State officials estimate that the film industry is expected to spend more than $500 million for television, film and other media production in New Jersey this year.
That comes as the state emerges from the intense COVID-19 lockdowns, and follows a “very busy spring and summer and unprecedented amount of production taking place this fall,” according to Gov. Phil Murphy and the New Jersey Motion Picture and Television Commission, which coordinates productions and reviews applications for state subsidies.
The Oct. 1 announcement came out the same day that “The Many Saints of Newark,” a prequel to The Sopranos, hit theaters. Like the HBO series, the movie was also filmed across New Jersey, including in its namesake city of Newark.
“We expect annual revenue from film and television production to reach an historic level for 2021,” reads a statement from Michael Ulsan, producer of several Batman films, who chairs the NJMPTC. “The amount of studio, network and independent production taking place here since January is astonishing.”
Before the COVID-19 pandemic shut production down, big names such as the Academy Award-winning 2019 film “Joker” were filmed in Newark and Jersey City.
Netflix shot several scenes of “Army of the Dead” in Atlantic City, while scenes of the NBC spy thriller “The Enemy Within’’ were filmed at Bergen Community College in Paramus, and Steven Spielberg’s remake of “West Side Story” was filmed in Paterson.
Many of those projects have claimed millions of dollars in state subsidies under the state’s film and television tax credit program, according to figures from the state.
When NJBIZ last checked in on the state of showbiz here in October 2020, few producers were willing to talk about what they were up to. Film and television production had all but shut down during the pandemic, with a few exceptions for projects that imposed strict standards for social distancing, mask usage and sanitization.
Now that is coming back to the state, thanks to the lucrative incentive program, and demand for TV and film content, said many industry insiders.
“This really is a gold rush,” said Tom Bernard, co-president and co-founder of Sony Pictures, who also sits on the NJMPTC.
Murphy brought the film and TV incentive program back online in 2018, after his predecessor, Republican Gov. Chris Christie, allowed a much smaller precursor to lapse early on in his term. The program has varying levels of requirements for how much film, TV and digital media projects can get reimbursed for by the state. Generally, the tax credits are for expenses directed to New Jersey companies.
Since being brought online, the state awarded more than $192 million to 58 separate projects, according to the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, which runs the program.
In July, the state approved its largest tax break ever: $32.8 million for NBC’s production of the drama series “The Equalizer.” Then in August, Murphy and several state officials were on hand for the opening ceremony for Cinelease Studios, Caven Point in Jersey City, which boasts 70,000 square feet of stage space and expects to host between two and four “major film and television productions a year,” the governor’s office said.
Tim Sullivan, who heads the NJEDA, said the incentive program “marked the beginning of a renaissance in the N.J. film sector.”
Still, critics of the use of corporate state subsidies questioned the actual economic benefit.
Sure, they attract big name productions and generate headlines, but Sheila Reynertson, a policy analyst with the progressive think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective, notes that “then they leave and there’s no long-term” benefit.
“Who in the community where they film are now in the film industry and are happily employed by some sort of offshoot of film production in the state of New Jersey? That’s just not happening,” she said.
“Sure, you can make the argument that the tax credits can be the tipping point, but I don’t know if it’s even worth that in the long-term,” she added. “What’s the growth rate after 10 years of giving those away? You’re not seeing it, no matter how hard you make it work or how attractive you make your tax credits.”