No Parking

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.

21 thoughts on “No Parking”

  1. Fine, make me chase you around the entire damned internet.

    First of all, the Hot Zone list has been in existence for about ten years…because the Film Office does keep track of shooting days in a particular spot and then declares a moratorium on filming there for a period of time. Pell, Mott and Doyers Streets have been on the list since it came into existence and they’ve never come off. You’ve always needed to get special permission to shoot there.

    As to the cheese fests, we were talking about two different things. I thought you meant a tiny production with small crew and few, if any trucks. That’s what I meant can get a permit easier.

    Lastly, some of the signs are red, some yellow, some are bright green. Get your facts straight. :D

  2. Making films is a bit like opening restaurants and bars. The more in an area the more will be attracted to that area. Who decides what the “right” number of films ought to be? the libertarian or the people elected to serve the needs of the public?

  3. Uh, Fred, the people whose business is being imapcted by permits issued by the people whose salaraies are paid for by the taxes those business pay ought to get some say.

    And these film board people are appointed not elected. Hence the lack of interaction with the neighborhoods, except when forced by protocol.

    Nathan and I disagree on this topic, but at least he bothers to be coherent, and actually knows what he is talking about…

  4. Let us do away with all appointed position might be a solution. How would you go about solving the issue were you in charge to come up with a plan, a program, whereby all interests are given consideration? and would you be able to present that program without the gratuitous churlish remark,above?

  5. Shutting down public property for film shoots always creates TOTC situations. Despite the message propagated by municipal PR, the benefits mainly go to a small group of people: film companies, a few local merchants, and the municipal employees who in essence are bribed to supervise private business operations. The costs are shoved onto everyone else. The only reason these deals come out on paper looking like wins for city residents is that the boosters ignore or systematically underestimate most of the costs — including lost business for many merchants, and especially the enormous amount of man-hours wasted by road closures. For example, where I live an expressway was closed for most of a morning to film a scene for, IIRC, “Miami Vice.” In return for use of the road, the film company paid the city something like $250k. Not only will this money not go to the people who were inconvenienced, a crude calculation with conservative assumptions (100 cars per min x 1.2 occupants per car x 5 hours’ road closure x 1 hr wasted time per car occupant x $10/hr value of their time) suggests that the compensation level was set ridiculously low. (And why wouldn’t it be? The pols and “city film office” workers benefit professionally by attracting business from film companies, not by maximizing utility to taxpayers.)

    Filming is an inverse-Kelo situation: eminent domain forces costs onto a few people, often for the benefit of a few other people (as in Kelo), and for the acquiescence of everyone else; subsidized filming forces costs onto everyone for the benefit of a few people. In the case of filming public acquiescence is gained via a combination of 1) dishonest propaganda about costs and benefits and 2) the dispersion of costs in such a way that most voters won’t recognize how high those costs really are.

    The best remedy for this public-incentives problem is increased voter scrutiny of the real costs, which requires increased publicity. The Internet is an ideal medium to increase the visibility of these costs.

  6. Jonathan – you’re overestimating the costs a bit in the case of NYC – shutting down Elizabeth Street for a few blocks south of Canal is only going to inconvenience a few people.

    But yes, I’d say $1M for closing down an expressway is not an unreasonable demand.

  7. Dunno about parking and car traffic, but can tell you this: those crews from all over the film world are constantly closing up the street my office is located on, and 4-5 around it, w/o any warning or compensation for people who actually use it to get from pt.A to pt.B. You can just imagine the percentage of invective in the air. It’s a garment district, so miriad wholesale businesses are loading /unloading trucks at teh curb – or rather stopped from unloading trucks – and not only there is no compensation – no apology either.

    The other day I was hurrying up the 7th Ave with my Jumbo Juice in hand, 7 min till 9am, when sorta barricades appear, along with film crew members, shouting “the street is closed”. I never slowed down. For all I know, they are still shouting behind me.

  8. John,

    I once got caught in a Chicago traffic jam during a weekday afternoon. The cause? The City was holding a PR ceremony after reopening an expressway following repairs, and had simply blocked expressway traffic until the ceremony was over. This is an extreme example but it makes the issue clear: municipal officials have incentives to engage in rent-seeking behaviors that harm local residents. Requiring monetary compensation to the city is an inadequate remedy, because the money goes straight into govt coffers where it gets spent by the same people whose behavior is the problem — it is like dealing with the problem of bribery by raising the bribe amount. I think the only effective remedy is to prohibit local govt from blocking streets and from otherwise using force to help businesses. If film makers want to use entire neighborhoods, let them negotiate privately with the residents, as developers do when they buy out condos. If that costs more, too bad: it’s merely a reflection of the actual cost that does not appear in current calculations. Govt agencies who negotiate with private interests are always giving away the store (see also: stadiums).

  9. Holy Crap. I seem to be outnumbered here.

    1. I’ve been a Location Manager for almost 20 years. I’ve never shut down an Interstate. I have shot on parts of new Interstate that weren’t opened yet. I don’t think anyone suffered from that.

    2. I’ve shot at a toll booth on the Tobin Bridge in Boston. We were supposed to be off the bridge by 3:00pm because of rush hour so they could have every lane open. We weren’t finished, so I told the guy from the bridge to just wave all of the traffic through the tolls without charging them. They kept count an we paid everybody’s toll. I’m sure traffic moved better that day and I’m not aware of anyone complaining that they didn’t get to pay.

    3. I’ve closed the Brooklyn bound lanes of the Brooklyn Bridge. We had signs up warning motorists for two weeks before it happened. We had additional signs on the FDR when it happened directing people to the Manhattan Bridge. We had 50 NYC Traffic Agents on payroll to help keep things moving. We didn’t close the bridge until 9:00pm and it was re-opened by 5:00am. I’m sure some people were surprised and I’m sure some people were inconvenienced, but we did the best we could.

    4. Someone else I know has built an entire playground in Prospect Park for a scene…in exchange for leaving a brand new playground in Prospect Park.

    5. When The Preacher’s Wife was filming in Yonkers (yeah, I know, terrible movie), a fire broke out on the third floor of one of the buildings on the block where they were shooting one night. The grip who was running one of the cherry pickers pulled a family of four out of the window before the fire department arrived.

    6. Come to think of it, I was shooting a movie in Lebanon, OH about 10 years ago. Chatting with the Prop Master, we noticed a flame in the window of one of the stores. Turns out the store owner had been polishing something with linseed oil and went to take a nap in the basement. The linseed oil on the rags spontaneously combusted. The Prop Master and I broke the front window and put out the fire before the fire dept. showed up and the sleeping guy only came upstairs after he heard the sirens.

    Yeah. We suck. I’m terribly sorry I work in an industry that you all despise so much, (yet inexplicably support by paying to see Norbert).

  10. Who said you suck? What I object to is municipal govts that rent out or temporarily shut down infrastructure without adequate consideration of local residents and taxpayers.

  11. who da hell is Norbert?

    Nathan, are you familiar with expression “not your honey nor your poison”? As much as impressed I am with your hero skills, I’d rather have my Brooklyn Bridge (and Manhattan one. And the Triboro) clear of your crews and grips.
    Too much congestion as it is.

  12. Nathan, I think that major shoots with big budgets will pay for everyone’s tolls. But when a small-time documentary film crew shuts off the office to Tatyana’s office, are they required to find another entrance to the building – with handicapped access – for the people who work there? Or do they just use the force of their permit to say “screw you” to the workers in that area? That’s part of the ill-will you are feeling, just as the over-use of Chinatown developed ill-will.

    If the Chinatown merchant in the NYT article is correct, then $200 per day for a business whose rent is about $6000 / per month (roughly the going rate for Chinatown, but I’m under-estimating a bit because the rents I could find were for upper-floor offices, not ground floor storefronts) just pays the rent for the day. That’s insulting.

    As Jonathan says, the costs of filming are being shifted to businesses by the city. Now, giving each merchant on a street veto power as Jonathan suggested is also untenable – it’s the same situation the Polish Parliament was in before the Partition, and some lone idiot will always hold out his veto for more money. To a certain degree, I buy the argument of free advertising, and influx of business, and that a film commission ought to be able to break that impasse.

    What if the film commission were required to compute the average income from each business per day for the season of filing, and the film crew would have to pay each business at least that in a per diem? Unless the business is going under, the studio would have to pay much more than $200 per day, probably triple that, maybe more. Film costs would go up. But much less of the cost would be shifted to the business owner. Some cost still will be shifted, because while the film crew might buy lunch from the restaurant next to the shoot, film crews eventually leave, and while they are on location, regulars can’t get there. A regular finding a new place to be regular at is also a cost of business, but if the shoot is only 3 days, it’s not a big deal.

    One of the big problems I see is right on the film commission’s website. Why the hell should getting a permit to make a taxpayer’s life more difficult be FREE to the studio? Nathan already pointed out that there is a special police unit in NYC that only handles film shoots. Who pays for that if the permits are free?

    The fees ought to cover that payback to the merchant and the city ought to oversee the distribution. Permits in busy areas ought to cost tens of thousands. Permits in quiet streets should cost less. That’s what I mean about using the power of incentive to make film crews avoid TOTC. As it stands, everyone wants Chinatown, and they get it with no thought to the opportunity cost to the city when the merchants bring in their Councilman. This time the opportunity cost was one of shutting down a major Hollywood picture that is one of the few vehicles that might best accomplish the stated goal of positive PR for the city (although why is a movie called Brooklyn’s Finest shooting in Chinatown???). That is a true TOTC behavior, and one reason they created a film commission in the first place.

    Beyond fees (you can only raise fees so much before crews look elsewhere), if the city claims this nebulous economic benefit from the free PR, then the city ought to be required to share a fixed percentage of the claimed positive economic impact with affected businesses and homeowners in the form of tax breaks and parking vouchers, etc. As soon as that happens, I guarantee that the alleged monetary benefits to the city will start dropping like a stone, down to more realistic levels. The film commission might even take to denying the occasional permit that does not really meet with the stated goals of the program. Although, if the monetary amounts of the fees were properly set, only those film crews who really needed to film in NYC would ask to do so, and the problem would sort itself out.

    Nathan truly goes out of his way to be nice to the people he inconveniences. He also is picky about his jobs and works mostly for films with a specific budget, so he can afford to be generous. But not every location manager is quite so nice, and even if the desire is there, not every shoot has the budget to be so nice. And those shoots therefore don’t need to use the real Chinatown.

  13. There should be no film commissions, because they inevitably come under the control of the industry they regulate. Leave it all up to the market. If holdouts demand too much monetary compensation for street closures and the like, film companies can go elsewhere. There are many streets in New York, and many other cities, and many neighborhoods where the residents would like to earn some money. The Internet can help the film industry to find cooperative neighborhoods with no holdouts. The price may be higher than it is now, but that’s just a reflection of the fact that city govts now often undercharge for filming privileges.

    I would add that the existence of holdouts does not imply that markets are defective. Holdouts are an ordinary feature of some markets, and people who do business in those markets either find ways to work around the holdouts or pay up to buy them out. The fact that govt sometimes gets rid of holdouts by force doesn’t mean that the real price is the price set by the govt in these situations; it means that the industries that benefit from such govt action are getting a break from the real price, at the expense of the holdouts. This is wrong.

    The abuses of power and market distortions caused by local-govt attempts to help the film industry are good reasons for govts not to try to help specific industries.

  14. I’ve had a long day so I’m only going to respond to one part of this.

    If a film company is blocking handicapped(or any other kind of) access and not providing a reasonable alternative, they should be evicted from the property. By doing that they’re causing the property owner to be breaking laws regarding access for people with disabilities, and they’re in a material breach of their agreement with the property owner.

    Fuck ’em.

  15. Jonathan – you are assuming an equilibrium of Porter’s five forces that does not exist in a time constrained world. The supplier has all the power in that instance. Hold outs can be worked around when there are substitutes and alternative suppliers.

    This is why I’m not a big “L” libertarian. Every community that puts together their money to build a pool finds one idiot neighbor who thinks it’s OK to pee in it. This is why, throughout human history, governments have been preferred to anarchy, in general. Since I do buy in to some of the rationale for allowing film crews, I don;t buy into letting every small-time business owner get in the way when – and this is what is not happening now – there is fair compensation. If the Kelo property had been seized to build a hospital, I would have sided with New London (where your home is ours). Bartering these sorts of agreements is what a film commission with proper incentives in place would do.

    That being said, I’m certain the economic benefit is being overstated, and the marginal fall-off after the point of diminishing returns has not been adequately explored. Chinatown is chock full of tourons all summer long – I don’t buy any marginal benefit to Chinatown itself for any new movies filmed there. If the film office were given a budget based on say, 50% of the alleged benefit and had to share that with businesses affectr by permits, I’m sure you’d see some immediate downward adjustments on the positive economic impact studies.

    Nathan – if the film crew’s solution is for me to walk a block out of my way and I’m running just on time to my meeting (as I usually am after a 2.5 hour commute to the city), and the film crew is blocking off my street at 8:53, my response is going to be similar to Tatyana’s – a big middle finger to the crew. If the film commission didn’t say “no way you get to block this street until a half-hour after the late-for-work-hour has begun” on the permit, then the commission is not serving the people who pay its salary, in my opinion. I don’t care if that means one more day of shooting. That’s what we mean by regulatory capture – in the absence of public health concerns or other intense scrutiny, regulators tend to side with the industry they are regulating.

  16. John,

    It’s actually extremely rare that I actually ‘close’ any section of sidewalk or street (usually only for stunt work where it might be dangerous for someone to come walking through). More often than not, we hold pedestrians and traffic ‘intermittently’ just for the camera roll and that lasts about 90-120 seconds. In that event, you’re doing much better to just stand there and wait a minute than you are to walk around the block.

    To be perfectly honest, I do know guys who think it’s perfectly fine to just shut down a block and not give a shit about anybody who lives or works there, but they’re a distinct minority and I’ve been known to narc them out to the Film Office and the NYPD Movie-TV Unit. My life is a lot easier without having to follow incompetent “colleagues” into a neighborhood.

  17. Yeah, there’s a bit of selective perception, here. We tend to notice the idiots who make problems more than we notice the good guys – how do we know they’re good? Because we don’t notice them.

    I know you take a lot of care in what you do, which is why I let you know about this post – there are two sides to the issues. What made me post here is that I think there is a big libertarian issue illustrated: that government agencies do not know how to incent their employees for proper behavior (as you said on your post, the “algorithm” is probably to wait until someone important enough to make her life miserable calls the film commissioner).

    We got into a discussion about this a while back on liquor control. In states that own the stores or have draconian regulations, choice is often limited – I can’t find many of the wines I like in my state. It was noted that the state-run stores in smaller states such as New Hampshire and Vermont have better choices because the opportunity cost to running across the border is very small – the effective sphere of the monopoly is restricted. The liquor boards in those states are incented to behave well by the presence of competition. In large states, the incentive to behave well is damped by the absence of substitutes – the five forces are out of balance when you have to drive 5 hours to get to the next state. Government regulation per se is not evil, it’s unrestricted power an monopolistic behavior that causes governments to be anti-evolutionary and un-responsive. Hence the superiority of free markets – given a longenough time frame.

  18. Can I make a small clarification? it is not in my habits to gesticulate on the street, middle fingers and all that. Or get into shouting matches.
    Just wanted to point out this tiny matter.

    The crew in that particular case was annoying, but that was the extent of my experience as a pedestrian: 2-3 minutes of unpleasantness at most. I imagine the wholesale business owners that comprise majority of building tenants around here were hurt much more – they were not able to dock their trucks and conduct shipping operations.

  19. Tatyana,

    I can only suspect that you’re talking about a really ‘fly-by-night’ unprofessional production. I’ve looked at blocks that are obviously filled with loading docks in constant operation and just not shown it to a Director unless I had the budget to buy out the delivery schedule for a day.

    That having been said, I’ll admit that I’m not above handing a truck driver a 20-dollar-bill and asking if it isn’t time for him to take lunch for an hour. :)

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