots” blocked from filming. But Suna, who rents equipment for location shoots, sees this improving.

“My guess, at least for the near future, is that people are going to be far more tolerant when they see production happening,” he says. “During this pandemic, people were watching a lot more television, so there’s a greater appreciation for the jobs these shows have created.”

And, just maybe, a greater tolerance for the circus-like environment that shoots can bring. “One thing all New Yorkers have in common,” Awkwafina points out, “is a total disillusionment to the craziest things.”

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