New York is the New Hollywood, Thanks to Bloomberg’s $70 Billion Woman

Media and Entertainment Commissioner Katherine Oliver brings Tinseltown glamor--and money--back to the city.

Mayor Bloomberg, Robert DeNiro and Ms. Oliver. (Getty Images)

Mayor Bloomberg, Robert DeNiro and Ms. Oliver. (Getty Images)

Not everyone has such a positive view of MOME, however. In fact, the only thing many New Yorkers think about when it comes to the city’s lofty new identity as a Hollywood backlot is filming permits—and the parking headaches those now-digitized permits have created. In the first seven months of 2011, a record-breaking 711 complaints regarding film productions were called in to the mayor’s 311 service line, and that was before Will Smith showed up in Soho in his double-decker “moveable mansion” for the filming of Men in Black III.

In April, MOME came under extreme fire from religious groups after it issued permits for production vehicles around the Marcy Avenue Armory—situated in the Hasidic district of Williamsburg—for days that coincided with Passover. With Columbia Pictures planning to shut off the streets in a four-block radius and observant Jews unable to move their cars during the holiday, it wasn’t long before the situation reached critical mass. Local rabbis held press conferences over the “culturally insensitive” production. As Councilman Stephen Levin said in a statement: “Filming of the The Amazing Spider-Man 2 would be a plague on the streets of South Williamsburg during the sacred holiday, creating a parking struggle of Biblical proportions.”

MOME was able to create a compromise between Columbia Pictures and the residents of the area, in which Spider-Man only shot interiors during the holiday, decreasing the number of permits needed.

It was nothing short of a miracle, and a testament to the strong-mindedness of MOME under Ms. Oliver, bolstered by the support of Mr. Bloomberg. As Mr. Levin wrote in a cheeky email directed to the web-slinging superhero himself, “Thank you for letting my people park.”

No matter how you slice the film reel, one thing is evident: the entertainment business is booming in NYC. A 2013 production schedule shows a 37 percent increase in programs being shot in the city; in comparison, Los Angeles is down 20 percent from last year. In an inversion of past eras, New York has become so film-friendly that productions are now using parts of Brooklyn and Queens as substitutes for other locations—like when Martin Scorsese produced a 300-foot, $5 million fake set piece of Prohibition-era Atlantic City for Boardwalk Empire in Greenpoint.

But MOME’s purpose isn’t just to help the Hollywood private sector run through the city streets like an errant Spider-Man. Just ask Deputy Commissioner John Battista, who negotiates the interests of the office’s clients and its citizens.

“While it was great that we were able to increase production, the real challenge was how to manage it,” said Mr. Battista, who cited as an example the city’s enforcement of a regulation stating that crews cannot park on sets. “That didn’t make us very popular with the unions. But there’s only so much real estate here, and it was a very popular decision within the communities.”

Mr. Battista, with his New Yahk accent and take-no-bullshit demeanor, plays a nice contrast to Ms. Oliver’s flashiness. This could not have gone unnoticed when Ms. Oliver tapped the retiring commanding officer of the NYPD’s Movie and TV Unit to become the negotiating face of MOME.

Television shows are learning to play nice with neighbors, as Lena Dunham did last summer when a noisy house party in Williamsburg began catcalling during her shoot. Instead of a standoff, HBO opened a tab at a local bar and relocated the party. On the other hand, “it’s your Dark Knights and your Spider-Mans,” according to Mr. Battista, that cause blockbuster-sized inconveniences.

Of course no one wants the daily hassle of crossing the street at the insistence of a 20-year-old with a headset, but MOME wants to reiterate how much good film production—and that corresponding $70 billion—has done for the city. The office has opportunity-aimed initiatives, which seek to place unemployed and low-income residents with jobs in the local film and television industry. And the city also keeps a running list of small businesses that are production-friendly, be it Magnolia Bakery, Cafe Grumpy or a lumberyard offering discounts.

In perhaps its biggest effort to combat the image of a Hollywood invasion, MOME has come out with a new slew of Made in New York public service announcements featuring residents with relatable jobs like prop designer, special effects coordinator and dressmaker (no actors or directors need apply) saying how they love “New York, and love filming in New York.” These ads reinforce the MOME message: Hollywood hasn’t overtaken the Big Apple; the Big Apple has taken over in Hollywood.

It is a PR battle that MOME knows it has to win, especially since no one knows what will happen to production in New York under a less boosterish administration.

With barely 150 days left in the mayor’s final term, Ms. Oliver refused to speculate on possible successors to her position. “I’m just focused on getting the job done and making a smooth transition,” she told us. However, the changing of the guard has some worried about the next mayor’s commitment to New York’s now-sizeable film industry.

As Bob and Harvey Weinstein said in a joint statement to The Observer: “Whomever wins the mayoral race in November won’t have an easy time matching the Bloomberg success record.”

Out of all the candidates we reached out to for comment on MOME, only Public Advocate Bill de Blasio responded, saying, “If there was one commissioner I’d like to keep if I was elected mayor, it’d be Commissioner Oliver.”

Assuming this is the end of her tenure, Ms. Oliver’s presence will be missed, if not by the city’s denizens, then by her real constituents. “I absolutely love Katherine,” said Ms. Nevins. “It’s an incredible combination, that she’s able to represent a mayor and a city in a corporate way, and at the same [time] to fight for films.”