Life After ’30 Rock’: Can NYC’s Comedy Production Ever Compete with LA?
Tonight, 30 Rock‘s seven-season, 138-episode run comes to an end. Looking back, it’s hard to quantify the show’s influence. Debuting in 2006, it helped cement the rebirth of NBC’s Thursday-night lineup into one of the most consistent homes for quality comedy on network TV. Following closely in the footsteps of The Office, it further pushed the sitcom into more adventurous single-camera, no-laugh-track territory. All while being the most visible comedy production based in New York City.
In film and television production, New York has always been the true second city, sitting in a long shadow cast by Los Angeles. LA is the industry — there is no doubting that. But where NYC has consistently matched or even bettered LA in influence is in comedy: home to the late-night institutions of SNL, Letterman, Fallon, The Daily Show and Colbert, and fueled by one of the country’s most active improv and standup scenes, New York has always been a destination for those hoping to push comedy forward.
Like everything else in this city of constant change, it seems inevitable that 30 Rock will be succeeded by another marquee comedy produced in New York. No one in this city ever sits well in the underdog role, and today, many powerful people, from Mayor Bloomberg on down, have a strongly vested interest in making New York City an increasingly attractive places to make a film or television show. So what will it take to lure the next great network comedy away from LA to NYC?
Comedy or otherwise, choosing to base a film or television production in New York is fraught with unique pros and cons. In 2012, 166 feature films longer than 90 minutes and a record-high 25 television series were produced here (26 if you count the Netflix Originals project Orange is the New Black). Like every cultural hub, New York is keen on keeping this number ever-growing, as a source of jobs and economic growth, a further reinforcement of cultural-capital status, as well as a source of free tourism advertising. And one of the most important incentives a city can offer to lure would-be productions is, of course, money — in the form of tax breaks.
State tax credits for entertainment production became popular in the early 2000s, mostly in response to Canada’s late-90s success in luring TV and film business to “Hollywood North” with a then-novel tax credit. In 2004, New York followed suit, offering a 10% production tax credit, which in 2008 was raised to 30%, where it remains. In her Emmy acceptance speech that year, Tina Fey thanked NYC’s tax credits for allowing 30 Rock to even exist at all.
Since then, 30% has become an almost de facto standard for any state hoping to attract the entertainment industry. In Louisiana, production companies can even sell portions of their 30% credit to local business, in an effort to further stoke the local economy. According to a study of government tax incentives conducted by the New York Times in December, New York’s film and television tax program is the nation’s largest by far, handing out credits worth $359 million in 2012. Los Angeles, despite being an obviously well-established production center with plenty of non-monetary incentives to shoot there, still offers a 20%-25% tax break and distributed $191 million to productions in 2012 (the second-highest total). But even with LA’s nearly year-round sunshine and the most production infrastructure of any city in the world, to an independent film maker or a small production house taking a chance on a pilot, an extra 5%-10% in credits can make a difference in the choice between LA or New York.
While the tax credit is managed by New York State, productions in New York City work closely with the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting for help in navigating the perils and perks of shooting in the five boroughs. The office handles work permits, parking passes, and even provides a dedicated NYPD unit (the “Film Police”) to control traffic and pedestrians for shoots on location throughout the city. A recent program even adds free subway and bus advertising to the incentive package, if your production is large enough to qualify.
Yet with all the attractive incentives, shooting in New York is by no means easy. Suk Yi Mar, who has worked as a locations scout and manager in New York for nearly 15 years, handled all of 30 Rock’s location work. In that timespan, Mar has seen the city’s neighborhoods change considerably. In the 1990s, exterior shoots could go mostly undisturbed in an area like Williamsburg, Brooklyn — then defined by open, empty streets and warehouses for miles, with a convenient proximity to Manhattan and public transport. But as the city’s real estate market boomed, pushing low rents and undeveloped spaces further afield into the outer boroughs, so too has filming on location changed.
The Mayor’s Office provides help to location scouts looking for a certain look, while at the same time maintaining a continuously updated “Hot List” of neighborhoods where shooting is currently not allowed, mostly due to neighborhood complaints of parking spaces taken up and sidewalks and streets blocked. Shooting certainly still happens in crowded Manhattan and the busiest parts of Brooklyn, but the city’s assistance has become increasingly key in locking down parking, routing traffic, and handling complaints from angry neighbors. And as security has become an ever-more pressing concern in the last decade, Mar has seen the city become more conservative with permits and parking.
But location work represents less than half of a typical sitcom’s week-long shoot. The rest requires studio space, and in New York, a scarcity of open square footage extends into the relatively few dedicated film and television production spaces within the five boroughs. Which is a problem.
30 Rock was filmed predominantly at Long Island City’s Silvercup studios, one of the primary TV and film production spaces in the city. “I will say that we shot here at Silvercup probably more than you would think would be normal for a show set in New York,” says Clint Koltveit, an associate producer on 30 Rock since the second season. “And that is strictly because we’re dealing with so many people’s schedules. If it was an interior location, we’d almost always build it here in Queens at Silvercup. It’s pretty wild, when I think about. We built nearly everything.”
Even with the Mayor’s Office’s help, busy streets and parking can only be blocked off for so long. And even in the most ideal conditions, nothing can compare to the control and lack of surprises found on an ample studio lot, purpose-built for the task at hand.
Aside from Silvercup, which operates 19 soundstages spread across two Queens complexes, the only other option that comes close to the full-service lots abundant in Los Angeles is Steiner Studios, a multi-use production complex on the Brooklyn waterfront. Since its construction by real-estate mogul Doug Steiner in 2004, the site has undergone a number of expansions while attracting the likes of Girls, Boardwalk Empire, Bored to Death, and countless film and commercial shoots.
Late last year, plans surfaced for a major expansion that would more than double the complex’s square footage dedicated to film and TV production, with plans to add specialized infrastructure like an underwater soundstage, and the East Coast’s only backlot built out with a simulated New York streetscape for controlled filming conditions.
“We think the LA studio lot, as a model, is the best thing for the industry,” Steiner told me, speaking of his ambitious expansion plans. “There’s a district for everything in New York, but there hasn’t been a ‘content creation district’ of production. So, that’s what we’re trying to build.”
Even in New York’s larger second-tier studio spaces, like those shared with the recreational facilities at Chelsea Piers (home to Law & Order) and spaces in neighborhoods like Greenpoint, Brooklyn, shooting may happen blocks or even miles away from the rest of the production’s offices. On LA’s massive studio lots, as you may have guessed, this is rarely a problem.
If Steiner hopes to bring the true LA studio lot experience to NYC, he has his work cut out for him. Eric Appel, an LA comedy TV vet with directing credits on The Office, New Girl, Happy Endings and many others, can attest. He recalls filming a recent episode of Go On using Desperate Housewives’ Wisteria Lane, one of LA’s most expansive sets and a highlight of Universal’s studio lot tour
“You’re literally on this cul de sac that they’ve built, with 15 houses, and you’re in a completely controlled environment,” Appel says. “You can do whatever you want, and no one’s bothering you. The freedom to do that, shooting on these huge studio lots, is really big.”
Plus, “you’re literally a stone’s throw away from the offices of all of the creatives that work on the show,” Appel says. “So if something’s not working, it’s so easy to say, ‘uh, go grab a couple of writers and bring them down here’ and they just have to walk 100 yards.”
Koltveit, the 30 Rock producer, has marveled from afar at his LA colleagues’ luxurious digs. “That’s something that anybody who comes [to New York] has to realize, that space is such a premium,” he says. “You have to have everything very carefully planned out.”
In the case of 30 Rock, all but the most frequently used interior sets would have to be continuously boxed up and rebuilt as needed inside Silvercup. And regularly used sets like Liz’s apartment and Jack Donaghy’s office had to share a back-to-back wall on a single soundstage.
Counterexample: When Sam Reich, head of video for CollegeHumor (which is based in New York but keeps a small production staff in LA), needed to find a set for the Star Wars send-up Troopers, he wasn’t sure where to turn. “We were like, ‘How are we going to shoot this? Are we going to build a spaceship?'” Reich remembers. “Then one of my LA contacts was like, ‘There’s a studio here that has a huge fully-built spaceship that they never use. They built it for some pilot back in the ’80s, and they just keep it there for whoever wants it.’ We hit the jackpot.”
Needless to say, there aren’t too many fully assembled spaceship sets just sitting in a warehouse in Brooklyn, waiting for a production — any production — to come along.
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With the current incentives in place, and its status as the center of media, advertising and finance, New York will certainly remain the production center of the East Coast for the foreseeable future. But for the next 30 Rock to happen in NYC, the city has to be attractive not only for producers and crews, who aren’t genre-specific, but for the writers, directors, comedians, and actors that drive the comedy world in particular. And for them, the decision to set up shop in New York or LA can be significantly more complex.
Judging by the numbers alone, it seems almost reckless to try to “make it” as someone paid to be funny in New York. Expenses are high, jobs are relatively few, and in a post-30 Rock city, if you don’t want to focus on jokes and bit-writing intended for late-night, there’s simply not a lot of paid, high-level work to go around. Because no matter how successful the New York production scene becomes, LA will always be where the jobs are.
So why even bother with New York, as someone on the creative side of comedy? Why risk financial and career suicide by intentionally placing yourself 3,000 miles away from the place where 90% of the the paying jobs are? For Reich, who has watched his CollegeHumor writers turn web success in New York into careers at SNL, Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, and several major film production shops both in New York and LA, New York still can’t be beat as a comedy proving-ground.
“New York is a smaller but more familial community than LA,” Reich says. “We’re all piled on top of each other, and that piled-on-top-ness lends itself to some great collaborating.
“LA, being more spread out and also the place where more entertainment professionals are, is a little less collaborative, a little more shunning of outsiders. Here, you’re more likely to form a comedy group, find gigs as said comedy group, and hone yourself as a performer and writer.”
And it’s this sense of hustle that’s inevitably bred into a New York comedy upstart that Reich sees as singular.
“I think the truth is, it’s easier to drift by only quasi-successfully in LA. Rent is cheaper, and gigs are more plentiful, so you can get by OK without making it big. In New York, that’s not an option, so you push yourself to be extraordinary,” Reich says.
But for those on the rise in NYC, there inevitably comes a moment to move west.
“There’s a right time to move,” Reich continues. “I’ve had directors and producers here [in New York for CollegeHumor] who are good, who have moved out there, and have become really great. The professional standard is really high, and it pushes them to become better. So, having been nurtured in New York, they go out there and blossom.”
Briggs Hatton, who’s worked as a writers-room PA for Community and a former New York City resident, agrees.
“I think most young comedy writers are just ready to move to LA when the time comes,” Hatton says. “If you prove you can write comedy in LA, there are tons of things you can do with it,” Hatton says. “You’re always going to be in demand in LA.”
Appel, who came up through UCB in New York and worked as a writer there on the Andy Milonakis Show before heading west, says that “New York is such a great place to figure it all out, to get your chops and find your voice comedically. And then, when you’ve done all that and you’re ready to work, I think LA is definitely a good option,” he says, deadpan.
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With a relatively small slice of the production world here in New York, it’s easy for one big show to change the landscape. Such was the case with 30 Rock, and now in its absence, there is a sense among those I spoke to of a TV comedy vacuum in New York, waiting to be filled. Girls is certainly poised as a strong contender for the next great NYC show. Just last week, HBO officially confirmed a third season, and in fact, much of 30 Rock‘s production staff had already been hired as of early January to produce the next batch of Girls episodes, including Suk Yi Mar and her locations team. Others in the 30 Rock crew are headed to work on Michael J. Fox’s as-yet-untitled single-camera NBC comedy, in which he stars as a TV news anchor living and working with Parkinson’s disease. It’s expected to take 30 Rock‘s place in the Thursday-night lineup this fall (a night for the network that has not matched critical acclaim with ratings success, it should be said). And Louie, adored but not as widely seen, proves that a more low-budget DIY cable production can still make a splash being produced entirely in NYC.
But few shows can or will probably ever channel the New York entertainment and comedy world as specifically and brilliantly as 30 Rock. “I’m sure there will be other [New York] pilots that will come along,” Kortveit, the 30 Rock associate producer, says. “But will anything be as fourth-wall meta-insane? I highly doubt it, at the moment. [30 Rock] opened up that fourth wall not only to New York, but also to this crazy business we’re in. Which is why it’s sad it’s over.”