Volume 74, Number 54 | May 18 - 24 , 2005

Cut! Critics say board shouldn’t take movie money

By Lincoln Anderson

Villager photo by Clayton Patterson
Directors’ chairs outside Vazacs bar at Seventh St. and Avenue B, where the movie version of “RENT” filmed in March. Community Board 3 received $3,000 from the production company.
Film shoots keep rolling on the Lower East Side, but some activists think too much cash from the productions is rolling into Community Board 3, representing a conflict of interest on the board’s part.

In a first for the East Village/Lower East Side community board, C.B. 3 recently started accepting contributions from film production companies. Disruptive film shoots are among residents’ top quality of life complaints. The production companies typically distribute money to “give something back to the community” and smooth over residents’ ruffled feathers. However, the board’s taking movie money is inappropriate, critics say.

Rebecca Moore, a founder of the new group, Ludlow Orchard Community Organization, or LOCO, said that during the one year David McWater has been chairperson of C.B. 3 there have been 141 film shoots on the Lower East Side. She said the board hasn’t been helpful in addressing the invasion of movie productions.

“When I called them about the film shoots, I didn’t get any sense that there was any empathy,” she said. “That’s when I found out about the donations. If it’s true that it’s only been going on during their watch it’s very interesting. It seems like it would make it difficult to lobby on behalf of the community to work to get the amount of filming down here lessened.”

John Penley, an East Village activist, also protested the board getting contributions from film companies.

“It’s a big conflict of interest for them to be taking money,” he said. “What if somebody wants to complain about people filming on their block and the community board’s already taken money from the film company?”

Penley said the board instead should refer the production companies to local community groups who need the money.

However, McWater defended the board’s policy on accepting movie money, saying the board is doing it precisely because it doesn’t represent a conflict of interest. McWater noted that — as opposed to applications for such things as liquor licenses or sidewalk cafes where the board gives an advisory opinion — the board has no input on issuing permits for film shoots.

“The Mayor’s Office of Film issues film permits, not us,” he said. He added that the board does no fundraising of any sort, so the film shoots help provide the board with the supplemental revenue it needs. Fundraising could pose a conflict if someone who gave the board a contribution then came before the board with a business matter, he noted.

“Every community board does fundraising except us,” McWater continued, “because we are extremely conscious of conflict of interest. Like the other community boards, we need more money. We get $1 per every citizen [in the board’s district], which is not very much.”

McWater said the city allocates $165,000 to C.B. 3, which must pay the $147,000 in salaries for the board’s staff.

“The other $18,000, we’re supposed to run our office on,” he said. “We have four underpaid employees.” Any money from film companies will be used to buy things like “stamps, notebooks, paper — it’ll go for office stuff and so that we’re able to send out all the stuff we need to send out.”

McWater said that the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theater and Broadcasting had reached out to the board, asking for a list of local businesses to refer production companies to while filming in the neighborhood. But the board felt it would be unfair to single out certain businesses. At that time, McWater said, they found out about a list that the board could get on that enables organizations to be considered for money from the production companies.

“There’s a list. We thought it would be good to be on this list,” McWater said, describing it as list of “impacted groups.” “We’re just asking that we be considered also as a group that can get donations.”

So far, the board has received a total of $4,800 from film shoots, McWater said: $1,000 from “Love Monkey;” $300 from “Rescue Me;” $3,000 from “RENT;” and $500 from “Law and Order,” which had planned to use the board’s office for a shoot, then backed out, but paid the board anyway.

McWater said the board’s policy in dealing with film shoots, which he said are among the board’s top complaints from residents, hasn’t changed with the new infusion of funds.

“If you call with a complaint about a film, we are going to take the same actions as always,” he assured.

However, Julianne Cho, deputy commissioner of the Mayor’s Film Office, said there is a list, but that it’s not for “impacted groups,” and that Board 3 is apparently confusing it with a list for monitoring film shoot activity.

“The Hot Spot List is basically an informal document that we use to track the amount of film and TV production in a particular area,” Cho explained. “If one area has a lot [of filming], we’ll give that area a rest — or a cool-off period as we refer to it. It’s one way of keeping neighborhoods film-friendly.”

Cho said if production companies want to give money to the community, it’s not the Mayor’s Film Office’s business.

“It’s something they do on their own,” she said. As for the alleged list to be eligible for contributions, she reiterated, “There is no such list. Those discussions don’t involve the [Mayor’s] Film Office.”

Obviously, residents like Moore feel the neighborhood is ready for a “cool-off period.”

“I don’t know a neighborhood in Manhattan that will tolerate five of six film shoots a week,” she said. “It wouldn’t happen on the Upper East Side or in Greenwich Village.”

Jim Smith, Community Board 2’s chairperson, said the Greenwich Village board doesn’t take contributions from film companies.

“In our board, the Friends of Community Board 2, which exists solely to raise extra money to support board operations, limits its fundraising to one street fair and one block party each year,” Smith said. Some of this money goes to pay for the salary of the board’s district manager, Artie Strickler.

“How we go about augmenting board income has always been a sensitive issue on our board,” Smith said. “I’m sure that C.B. 3 is as strapped as we are and I understand why they accept the donations. But I think my membership would frown if I suggested that we accept donations from film projects that a lot of us think of as a public nuisance.

“I sympathize with people who are ticked off when a movie company takes over their street and acts like it owns the pavement,” Smith added. “My block is a movemakers’ favorite. So I know.”

Despite Cho’s denial of a list for contributions, McWater believes one does exist.

“I still think there’s an informal list,” he said. “They do direct the films to block associations and groups. “It’s not something any of us knew terribly a lot about. But we said, ‘Put us on the list,’ and we started getting money.”

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