Entertainment Law In New Jersey: A Century Of Supporting The Motion Picture Industry

Wednesday, September 1, 2004 - 01:00

The Editor interviews Steven Gorelick, Associate
Director Of The New Jersey Motion Picture And Television
Commission.

Editor: Please tell us about the film industry in New
Jersey.

Gorelick: Thomas Edison pioneered the motion picture camera and first
movie studio, the Black Maria, at his laboratory in West Orange. He wanted, "to
do for the eye what the phonograph did for the ear." Because film stock was not
very sensitive to light and artificial lights were not readily available, Edison
built the Black Maria so the roof opened up and the building could be turned
throughout the course of a day to follow the path of the sun.

The first movies were shot at Edison's studio and other locations across New
Jersey. Other studios cropped up in Ft. Lee. These were the predecessors of the
big motion picture studios that were to come to fame in California just a few
years later. Universal, Fox, and MGM had their roots in New Jersey. William Fox,
Sam Goldwyn, and David O. Selznick began their careers in and around Ft. Lee.

Around 1915, film companies moved to California because land was cheap and
there was perpetual sunshine. Because Edison held the patents to motion picture
production, these maverick filmmakers wanted to escape the licensing fees and
other costs that Edison's film trust sought to impose. The "independents" went
to California where they couldn't be found and started turning out motion
pictures. Nevertheless some of the great movies of the silent era including
The Great Train Robbery and The Perils of Pauline continued to be
filmed in New Jersey. The Perils of Pauline was the first cliffhanger, so
noted because its star, Pearl White, was hanging from the Palisades cliffs.

With the exception of On the Waterfront, which was shot in Hoboken in
1953, released in 1954 and won the Academy Award for Best Picture, New Jersey
had very little film production during the "Golden Age" of Hollywood and for
years afterwards. In 1977 the State Legislature and governor decided to revive
the film industry in New Jersey as a way to spur the state's economy. The
governor and the legislature were looking for a way to spur the economy using a
clean industry.

The first step was to recruit Sidney Kingsley, the Pulitzer Prize winning
playwright, as the New Jersey Motion Picture and Television Commission's first
chairman. He was committed to bringing film making back here and soon after, our
executive director Joseph Friedman was hired. The board of commissioners was
appointed, and we began our work. The overnight change was remarkable. Almost
every year the amount of production in the state increases. Today, as many as 80
or more features are shot here every year, as well as 150 television series and
specials, 350 or more commercials, music videos, industrial films, educational,
documentary and short films.

Editor: Please give us some examples of recent films shot in
New Jersey.

Gorelick: For the remake of The Manchurian Candidate, director
Jonathan Demme recreated the Kuwaiti desert in a sandpit in Eagleswood, NJ.
Paramount Pictures crew members littered it with the shells of burned out
vehicles, and they landscaped it to look like the Kuwaiti desert during the 1990
Gulf War.

We have several television series running, which are of exceptional economic
benefit because they return year after year. An individual show can enrich the
state economy by ten to twenty million dollars every year. The Sopranos
is shot in New Jersey along with Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. The
final season of Ed wrapped up this year, shot in Northvale and various
other towns in Bergen County. The Jury, now airing on Fox, is filmed in
Bayonne at the Military Ocean Terminal (M.O.T). Oz, the prison series on
HBO, was filmed at the M.O.T. as well.

Two large warehouses on the former military base were converted into studio
facilities, which have been used in a number of movies and series. A
Beautiful Mind
was filmed there. It is the second New Jersey film to win the
Academy Award for Best Picture. Far From Heaven was filmed at the M.O.T.
and other locations. The HBO telefilm Strip Search, which aired a few
months ago, was filmed there. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind with
Jim Carrey was also filmed at the M.O.T.

Editor: What legal issues have to be dealt with when shooting on
location?

Gorelick: Towns that have a lot of filming often require permits. For
example, a town ordinance may restrict filming at night, or in residential
zones. Permit fees differ from town to town. Local law enforcement and fire
companies may be required at the location. Most ordinances are written so that
no matter what is contained in the ordinance, the town administrator or town
counsel can override various provisions, as long as they are not harmful to the
town.

We spend a lot of time reviewing local ordinances. We encourage any town that
is going to write an ordinance to contact us because sometimes ordinances are
crafted by individuals who do not possess a full understanding of film
production and what it entails.

Editor: What types of issues would an entertainment lawyer handle?

Gorelick: The variety of contracts they draft and negotiate include
securing locations, signing talent, distribution deals, creating various legal
releases and many other tasks depending on the stage of production. They also
help set up the deal. They put the nuts and bolts of the production together and
help it get off the ground. You can't work without an entertainment lawyer.
There are just too many legal issues that arise.

Editor: How is the state helping and supporting filming in
New Jersey?

Gorelick: The Commissions annual budget is $460,000. Last year,
revenue from productions shot in the state topped $78 million. Underscoring the
current administration's commitment to encouraging films and television
production, the governor signed legislation to create the New Jersey Film
Production Assistance Program. The program provides loan guarantees to
filmmakers working in the state.

Many attorneys made their feelings known when our funding was threatened.
They gave us tremendous support. In addition, several years ago Steve Schechter
helped set up a not-for-profit entity called Friends of the New Jersey Motion
Picture and Television Commission. We had a benefit in order to raise money to
make a documentary film about the history of filming in New Jersey past and
present. He helped us on a pro bono basis with all the legal aspects of setting
up the non-profit entity and when we created the video itself, in getting the
rights clearances.

Editor: How is the New Jersey Film Commission helping
independent filmmakers get their start?

Gorelick: You'd be surprised how many films at Sundance are from New
Jersey. Garden State was a hit this year at Sundance. Clerks and
Kevin Smith's other works have also been well received. Two Family House
, which won at Sundance, was filmed in Bayonne and many other films in the
competition were shot here. It's amazing the percentage of Sundance winners and
Sundance entrants that are made in New Jersey. The Station Agent won two
years ago.

We always regard ourselves as a haven for independent filmmakers. We deal
with the biggest and the smallest productions. We assist student filmmakers, who
come here in droves from NYU, Columbia, the School of Visual Arts and various NJ
colleges and universities, in the same way we assist big time filmmakers by
helping them find locations. These young independent filmmakers of today become
the celebrated directors of tomorrow. It doesn't matter what the level of the
production is, we provide equal assistance.

Editor: What makes New Jersey a haven for the film industry?

Gorelick: The level of cooperation here makes us a haven for major
production companies and smaller independents. The state and the towns are very
cooperative, we're ideally located in the New York vicinity where there is a
huge talent pool, and we have a tremendous variety of locations. It only takes
minutes to go from the mountains to the suburbs to the shore. That's a big
advantage to filmmakers who can't afford to spend time traveling great
distances. This is especially true in filming commercials. In a sixty-second
commercial a director may use nine or ten different types of topographical
looks, and does not want to be traveling forever to get the shots.

The climate of New Jersey is also a factor. When I first came here, not many
films were shot in the winter. These days winter weather doesn't bother
filmmakers at all. Some filmmakers have wanted the worst possible snowstorm they
could find. I've seen movies that have been transformed on account of the
weather. For example, an after-school special was filmed in Northwestern Jersey.
Although the filmmakers weren't planning to film in the snow, they filmed
through an unexpected blizzard. When I saw the film on television, it was
unbelievable. It had a marvelous look to it, and won all kinds of awards. It all
happened by luck of the draw.

Editor: Do you anticipate the film industry to continue to
grow in New Jersey?

Gorelick: Filmmakers go where they're welcome. They can't afford to
fight the locality where they're shooting. They're spending a lot of money every
day and they have to stay on tight schedules, so they need cooperation. Our main
function is to assist filmmakers, and the state works with us to make sure that
they can complete their work quickly and easily, on time and within
budget.