Bill de Blasio Narrows Search for New Film and Television Commissioner

Michelle Byrd. (Photo: nyc.gov)

Michelle Byrd. (Photo: nyc.gov)

As California ramps up its efforts to recapture “runaway” film and television production leaving the state, industry insiders here are counting down the days until Mayor Bill de Blasio announces his pick to lead the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre & Broadcasting.

Mr. de Blasio’s short list is now down to a handful of contenders, according to sources close to the transition process. They include independent film advocate Michelle Byrd, former Community Board 1 Chair Julie Menin, Pat Kaufman, who lead the state’s Office for Motion Picture and Television Development, and Roberta Reardon, the former co-president of SAG-AFTRA. Also mentioned: Lisa Cortes, an independent film and music producer whose was the executive producer on the critically acclaimed Precious.

Ms. Byrd is thought by many to be the favorite. Described in one bio as a “veteran media executive,” Ms. Byrd–who could not be reached for comment–spent 12 years as the executive director of the Independent Filmmaker Project, the nation’s largest organization of independent filmmakers. She later served as co-president of Games for Change, which helps promote games that make positive social impacts.

Ms. Kaufman has long been considered a good choice for the role. As the executive director of the New York State Governor’s Office for Motion Picture and Television Development, Ms. Kaufman was a strong advocate for the state’s generous tax rebate program, which paid out nearly $500 million in credits to productions last year and is credited with luring big business, including the Netflix-Marvel deal announced today.

While Ms. Menin, who did not respond to messages, does not have the same industry knowledge as some of the other contenders, those backing the former Manhattan borough president candidate point to her experience leading lower Manhattan’s community board, navigating prickly community conflicts, like the Occupy Wall Street encampment and the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque,” which could prove useful in dealing with neighborhoods that feel over-burdened by constant production on their blocks.

Though the office, which oversees film permits and works to lure new productions, is not considered as pressing a slot to fill as some of the others that remain without commissioners, industry sources say that some are nonetheless growing antsy about the delay; an article this week about the cult Netflix show House of Cards threatening to leave Maryland was passed around by many in the industry, who wondered whether the city would be making a play to lure the show here if it had a commissioner, one insider said.

“[Former Commissioner] Katherine Oliver put together a strong enough office that the [staff] can sustain the momentum that’s needed and to keep productions flowing … but its something that would need to be addressed sooner rather than later,” said another insider, who noted that pilot season will be ramping up in the coming months.

But with billions of dollars at stake and thousands of jobs reliant on the choice, picking the right person is also considered paramount.

“I know the administration has been giving it lots of consideration and meeting with folks and trying to find the appropriate person,” said Suri Kasirer, a top lobbyist who represents several industry clients. “I think the office is operating smoothly for now. Everyone’s getting permits, there’s no hold up in anything. But we’re all enthusiastic about beginning a new relationship with whoever it is who’s going to be there.”

The office may be one of the place where Mr. de Blasio’s approach is likely to mirror his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg. Mr. de Blasio, whose office declined to comment on this story, has often referenced the industry in his speeches, and frequently compliments Mr. Bloomberg’s efforts to diversify the city’s economy by investing in industries like tech and film. Mr. de Blasio also received thousands in campaign contributions from producers, who have invested substantially in areas like Long Island City in Queens and the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Ken Sunshine, a member of Mr. de Blasio’s transition committee, refused to comment on any staffing considerations, but told Politicker he is 100 percent confident the new mayor will make a good choice in the end.

”The state of the industry is good and it will get better under Mayor de Blasio, as many things will,” he said, speaking from L.A., where he is in town for the Academy Awards.

Momentum also seems to be moving in New York’s favor, with The Tonight Show‘s recent move back to the city and today’s deal. But competition is comes from cities across the nation and the country, from Atlanta to Toronto to Australia.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, for instance, recently created his own office of television production as part of a larger effort to stanch the flow of production out of his city. His director of communications, Yusef Robb, also pointed to the California legislature’s push to expand the state’s $100 million Film and TV Tax Credit program as a signal that the state is taking the fight seriously.

“California is sending a signal that we’re not just were in it to compete, we’re in it to win it,” Mr. Robb told Politicker in an interview. “You have a serious commitment across the state of California to make us film friendlier, both in terms of cutting red tape and costs in terms of the bottom line.”

“At the end of the day, this is a state-to-state battle,” he added of the efforts. “Our goal isn’t to target a particular foe; our goal is to make us competitive so productions have a compelling reason to stay here, which is where they belong.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, however, was more confrontational at today’s press conference, making the case that the film industry is rightfully coming home after decades of Hollywood domination.

“They stole the industry from us. This is just the rightful return,” he said with a smile.

Correction (5:28 p.m.): Ms. Kaufman recently stepped down as the executive director of the New York State Governor’s Office for Motion Picture and Television Development. An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified her as the current head.