By Annunziata Gianzero
Although the birth of the American film industry was marked by the unveiling of Thomas Edison’s kinetoscopes at 1155 Broadway in NYC in the late 1800s, film production shifted to Hollywood shortly thereafter, when the Los Angeles studios usurped most of the location filming.
In 2016, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of NYC’s Film Commission, which is, in point of fact, the oldest film commission in the United States. In this new year, it felt appropriate to revisit “auld lang syne” since (I know you ponder this every year) the lyrics are not about forgetting “auld” friends, but rather intended to trigger remembrances of past friends.
One of NYC’s greatest film supporters was Mayor John Lindsay, who started the ball rolling back toward New York City, which now boasts a $9 billion industry. The industry is expanding at a breakneck pace, with 52 scripted shows currently in production in our beloved Apple. Notably, the West Village places fifth in location filming. (This ranking is based on 2015 permit data collected by the Mayor’s Office.)
It all began when the Mayor ran on a platform, which promised to bring filming back to us. He dubbed New York “Fun City” and aggressively sought to simplify the process of making films in NYC, thus giving the City a leading role in many productions of the late 60s and 70s.
When Mayor Lindsay took office, Hollywood was pretty much the only game in town—or, perhaps more aptly, the only town in the game, save a few exceptions (the Naked City series; Sidney Lumet’s Stage Struck, which he famously shot through a car windshield in order to capture Times Square; among scant others). Prior to 1966, obtaining permits was cumbersome and embittering. Daily permit renewal, ubiquitous fines, police payola, and union corruption made the costs of filming in NYC too high.
Six months after taking office, Lindsay issued Executive Order 10, which consolidated the permit documents. He then negotiated with the labor unions, removed City officials’ power to censor content shot on public grounds, and created a police film unit. (To this day, NYC remains the only major American city with a specialized TV/Film Unit.) Lindsay also wrote letters to industry executives, personally encouraging them to film in NYC. All this to catalyze “taxable activity” in NYC? Well, in truth, he also loved films.
Lindsay’s accomplishments were amplified by the 1966 repeal of the Hays Code, an archaic set of production standards from 1930, which effectively sanitized crime, violence, sex, drugs, and anything thought to violate “correct standards of life.” Topics included “Crimes Against The Law, Sex, Vulgarity, Obscenity, Profanity, Dances (‘excessive body movements while the feet are stationary’), Locations (‘bedrooms’), and Repellent Subjects.” Uh…yeah. (The full text of The Hays Code can be found at: artsreformation.com/a001/hays-code.html.)
This opened the door to classics like Midnight Cowboy (1969), The French Connection (1971), and Taxi Driver (1976). The repeal, coupled with Lindsay’s efforts toward making NYC filming feasible, effectively nailed the coffins of waning Hollywood pageantry films like Cleopatra and ushered in stories that dealt with issues critical to New Yorkers. A smile creeps across my face as I am reminded that Frank Serpico lived in my building on Perry Street.
It’s safe to say that NYC has solidly gotten its groove back as, each year, the Film Commission increases its number of location-shot shows. We’ve come a long way since Lindsay and the Hays Code. It is time to look back to auld lang syne (“times gone by”) and tip our hats in thanks to a man who clearly loved film at least as much as we do.
Looking to the future, we have a new film friend in Mayor de Blasio’s recently appointed Film Commissioner Julie Menin. She has enough initiatives on deck and in process to make your head spin. In Part Two of this article, we will look at Ms. Menin’s new initiatives, and curate and direct you to the ones which may help create more New York stories.