This piece was originally published on Medium.
In the dozen years I served as the Commissioner of the New York City’s Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, I learned many valuable lessons about technology and media’s role in government and about the interplay of government and the entertainment business. For the past 14 months, as part of Bloomberg Associates, I’ve had the privilege of taking some of the most important lessons I learned in New York City to City Halls around the world. This weekend I’ll take the stage at SXSW to share one of the greatest pages from my New York story and what it can teach us about the role of cities in supporting their creative communities the world over. It’s on this occasion that I am reflecting on the alchemy of 2002 when I joined Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration, and all that we did to galvanize that historic moment, transforming it into a movement over the following decade.
In the summer of 2002, when I began serving as New York Film Commissioner, there was precious little production work to oversee. Even films that were begging to be made here were being shot elsewhere. Rudy: the Rudy Giuliani Story was shooting in Montreal, and Martin Scorsese was putting the finishing touches on Gangs of New York, a film he shot at Cinecitta Studios outside of Rome. The entertainment industry wanted to know what Mayor Bloomberg and his new film commissioner were going to do about runaway production, particularly in the wake of 9/11, when there was real concern that many businesses — including the entertainment business — would leave the city.
But our business-savvy mayor had a plan: make the city safe, boost tourism, and diversify the economy by supporting creative businesses and entrepreneurship. It wasn’t enough to protect legacy industries like Wall Street; New York City needed to celebrate and foster its cultural legacies. These initiatives became guiding principles as the Bloomberg administration began to take shape.
The directive was clear: We needed to reposition the city’s services and bring a new approach to economic development.
We had to rebuild Gotham by bringing the business back.
The film and television industry not only had the potential to stimulate the economy by employing a significant number of people; it also offered marketing opportunities for New York City at a time when it desperately needed that kind of positive attention. And with the adaptive reuse of legendary assets — before the Steiners transformed Steiner Studios into the largest U.S. production studio complex outside of Hollywood, it was a dormant lot at the Brooklyn Navy Yard — it had the potential to be a cornerstone of the mayor’s five-borough economic plan.
The industry, which had a rich history in New York dating back a hundred years, was being lured away by tempting tax breaks, favorable exchange rates, and welcoming suitors in Canada, Europe, and New Zealand. There was a perceived hassle factor of shooting in New York City, and on top of the bureaucracy and red tape, the lack of purpose-built facilities crippled the growth of the film production industry. With these challenges in mind, we knew stimulating the media and entertainment industry was going to require a different kind of approach.
Incentivizing the Business
When I was appointed in 2002, I was new to government; the challenges were daunting, the stakes were high, and the resources were extremely limited. But I had the cachet of the City of New York, the mayor’s ear, experience as a senior executive in the media industry, my roots as a Brooklyn native, a keen desire to help my city, and, most importantly, a creative spirit!
There were some easy fixes. In 2002 the mayor’s film office was still using electric typewriters and processing permits by hand. We put the film permit application online, and the office began turning permits around in a matter of minutes rather than days. We put out the word that New York City was willing to pull out all the stops to attract production, and we embraced the original blueprint for the agency, which was to offer a one-stop shop for all the needs of a production. We re-issued a mayoral directive that required all city agencies to support film production as part of the administration’s economic development plan.
We also had some early wins thanks to Law & Order and Sex and the City — and, more importantly, the passion and loyalty of Dick Wolf and Sarah Jessica Parker to make their shows in New York City. But we needed more than these headlines to jump-start the industry and provide real economic impact.
At the time, competitive tax credits from Canada and other key territories were consistently luring productions away. We realized that to put the city in the game, our comprehensive strategy was going to need to include a tax incentive program of our own. So we charted our course. The long-term play was the passage of a competitive tax credit for qualified productions, and the short-term strategy centered around a new approach to customer service and marketing.
Thanks to the hard work and support of key stakeholders from the industry, the city, and the state, in 2005 we passed a historic tax credit in New York City, the first municipal tax credit for film and television production in history. It was a complement to the successful New York state tax credit program, also a first. The timing was right — the industry clearly wanted change, and the city, led by Mayor Bloomberg’s vision for a diversified economy, was keen to support vibrant industries that not only generated jobs but created tremendous buzz for a city that was in recovery.
Beyond the Tax Credit
The plan worked — boy, did it work. The productions came flooding in. To support and grow a sustainable local media and entertainment industry, though, we needed more than a tax credit. There would always be territories that offered competitive tax credits and currency fluctuations that worked against us. But if a production had a positive experience in New York City and could see all that the city was doing to support their business, we could guarantee repeat customers.
So we set about building strong relationships, partnerships, and programs with the industry. From the studios, to the crews, to the soundstage owners, to the leaders of unions and guilds, local schools, and the ancillary businesses that support production, there was a role for all key stakeholders to take in our long-term success. We needed to celebrate the hard work, creativity, and dedication of New Yorkers working in the media and entertainment industry and provide real pathways to those looking to break into the business. That’s where the marketing came in.
We needed to create a stronger sense of community and engage that community in our mission.
We needed to tap into that New York sense of pride.
This simple but powerful sentiment was the genesis of the “Made in NY” brand. The eponymous logo, designed by @radicalmedia, was a rallying cry, a unifying sentiment. It was embraced locally and then globally. The pride it inspired was palpable.
The Rise of Made in NY
Everything we did — passing the historical municipal tax credit program, creating bespoke workforce development programs, sharing “reel” New Yorkers’ stories with local residents (through an ad campaign featuring profiles of gaffers, set designers, and others in the industry) — we did under the “Made in NY” banner. It was our city to celebrate, and our story to share.
The logo was plastered around New York City, from signage on bus shelters and subways to taxi TVs and Jumbotron screens in Times Square. These tangible examples of the industry sprouting to life around the city were a part of our agency’s marketing campaign. We even offered free outdoor media to qualified productions, becoming the first city on the planet to have such an offering. The “Made in NY” logo appeared on t-shirts and hats and production trailers now lining city streets and in the end credits of hundreds of movies and TV shows created in our great city.
With this success, however, came a new set of challenges. The novelty of having a celebrity on your block wears off pretty quickly, particularly when it means no parking in your neighborhood and disruptions to your daily routine. For us customer service meant not only serving the needs of productions, but also addressing the concerns of our constituents. When communities balked at production in their backyards and on their front stoops, we were quick to intercede to resolve problems and remind residents that while a “Made in NY” production trailer on their block might mean temporary inconvenience, it represented jobs for their neighbors and lasting economic impact for their city and the local economy. This was an especially powerful statement in the wake of 9/11 and through the economic recession that followed a few years later.
This industry put New Yorkers to work, and with our “reel” jobs “Made in NY” ad campaign, we got to meet a few of these personalities. Costume designers from Boardwalk Empire took us to visit the tailor in Bushwick where they sourced suits for Nucky Thompson. Two generations of special effects artists showed us how they coordinated car explosions for nail-biting scenes in Persons of Interest.
The message was simple: I’m proud to be a New Yorker, and I am proud to work in this industry.
We created the “Made in NY” Production Assistant training program to support the development of the next generation of talented New York City crews. Placing the newly trained “Made in NY” production assistants on sets across the city helped ensure that the tenets of customer service, local pride, and a strong work ethic — intrinsic to the “Made in NY” brand — continued to define the industry. We were on to something. In partnership with a local non-profit, Brooklyn Workforce Innovations, the program trained over 800 young people, 96 percent of whom were people of color. Once out in the workforce, “Made in NY” Production Assistant graduates went on to take in earnings of over $8 million. We had a new generation of industry ambassadors that reflected the diversity and professionalism of our city — two of our greatest strengths.
“Made in NY” had made its mark. It had helped to unite a city and an industry at a time of unprecedented challenge. But with massive changes in the media landscape in the mid-2000s, the convergence of traditional and digital media, and the explosive growth of the tech sector in New York, it wasn’t long before we needed to consider how to embrace the tech community into the “Made in NY” fold.
We Are Made in NY
In 2012 we answered this need with the launch of “We Are Made in NY,” which told the story of the city’s growing digital and tech sector. As a mark of distinction and a set of resources for New Yorkers at all levels of the digital ecosystem, “We Are Made in NY” was an anthem openly embraced by the tech community. We made poster-children out of the founders and employees of local start-ups like Etsy, Songza, and Kickstarter.
The industry was new, but the message was the same: New York City is open for business, and we will do everything we can to support this growing sector. The rise of the new tech set not only amplified the buzz the city was generating within the creative community; their businesses were also helping to redefine New York City’s heritage industries — like filmmaking, finance, and fashion — with a 21st-century sensibility, further securing its reputation as a place for the creative community to thrive.
That’s a Wrap
I can still rattle off the data for the media, entertainment, and tech sectors at the end of the Bloomberg administration: In 2013 more than 300 feature films were shot in New York City. Over 100 television shows, including 30 episodics, were made here. The industry employed over 130,000 New Yorkers, supported 4,000 ancillary businesses, and accounted for over $7 billion in economic impact, and the tech sector employed more than a quarter million people.
While those numbers are a real accomplishment, their enduring power is their representation of how we brought the business back and fostered a community and an infrastructure in New York to support media, entertainment, and technology as a cornerstone of the city’s economic development strategy. It’s not just the numbers that stay with me; it’s the lessons learned and how I can bring them to cities around the world as they explore how to support their creative communities and build their brands.
Oh, and it also felt pretty good when Martin Scorsese won an Oscar for The Departed, set in Boston, but proudly made in New York — a far cry from where we started in 2002.
Driven by the potential for media and technology to redefine the way we communicate and approach economic development for cities, citizens, and businesses, Katherine Oliver’s ideas are guided by decades of experience in the private and public sector. Based in New York, she currently serves as a principal of Bloomberg Associates.