Is Hollywood Sinking in Hudson? 12 Movie Companies Close Doors

When Lisa Fragner arrived in New York one year ago to take the reins as director of East Coast production for Fox Searchlight, the independent-film-minded office of 20th Century Fox studios, she quickly sensed that she was in for a bumpy ride. “By last September, there were a lot of William Morris agents [let go], and then HBO decided to move their people to L.A. and shut their New York creative offices,” Ms. Fragner said. “So as soon as I got here, there was a sense that things were starting to close. The cycle was turning back against New York and heading back to L.A.”

Ms. Fragner’s instincts were on the money. At the end of September, the New York creative division of Fox Searchlight was closed, without any official announcement by the studio. The decision amounted to the loss of only two jobs–one of them Ms. Fragner’s–but those in the city’s already-lean film industry say the closing is indicative of a downturn that could have more impact on New York’s role in filmmaking than on unemployment statistics.

The past few months have not been kind to New York-based production offices. In addition to Fox Searchlight, which is about to release Quills , the New York offices of Sonnenfeld-Josephson, a partnership between director Barry Sonnenfeld and former Columbia executive Barry Josephson which produced Wild Wild West, closed on July 31. Spanky Pictures, director Ted Demme’s and producer Joel Stillerman’s company, which co-produced Tumbleweeds and the upcoming Blow , closed its New York office the week of Aug. 14. Producer Arnold Kopelson ( Outbreak , Seven ) shuttered the New York division of Kopelson Entertainment on Sept. 29. HBO Films’ ( If These Walls Could Talk 2 ) New York office has been reduced to a staff of two, and Vancouver-based Lions Gate Films is expected to close its Manhattan operations in the wake of the Oct. 13 announcement that it has merged with Trimark Pictures. The industry is also abuzz with speculation that Paramount Pictures, the last major studio with a creative division in Gotham, is not long for the city, although a Paramount spokesman said this was “absolutely untrue.”

Though the job losses are relatively minuscule, the fact that they are happening make the city’s film-industry workers nervous, especially when they’re viewed in light of information that suggests the film production boom in the city has peaked. According to data found on the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theater & Broadcasting Web site, film and television production in the city was $2.52 billion in 1999, down slightly from $2.59 billion the previous year. A representative from that office declined to give any information about how those production expenditures were trending this year.

On the record, executives interviewed by The Transom sanguinely noted that the film business is cyclical, but one seasoned New York-based production executive observed that, while this may be true, the downturn has produced some local feelings of “panic.”

“There’s fear that there will be less jobs, less creative movies, because fewer people are around to be making fewer good movies,” the executive said, adding: “In a more general way, [New York production executives are] scared because they’re afraid they’ll be impotent, that New York won’t matter.”

Ms. Fragner seemed to be thinking along the same lines when she noted: “Not a lot of people would think that Searchlight would pull out from New York, but at the same time, we’ve all been aware that the shift has been happening all over New York–that tides are turning,” Ms. Fragner said. “That New York is not the hotbed for more commercial filmmaking.”

“Commercial” is the operative word here, for many of the production companies that are shuttering their New York operations are those that were funded by the major studios. Most of these offices functioned largely as tracking stations that kept tabs on hot properties in publishing and theater, which are both based in the city.

“A lot of the closings don’t necessarily have as much to do with New York as they do with the industry cutting back on development and on overhead deals,” producer Barbara De Fina, Martin Scorsese’s producing partner in Cappa Productions, told The Transom. “It has more to do with the industry spending less money and looking for ways to cut costs.”

Sonnenfeld-Josephson, for example, had a three-year deal with Disney. According to Bill Eville, who was vice president of development in the New York office, when the deal expired on July 31, Disney did not re-up, and Sonnenfeld-Josephson closed its entire operation. Mr. Kopelson’s company was bankrolled by Fox, but this past summer, one year before his contract expired with Rupert Murdoch’s studio, the producer forged a deal with a German backer, Intertainment. During the changeover, Mr. Kopelson closed the New York office, which had dwindled down to a staff of two.

“It’s sad when you see all these offices closing and you know there’s such great talent here,” said Mr. Eville, who was one of two people in New York who lost his job when Sonnenfeld-Josephson closed its doors. “It’s a close-knit community, the New York film community, and it’s sad and scary to see your friends out of work.”

Ira Deutchman, a partner in Redeemable Features, which is not funded by a major studio and has produced 54 and Kiss Me, Guido , concurred with Ms. De Fina. “Hollywood studios are cutting back on production in general,” Mr. Deutchman said. “They’re trying to make fewer films every year, and as prices go up, they want to keep their thumb on what’s going on.”

Pay-cable channel Home Box Office’s HBO NYC film division lost the last three letters of its name, as well as its New York headquarters, when it combined with L.A.-based HBO Pictures. HBO NYC’s president Colin Callender also headed west, where he became the head of the newly formed and more high-falutin’-sounding HBO Films. Mr. Callender brought then-vice president Keri Putnam with him to the West Coast and left behind a rather anemic staff of two in New York. Although Mr. Callender could not be reached for comment, HBO Films’ publicity department stressed that this was not a cutback, but rather a “merge.” Either way, it meant fewer film jobs for New Yorkers–and given Mr. Callender’s and Ms. Putnam’s relocation, fewer New Yorkers.

Many New York film industry insiders noted that the production offices that have closed have been small ones. “You’re talking about an office of two people, not an office of 10 people, 15 people. It’s not like when they say the Nasdaq is moving to New Jersey!” said Jane Rosenthal, partner and co-founder of Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Films.

Ms. Rosenthal, along with other film executives who were interviewed, saw the contraction as a function of the cyclical nature of the business. “Twenty years ago, when I first moved to L.A., the networks were scaling back and everybody was moving to Los Angeles. You had guys like [former Warner Brothers studio co-chief] Bob Daly, who had lived in New York his whole life, who ran CBS–he was now moving to L.A. Then Paramount closed. Everybody closed. Ten years later, when I moved back here, it was still no man’s land, but offices were slowly starting to open up again.”

And Ms. Rosenthal pointed out that she has never opened an L.A. office. “People say, ‘Why don’t you have an office in L.A.?’ It’s too much for me,” she said. “So if Sonnenfeld-Josephson doesn’t want to have two offices, or Spanky doesn’t want to have two offices, it’s understandable.”

The bigger concern, Ms. Rosenthal said, is studio cutbacks on overhead deals. “Tribeca, by the way, is in the same boat,” she said (Tribeca’s deal is with MGM), then added: “Nothing has affected me at this moment. But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t.”

Film production in New York, whether via studio satellites or established indie houses, “never gets easier,” said Eva Kolodner, the producer of Boys Don’t Cry and former director of development for Killer Films. “Your productions get bigger and your company is still struggling paycheck to paycheck and rent to rent, and it’s really, really hard.”

As a result, Ms. Kolodner is about to test what she termed a new model of film production that will not rely on studio money or even on the box-office success of the films it produces. Her new company, Madstone Films, will select three first-time feature directors and provide them with two years of generous salaries, retirement benefits, film financing and profit-sharing in the company. Ms. Kolodner explained that Madstone plans to fund these pictures with an exhibition and distribution division that will bring a range of the latest digital entertainment to movie screens. If it works, she said, it could render big studio money unnecessary.

Meanwhile, a group of refugees from some of those aforementioned defunct New York production offices are dusting off a business model from the studio-system days of Hollywood. Ms. Fragner, Mr. Eville and Laura Parker, a former development executive at Jonathan Demme’s recently restructured production company, Clinica Estetico, have formed Axial Entertainment with two other partners. Ms. Parker described Axial as a “production management company where we are hiring writers … putting them on salary and creating a hothouse environment where [they] will be in the same place with development execs creating great material based on the written word.”

And while the looming actors’ and writers’ guilds strikes certainly are making the studios think twice before they spend any money on the overhead for a New York office, Ruth Pomerance, executive vice president of development and production for USA Films, noted that “if there’s a writers’ strike, the only thing that any of us are going to be able to buy are books or plays.… So business will be booming again.”

Despite the New York film community’s current nervous state, most executives who spoke to The Transom were confident that the business would rebound. Mr. Deutchman said that all it takes for New York to come back into vogue is “one adaptation of a play or a book where [Hollywood execs] feel like they missed out on it.” Then, he added: “Movies are about life. In New York, you can’t avoid life.”

Half-Jews Find a Home Page

Wendy Marston isn’t Jewish so much as Jew-ish. Her mother’s a lapsed Episcopalian. Her father’s a lapsed Jew. She grew up agnostic in Paonia, Colo., “a town with 2,000 people and 24 churches.” Her family usually left the country on major Jewish and Christian holidays. She’s been to more churches than synagogues, but the more evangelical goyim easily made her out for a Jew: “You guys killed Christ,” they told her. Growing up with the blood of her town’s personal savior on her hands, Ms. Marston was surprised to find that her Jewish credentials didn’t pass muster when she got to school at Columbia: “People said, ‘Oh, you’re not a Jew,'” she recounted.

That’s why she started HalfJew.com, a cyber-homeland for that wandering Jew of Jews, the half-Jew.

“It started out as a joke,” she said. She’d been reading the flap about the sex cowboys at the Puerto Rican Day Parade last summer and “was like, ‘Damn, I wish the half-Jews had a party. That’d never happen.'” The media were psyched: “I found this random person on Google, and she wanted to do this story for Salon ,” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, if there’s a piece about us, I have to put up the site!'”

So far, it’s been less than a party. There are no investors, so Ms. Marston, a writer for the healthy-living Web site Miavita.com, has been maxing out her credit card. And hardly anyone’s using her message board–a few testimonials and one guy who thinks that being a half-Jew is a good way to pick up chicks. Ms. Marston has started crashing her own chat room, posting incendiary messages under assumed names. (“This is the stupidest message board subject I can imagine … organized religion isn’t important.”) Worst of all, she said, “My biggest concern is there were em-dashes on the damn site, but Mac Netscape couldn’t handle it, so we replaced them with commas. So if you think there were run-on sentences, no there weren’t. That’s my beef with the Internet. And we got a million e-mails about mistakes. God, if anyone tells me I screwed up another typo, I’m going to hit ‘em.”

But chin up, Ms. Marston! A new Web site means … a launch party! Ms. Marston’s brother, David, a day trader and HalfJew contributor, picked up the tab at (where else?) the Half King on October 16. In attendance were luminaries like Joanna Simon, former opera star and sister of Carly, and Daniel Klein, co-author of this fall’s The Half-Jewish Book . Mr. Klein, a full Jew who married a minister’s daughter, had a joke to tell: “The bad news is Jesus is half-Jewish. The good news is it was on his mother’s side.” He also has a theory that half-Jews are better looking than full Jews. “The hot models now are all biracial,” he pointed out.

Did Mr. Marston agree? “I’ve heard it said,” he replied. He’d dated some sultry half-Jews. “The sex was good,” he giggled. The Transom couldn’t resist asking Mr. Marston whether he was half-circumcised. “Unfortunately, I’m fully circumcised, and I really wish I weren’t. That’s the problem with Judaism: You can’t go halfway. But my kids will remain uncut.”

And speaking of men who love half-Jewish women, Mr. Marston introduced The Transom to Scott Lewis, the “most prominent” of Ms. Marston’s countless ex-boyfriends (four of whom were in attendance). “I showed Wendy Governors Island for the first time,” Mr. Lewis said. “We were out sailing and we were looking at Governors Island and talking about all the plans that people have for it, and Wendy suddenly got the idea that there was this grand destiny–to be the half-Jew homeland.” Teddy Herzl would be proud. On her site, Ms. Marston writes, “The half-Jews require a homeland, indeed, a home base, in order to grow this dynamic, evolving identity, and to have mixers on.”

– Ian Blecher