My friend Nathan and I differ greatly in our perspective of how and when film crews ought to be allowed to close off parking in the maze that is Manhattan’s Chinatown. You can catch some of our debate here and here.
What it comes down to for me, as a libertarian, is that the film studios are using the coercive power of the state to force (see if the police won’t clear away any protests before you object to my use of the word “force”, especially if the protestor is a lone businessman) the neighborhood into accepting something that will benefit the private film company, and a minority of the businesses there. The difference from the Suzette Kelo case is only a matter of degree.
Something just occurred to me though, from a political perspective. When Nathan plans shoots in NY he has to get permits. There exists a Mayor’s Office of Film, Theater and Broadcasting just for that purpose. What Nathan is upset about is that Chinatown was used so often as a location that the local businesses complained to their Councilman and got Chinatown placed on the off-limits-for film-trailer-parking list for at least 60 days.
My question is this: does the film office just hand out permits to anyone who asks without checking how many times other crews have filmed in the area? Don’t tell me they don’t keep those statistics [Update -as Nathan confirms in the comments, they do]. So, does the film office just keep issuing permits until the residents of an area complain? [Update - yes, and no. They have an algorithm for declaring an area off-limits after so many days of filming, but obviously they don't talk to the local merchants to see if that is enough]. Sticking to algorithms is typical bureaucratic behavior, exactly why I’m not a socialist, but why can’t the film office actually use their authority to prevent this kind of thing from coming up in the first place – in the best way, by actually talking to the local merchants before they take things up with their local councilman?
Probably, the reason is because the bureaucrats who work there are rewarded based on the number of crews that get to film per year, and not on neighborhood satisfaction. No one pays much attention to bureaus like this until they make a mistake, so they get to set their own goals and standards for success. To the detriment of the citizens who pay their taxes.
As a small “L” libertarian, I believe that government control exists in large part to prevent the Tragedy of the Commons. After thinking about this case, I’d say that the mayor’s office has been derelict in their duties and allowed film crews to force a TOTC situation. As Nathan pointed out, the city is doing its utmost to attract film crews to the city, but then to put some of the most filmable areas off-limits is counterproductive.
One of the justifications for allowing film crews to inconvenience residents and deny access to businesses is the free publicity that brings revenue to the city. This I buy – to a point. One of the great debates in advertising is: “how often is often enough”? Advertising budgets are often driven as a percentage of sales, which is the wrong approach. Measuring “top of mind” recognition is difficult but necessary if the ROI on advertising is to be measured. For example, for those readers who were in the US in the 1970s and 1980s, please name me a major plumbing chain. If Roto Rooter didn’t spring to mind, I’d be surprised. That chain still gets calls based on the jingle “away go troubles down the drain”. Yet I have not heard a RR commercial in probably 25 years. One concerted campaign was enough.
In a similar fashion, the NYC of the newly elected Giuliani needed all the good publicity it could get. Now? Not so much. A couple of big films or TV shows a year should be enough. Yet Nathan pointed out that permits for a minor Lifetime Channel cheese-fest are easier to get than for a major production. If advertising is truly one of the goals, the opposite ought to be true for in-demand areas such as Chinatown, and a lot of small units ought to hear “no, go to Flushing” from the film office in order to build up local tolerance for the big time shows. This recent moratorium put the kibosh on a Chinatown location for a Richard Gere vehicle that would probably have brought more notice to the city than a lot of the small operations that annoyed the Chinatown business owners to the point where they petitioned for a moratorium.
The Mayor’s office claims that a net economic benefit accrues to the city for filming. As I pointed out above, after a few big films per year, I’m pretty sure the marginal benefit of small productions drops off sharply. But, if the bureaucrats in the mayor’ s office believe that the economic benefit is real and measurable, then they ought to be prepared to share a bit of that benefit with the businesses bearing the costs. Something as simple as giving affected businesses some city parking garage vouchers to hand out to customers who are forced to park far away due to filming might go a very long way towards buying goodwill.
Actually, I think that a reasonable compromise could be reached, if only the bureaucrats in the film office had a rational reward system in place to regulate their behavior. But that’s not going to happen in our lifetimes. I’m sorry Nathan’s industry is taking a hit, but I’m really glad those damned orange “No Parking” signs will be absent from the legal parking spaces of Chinatown for the next two months.