May 08, 2008 Nancy Keefe Rhodes Uncategorized
“I didn’t want to announce this quite yet,” said Owen Shapiro, artistic director of the annual Syracuse International Film Festival (SIFF), which just wound up its fifth year by expanding to ten days of 128 films and videos from here and abroad. “I wanted to be sure we were ready, but Senator DeFrancisco said we’d go ahead, that this was the right time.”
Shapiro has never seen the festival as a single once-a-year blow-out event. He’s concentrated instead on building a cinema-friendly region — lots of screenings in outlying towns before and after the festival, high school mentoring and a steady stream of visiting films and their makers throughout the year. He heads Syracuse University’s film studies, but Shapiro also resists campus isolation, screening films across the city. He often travels too; SIFF has liaisons with 30 partner nations. Next week he and Christine Fawcett Shapiro, SIFF’s managing director, leave for Prague with a handful of SU film students, part of the exchange program with FAMU, the Czech Republic’s renowned national film school. SIFF has a bit of an inside track with FAMU — one of its faculty, Mary Angiolillo, grew up here — and FAMU’s new head, Pavel Jech, was just here last week with the Czech contingent.
Year-long process or not, State Senator John DeFrancisco’s Saturday morning press conference at SIFF’s downtown Warren Street office — three TV networks and WAER-FM covered it. It did address the critical mass of all those people, filmmakers and audiences alike, in town at one time from around the world for this year’s festival.
“The arts don’t just happen by chance,” DeFrancisco declared into the TV lights, announcing the Film Tax Credit Expansion that is part of the new state budget and includes a specific grant of $1.5 million to initiate construction of the festival’s outgrowth, the Film City Center production complex.
With DeFrancisco were Owen and Christine Shapiro, festival board members Cleveland Hughes, Gail Cowley, and Bill Haug, and the City’s director of public affairs Dennis Brogan. The festival board’s new chair, Hughes will also co-chair with Cowley Film City Center’s development team, with Bill Haug as continuity director.
Beyond Film City Center’s start-up grant, the budget bill triples the percentage of qualified film production costs eligible for the credit from 10% to 30%. Contacted after Saturday’s press conference at his Syracuse office, DeFrancisco’s chief of staff Deanna Cohen provided details of the Film Tax Credit Expansion, which also extends the tax credit program to 2013 (it was scheduled to expire in 2011) and increases the amount that can be awarded under this credit during a calendar year from $60 million to $110 million over a six-year period. The credit cap will elevate to $65 million in 2008, $75 million in 2009, $85 million in 2010, $90 million in 2011 and 2012 and $110 million in 2013.
On Saturday, DeFrancisco went on to recall, “Five years ago we had some goals, that Syracuse would be a center for film nationally and maybe some from around the world. Look what’s happened. Then about a year ago Owen and Christine and Cleveland Hughes and Dennis Brogan came to me with a concept of encouraging people to make film here. I thought that was kind of aggressive, that it was a nice dream. Then I found out some participants in the film fest were interested in coming back to make films here. We needed two components, a non-profit entity and also a way to make it profitable in New York State for filmmakers. Dennis Brogan kept reminding me about tax credits. So, we have tripled the benefit for filmmaking in the state. The main beneficiaries would be New York City but now Syracuse is part of that too. Now Syracuse, Rochester, parts of the Hudson Valley will all benefit.”
“This is more than an entertainment center,” added Cleveland Hughes, since Film City Center will house screening auditoriums of various sizes and a dinner theater. “The goal is a Central New York film industry. It will bring filmmakers here because they can do everything from pre-production through post-production. We’ve already heard from filmmakers in other parts of the country and outside the US.”
Though SIFF has already generated several stand-alone film productions, Film City Center could be operating within two years.
Dennis Brogan, a familiar figure at festival forums and events, likened making movies to “a moving factory that could have a potential $15-30 million impact yearly. This is an emerging economy. And a creative economy always exists when a community thrives.”
While “definitely committed to downtown,” organizers would not name sites under consideration because “we are negotiating where right now.” DeFrancisco did rule out that choice piece of property just turned loose by County Executive Joanie Mahoney when she terminated plans for a sewage plant behind Armory Square.
Filmmaker and production faculty John Craddock, also SIFF’s assistant director, wasn’t at Saturday’s press conference, occupied instead by a “coffee with the filmmakers” event across town at Community Folk Art Center. But on Friday afternoon, Craddock spoke on a well-attended festival panel, Making Films in Central New York, and by the time he settled for a moment on Sunday to reflect on Film City Center, he said this.
“Really, this provides a resource that’s unparalleled in a market this size. We’ll be so cost-competitive versus New York City that the post-production equipment rental costs for two days there will cover a whole week here. We are targeting films in the specific market segment, the $2 million range of independent films. We could serve larger productions but this helps independent film producers and the first English-language films of foreign filmmakers. American films do better overseas — 60% of their revenues come from foreign distribution. Many foreign filmmakers want to produce English-language films that could release here and capitalize on their name recognition at home. US audiences just don’t like sub-titles.”
Craddock also called Film City Center’s public-private partnership “unusual,” adding, “It’ll bring in public money plus still have enough access to reinvest money. One of the curses of public organizations is that after start-up they don’t have the money to do the upgrades that keep attracting high-caliber clients.”
Jim Loperfido, owner of Emerald City Video, president of the National Independent Video Dealers Association and film festival board member, also spoke on Friday’s panel about Central New York filmmaking but missed the DeFrancisco press conference. Loperfido manages another festival off-shoot, the DVD release of select festival features — the Chinese stunner “Rainbow,” Israeli Haim Bouzaglou’s “Distortion” and Italy’s “The Spectator” — on the Facets label. By Sunday afternoon he’d already made a DVD deal with Russian director Farid Gumbatov for his late festival entry “Caucasia” and had four more offers pending.
“Film City Center should attract eight to ten films a year once,” he predicted, ticking off why in the Palace lobby. “Film is such a collaborative process that it’s good for everyone. At Friday’s forum a state film commission rep was there to explain the granting process.
Foreign filmmakers had no idea of even the scenic opportunities here — lakes, green and white — and we’re hungry. We can bring economies of scale. Film represents the American dream like no other. Foreign filmmakers don’t know the network here, so they can get frozen, no matter how good the film. We can do that for them. T.K. Reilly – his “Bobby Dogs” did really well here – he just won a Prism Award last week. He has a whole lot of new friends now, people who wouldn’t give him the time of day before that. We can say, we’re your new family — shop around but if you want, you can always call home.”
During a follow-up Monday phone call, Cleveland Hughes added, “The most significant change in the festival over the next several years is that it’ll be more industry-oriented — more distributors, more filmmakers bringing their stars into town to promote the films. Some of the local media have treated this like it was just another neighborhood festival. The stakes have been raised.
Downstate filmmakers have already called about doing their work here, plus there’s the worker bees in film who want to get out of New York — Syracuse is a great place to live. Had the DeFrancisco announcement occurred a day earlier, it might’ve increased attendance a little at the Central New York forum, but it was already full.”
On Friday afternoon, Syracuse Mayor Matt Driscoll announces further details of City-level participation in Film City Center. It wasn’t so long ago that local media excitedly reported “Titanic” star Leonardo di Caprio’s trip to a Carousel Mall hamburger joint. His image captured on the quick-thinking waitress’ cell phone camera, di Caprio was killing time while the Israeli actress he then dated toiled on a movie set — Hotel Syracuse, of all places — starring in the first SIFF-generated local feature production, Haim Bouzaglou’s “Session.” We may have to get over craning our necks.
The Film Tax Credit Expansion, part of the new NYS budget, is posted on-line at the NYS Division of Budget website. Nancy covers the arts & writes a weekly column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that didn’t open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth, which returns next week. She is a member of the national Women Film Critics Circle. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.