What began a few years ago as a trickle of small independent films shot in and around Kingston has of late turned into a veritable flood, including big-budget productions with real movie stars, thanks to a new tax break and efforts by local officials to woo and accommodate the industry.
So far this year, Ulster County has played host to six major motion picture productions featuring top Hollywood talent like Whoopi Goldberg, “Game of Thrones” star Maisie Williams and Stone Ridge resident Melissa Leo. Last year, Kingston was the backdrop for two films, a TV show and a commercial. Just four months into 2017, four movies have shot on city streets.
“All of those films were back to back,” said Mayor Steve Noble. “It’s just a steady flow.”
What spurred Hollywood’s sudden interest in Ulster County, according to County Executive Mike Hein, was Hein’s successful effort to lobby state lawmakers to extend a 40 percent film production tax credit, available in almost all upstate counties, to Ulster. Our exclusion, Hein said, made filming in Ulster County a less attractive proposition despite its varied scenery, proximity to New York City and local film industry talent pool.
“The problem was very simple,” said Hein. “We did not have a strong economic case to make for why you should shoot here.”
That changed last year when Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther and state Sen. George Amedore succeeded in carrying the tax credit through their respective chambers; Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed it into law in November.
Since then, film shoots have become a near-weekly event in Kingston and surrounding areas. According to Hein, one of the productions, the “teen weepie” Departures, staring Williams and Hugo star Asa Butterfield, was already slated to be shot in South Africa until the tax credit was approved, making Ulster County a more attractive option. Hein added that, with the tax credit in place, Ulster County stood to be even more competitive than other Hudson Valley communities like Poughkeepsie and Newburgh due to its status as the first county beyond New York City where film productions are not subject to the state’s MTA tax.
“We have gone from being not economically viable for anything except independent films, to having a competitive advantage over everyone,” said Hein.
Part of that advantage is Ulster County’s location just a few hours from the major media hub of New York City and dotted with vacation residences of actors, producers and directors. The Hudson Valley is familiar ground to many film industry decision-makers. The region is also home to an increasing number of rank-and-file film professionals like camera technicians, sound engineers and production assistants who have joined the northward migration of people priced out of New York City.
Jillian Fisher has worked for five years as a location scout in Ulster County working with productions like 2014’s The Sisterhood of Night that helped put Ulster County on the industry’s radar. Fisher said that filming close to New York City and in an area with a wealth of local talent helped producers stretch their production budget by saving on travel and lodging costs. Fisher added that the region had also benefited from a tight-knit industry where word of production-friendly locations moves quickly from set to set.
“The momentum builds with every production,” said Fisher. “Crews come to film, they break up and go on to different productions and Kingston has just gotten tremendous word of mouth.”
Ripples of money
Local officials are still trying to gauge the economic impact of the burgeoning film sector on Ulster County. County officials estimate that film production has accounted for $5 million in direct spending so far this year, compared to $8 million in all of 2016. The Hudson Valley Film Commission estimates that every $500,000 in tax credits pumps about $5 million into the local economy. In Kingston, Noble said he was collecting anecdotal evidence of film crews spending locally on everything from antique props to vegan donuts. With the new tax incentive, Hein said, film and television production is poised to emerge as a full-fledged sector of the county’s economy, like tourism or agriculture.
In Kingston, where film and TV (and increasingly new media) production has been identified as a core industry in economic development plans, Noble said he hopes the sector would produce local jobs, rather than just periodically inject of money into the city’s economy. Several efforts are underway to help locals get in on the film boom. The Hudson Valley Film Commission maintains a database of local industry workers to make it easier for productions to recruit crew locally. A proposed RUPCO project at a former furniture factory on Greenkill Avenue would convert the sprawling industrial space into a soundstage and production facility for actress and director Mary Stuart Masterson’s Stockade Works production company. Part of the proposed plan includes a training component to teach area residents media production skills.
“You have the direct spending that comes with a production, but the second piece is putting people to work who live in the Hudson Valley and who have traditionally had to go elsewhere to work,” said Noble. “We want to grow opportunities for people to work locally.”
Keeping it cool
The influx of film production has also required city officials and residents to get accustomed to the occasional disruption caused by filming. In Uptown Kingston, where Departures has been shooting for the past several weeks, filming has been accompanied by some low-level grumbling about everything from parking to pushy production assistants. To help smooth out the issues, Noble designated his confidential secretary Lynsey Timbrouck to serve as the city’s liaison to film crews. In pre-production meetings, Timbrouck goes over shooting schedules, looks for conflicts with previously scheduled events and advises location managers of city fees for things like blocking streets, taking up parking or on-set police presence. Timbrouck is also responsible for notifying area residents and businesses about shooting schedules and fielding complaints.
“Our goal is to make it as easy as possible for these films come into Kingston but also to find that balance with the needs of our residents and business owners,” said Timbrouck.
Location manager Dan Schofer first worked in Kingston on the 2011 independent comedy-drama Peace, Love and Misunderstanding. This year, he helped arrange shooting of the Whoopi Goldberg-Melissa Leo comedy Furlough, which recently wrapped up shooting in the area. Schofer, whose job includes pitching locations to producers and securing agreements with public officials and private-property owners, said that Kingston’s embrace of the film industry was an important selling point.
“Everyone in Kingston has been very helpful and friendly from the Uptown business owners to the police, the mayor and his staff,” said Schofer. “Having a friendly atmosphere towards filming is a huge draw.”
As for the tax credit, Schofer said that it would definitely make Ulster County more competitive. But he said the extension, which only covers labor costs, still fell short of incentives available in New York City and other places across the U.S. Big-budget films and especially TV series, Schofer said, frequently shift locations while chasing the most generous tax incentives.
“[The new tax credit] helps quite a bit and makes Ulster County much more attractive,” said Schofer. “But if they’re looking for much bigger-budget movies or TV shows, it has to go further.”