On a stormy June evening, Mayor Michael Bloomberg stood inside a tent on the edge of Gracie Mansion. Despite the thunder and lightning, the mayor was all smiles as he shared the stage with such luminaries as Barbara Walters, Spike Lee and the Weinstein brothers. It was the eighth annual Made in NY Awards, presented by the Mayor’s Office of Media & Entertainment, or MOME (rhymes with “home”), and the event was ostensibly a time to celebrate those in the entertainment industry.
Apparently, that included Mayor Bloomberg.
“About four years ago, we had a little bump in the road, and I called our mayor,” Harvey Weinstein said, stepping up to the mic. “I said, ‘Things are a little topsy-turvy right now. People need jobs in California, but we don’t want to leave New York City.’ And the mayor, extremely busy as he was … got it done for us.”
As if a government official pulling strings for a high-powered movie executive somehow constituted a win for the little guy, Mr. Weinstein continued his anecdote, thundering: “The mayor’s there in a big way, and the mayor’s there in a visual way!”
Mr. Bloomberg gave his best aw-shucks grin. Standing right next to him was Katherine Oliver, the commissioner of MOME. Wearing a see-through black mesh dress with a neon pink slip, she beamed with even brighter wattage—and rightly so. During her tenure as commissioner, NYC has ascended to unprecedented heights as an entertainment-industry destination, resulting in the funneling of $70 billion in direct funds to the city.
Mr. Bloomberg is a media-savvy mayor with vested interests that go beyond the occasional cameo on an NYC-based show. But Ms. Oliver, who together with the mayor has been held up by Variety as one of the entertainment heroes of New York’s resurgence, must be given the credit for courting Hollywood, thanks to her close ties with the mayor’s office and her tunnel vision when it comes to all things film-related, for better or worse. (In 2005, Ms. Oliver infamously sent an email titled “Urgent Plea,” asking for donations to help send herself and Pat Kaufman of the governor’s office to the Cannes Film Festival.)
“I never thought I’d want a job in the government,” Ms. Oliver told The Observer days after the Made in New York Awards, as we sat in the Office of Theater and Broadcasting, located almost directly above Letterman’s Late Show studio. (In order to enter, visitors must walk down a red carpet leading to the government offices.) These little flairs for the dramatic betray the commissioner’s personal style: no longer wearing the remarkable see-through dress, Ms. Oliver was resplendent in a sparkly black buccaneer and several large pieces of jewelry.
Ms. Oliver, who had the mayor’s ear long before he won elected office, first met Mr. Bloomberg back when the Bay Ridge native began working as an on-air personality for Bloomberg Television and Radio. She rose to the off-air position of general manager by 1996 and then moved to London in the beginning days of Sky digital television. When Mr. Bloomberg took over the city, Ms. Oliver offered to help her former boss “in any way possible,” and was presently appointed to an office that had been created by Mayor John Lindsay but by 2002 had been all but banished to the ninth circle of civil-service hell.
“When I got here, people were literally working by electric typewriters,” Ms. Oliver said. “They were processing permits by hand, and in a staff of 35, only about three people were on permits. The wait time was anywhere from three hours to three days.” One of her first directives was to digitize the process for permit applications, which can now be submitted, reviewed and accepted entirely online.
“There was basically this conceived hassle-factor about the city—that we weren’t friendly to the film industry,” Ms. Oliver said of her early meetings with studio execs. Which is an understatement: the city was so unwelcoming to the entertainment industry that, at the time she took over the office, the biography of Rudy Giuliani was being shot up in Toronto. Programs like Friends and Seinfeld were considered “New York” shows despite the fact that their only relationship to the city was a couple of recycled exterior shots. In the 2001-2002 season, only nine television shows actually filmed 75 percent or more of their footage—the amount needed to qualify for a Made in New York logo—in NYC. Now there are 25.
One show in particular, Taxicab Confessions, which was evicted from the city by Mayor Giuliani, would become the apotheosis of the current administration’s attitude toward filming in New York, according to Sheila Nevins, president of HBO Documentary Films. “The day Katherine got into office, I sent her the Emmy we had won,” she recalled. While Ms. Oliver didn’t accept the Emmy, she encouraged Ms. Nevins to come back. Within a month, Ms. Nevins was meeting with the new taxi commissioner, and within eight, the show was in NYC again. Since then, there has been a veritable boom of HBO documentaries being shot in the city, and as Ms. Nevins put it, that has everything to do “with the current administration, and with Katherine in particular.”
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.”