Film commission touts Suffolk County locales

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With the calendar year winding down, the Suffolk County Film Commission brought East End elected officials, business owners and representatives from South Fork chambers of commerce together in Southampton Village on Thursday, December 4, to give each other a pat on the back for all the television and film productions that were shot in the area in 2008 and to look ahead at new ways to make film projects a staple of the county’s economy.

This fall, the USA and HBO cable networks each filmed a television pilot in the Hamptons, and an independent film, “Paper Man,” shot scenes in Montauk. The productions were credited with pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into the local economy.

The film commission is charged with bringing even more productions to the county, a task which has become easier since April, when the New York State legislature granted filmmakers a 30-percent tax break when they shoot in the state. Now, officials want to transform Suffolk County from a place where Hollywood only occasionally dips a toe in the water to a mecca for television and film.

“It’s been a darn unfriendly place for these producers to do business,” County Executive Steve Levy told the crowd at the Southampton Inn. Later, reflecting on the productions that have come to Suffolk this year, he said “We’ve gotten great feedback, but we’ve also heard frustrations … hoops they have to jump through: villages, town, county, health department. They want one-stop shopping, and that’s what we’re looking to offer them.”

Mr. Levy also thanked the state for the 30-percent tax break incentive, and said it was instrumental in bringing the recent productions to the county.

Film commission Vice Chairman Lenny Stucker said media production will bring money and relief to Suffolk County in dire times.

“For nine years, there was no film commission in Suffolk County,” he pointed out.

Mr. Levy reinstated the commission in 2004, and it has slowly been marshalling resources and trying to gain some traction since then.

“We had a previous film commission that was famous for doing absolutely nothing, and that has changed,” said Mitchell Kriegman, co-owner of East Hampton Studios, where his PBS children’s show, “It’s a Big, Big World,” is produced.

Mr. Kriegman said North Carolina has built a film industry in the state without the prized proximity to Manhattan that Long Island has or any of the other factors that weigh in Suffolk County’s favor.

“If they can make it work in North Carolina, we can certainly make it work two hours outside New York City,” he said.

Mr. Levy said that, in the past, Suffolk County’s economy and sense of identity centered on aerospace. With the end of the Cold War and closure of the Grumman Aerospace facility in Calverton, the county now needs to diversify and find a new identity, he said. “If you stay mired in the past, the train is going to pass you by.”

While he acknowledged that the county is experiencing growth in industries such as alternative energy development, the industry he is most excited about is media, Mr. Levy said. “And why not?” he asked. “We have all the celebs and the stars vacationing here: Let’s put them to work and produce the film and the television right here.”

Suffolk County has some of the best beaches in the world, beautiful estates, rural and more urban landscapes, and an income mix, the county executive noted. “We have a lot of positive things going for us.”

Mr. Levy also noted he has a commitment from Reckson Associates, the developers of the industrial park at Gabreski Airport, giving the county a year to fill one quarter of the planned park in Westhampton with film and television studios. “I think once they get a foothold in there, the word will spread,” he predicted.

What the county lacks is a ready supply of housing for film crews, but he said the trick is to train talent living in Suffolk County to take up the job so productions do not have to pay to transport and house crews.

“Paper Man” filled dozens of motel rooms in Montauk in November, a time when the hamlet traditionally struggles to bring in visitors, providing an off-season boost to the economy. And when HBO was filming “Suburban Shootout” and USA was filming “Royal Pains,” both crews filled scores of rooms at The Enclave Inn and other local motels for several weeks.

“We were really fortunate during the time that they came out,” said Michael Wudyka, the owner of the Enclave Inn. He also co-owns East Hampton Studios, where HBO and USA shot many scenes this fall in between shooting on location in Southampton and East Hampton.

“Summer takes care of itself,” Mr. Wudyka pointedly observed about the Hamptons. But film production can mean year-round business instead of struggling in the off season , he said.

Filming has also been a boon to restaurants.

Tim Burke, the owner of 75 Main in Southampton Village and a director of the Southampton Chamber of Commerce, said when “Royal Pains,” the CW’s “Gossip Girl” and Bravo’s “The Real Housewives of New York City” came to the village, he filled large tables and got some catering gigs.

In fact, “The Real Housewives” reality series filmed both inside 75 Main and at the dining tables outside, and even put Mr. Burke on camera.

“They asked me to be in it to greet them at the door and to seat them,” he explained.

Bravo didn’t pay 75 Main for the trouble of allowing crews and cameras into the restaurant, but Mr. Burke said not everything’s about money. It’s a chance for national exposure for his restaurant, he said.

The 75 Main staff likes to see people who are in the film and television business, and local residents will get a kick out of seeing the restaurant on TV, Mr. Burke said.

“It just added another element to the village,” he said. “It makes the village a happening place.”

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