The South Jersey Film Office Cooperative, a partnership between Camden and Gloucester counties, launched in April to help build out an inventory of wraparound services and resources to attract more productions to the southern part of the state. “I think this is the time when people need to have pride of place in a way that maybe we haven’t needed before,” Deputy Director Heather Simmons told NJBIZ. “What we want is for productions to have a one-stop shop,” she added. “They don’t have to hunt around for the resources that they need. They can contact one resource and get everything they need.”
Simmons said that the office is inviting the other southern counties to be a part of the effort because, in the end, everyone will benefit. “We understand that as projects come to the region, they bring with them an economic benefit,” she explained. “And in addition to an economic benefit, they bring kind of a source of pride when you see your town, your region, your state in a film production. People get a prideful boost out of that.”
The effort mirrors others around the state, including in Hunterdon and Somerset counties. In 2021, the Somerset County Film Commission was established to help promote the area to the film industry. Just last month, the panel held an event with the Somerset Patriots Minor League Baseball team to encourage filming and to showcase the Bridgewater-based ballpark and surrounding areas as potential sites for productions.
“We created the Somerset County Film Commission to grow the industry locally,” said Somerset County Commissioner Director Shanel Robinson. “We have incredible talent and resources for the film industry in Somerset County, including beautiful shooting locations like the ballpark of today’s great hosts, the Somerset Patriots.”
The efforts also reflect just how rapidly the film industry is exploding here in the Garden State.
“Never been better,” Steve Gorelick, NJ Motion Picture & Television Commission executive director, told NJBIZ. “It’s historically good.”
In 2021, there were 723 projects filmed in New Jersey, which produced more than $500 million in economic activity. It marked the best year ever for the state’s production industry, which was even more remarkable given the pandemic-related uncertainties. Gorelick said he was not surprised, though, because things were percolating before COVID-19 hit.
“We not only rebounded,” said Gorelick. “We had the busiest year in our history, half a billion-dollars’ worth of activity, which tells you how strong the industry here is.”
Gorelick said there was historically a lot of interest in filming in New Jersey. But it was not always economical. That all changed in 2018, he said, when Gov. Phil Murphy signed the Garden State Film and Digital Media Jobs Act, which provides tax credits for production companies filming here.
“The film and digital media industry is poised to become a dynamic part of New Jersey’s economy, one that will create good-paying union jobs and countless residual benefits to the economy,” Murphy said at the time. “By signing this legislation, we are allowing these companies to take advantage of New Jersey’s unique culture, location, and geography. I look forward to seeing the many projects that will come out of our great state thanks to the Garden State Film and Digital Media Jobs Act.”
Gorelick said it sent a clear message to productions that New Jersey welcomes their business and thus evened the playing field. “It enabled film companies to be able to shoot here and do so economically and with the same financial advantages that they would get in other areas of the country,” he said. “Given that we have a level playing field now, New Jersey is the apple of everybody’s eye.”
That is the trend that Moshe Gross is seeing from his side of the industry. In 2019, Gross launched Reset Locations, a company that rents commercial buildings in New Jersey for film and television productions. Gross, who’s background is in commercial real estate, had noticed an interest in filming in the state that would often evaporate before the tax credits.
“I started seeing a trend of people coming to look at New Jersey for filming, but then jumping to Brooklyn or to somewhere in New York,” Gross told NJBIZ. “So, they would think about New Jersey but not end up filming over here. It was pretty frustrating.”
It was after Gross heard about the tax credits that he moved to start his company. Just as he was getting off the ground, the pandemic hit. But Gross got a break when he helped facilitate a deal to film the hit Apple TV+ series, “Severance,” at Bell Works in Holmdel.
And Gross has noticed an uptick in activity in recent months. “I would say the past two months have been a whirlwind of activity like I’ve never seen before,” he said. “There’s been a lot going on. It’s been amazing.”
Gross noted how supportive Gorelick’s office has been, which he feels is a huge asset. “They’ve been working very well with me and with everyone else in the industry,” he said. “Steve Gorelick and the rest of the crew have been excellent for the state. I think other states would be jealous.”
Simmons also pointed out how helpful it has been to have the state commission working in concert with her office. Gorelick said such efforts help build out the infrastructure of this emerging industry.
“That reflects the level of excitement that’s taking place when everybody wants to get into the business now,” said Gorelick. “It’s very exciting. The level of collaboration has been remarkable.”
Gorelick and Simmons share the goal of filling in the blanks to complete the industry and attract more investment. “The production is what spurs the creation of infrastructure here, such as all the studios that are now popping up all over the place and businesses that are coming to New Jersey,” said Gorelick. “This is brick-and-mortar. This is the foundation of a permanent industry here. It’s all working together. It’s happening remarkably fast.”
“It becomes a sustainable industry,” said Simmons. “Because we can offer those productions all the services around it and an individual who can help them through the process.”
In addition to developing ancillary services and building an inventory of wraparound resources, the South Jersey Film Office Cooperative is establishing a point person in each municipality to help assist productions with navigating the bureaucratic red tape (which New Jersey has no shortage of) to help streamline the operation.
“This whole one-stop shop concept is really meant to do that,” Simmons explained. “Let’s make it make sense to you. Let’s make it worthwhile for you to invest your time and your money here.”
And while it took place in Burlington County, Simmons and her office certainly took notice when M. Night Shyamalan filmed his upcoming horror flick, “Knock at the Cabin,” in Tabernacle and Southampton. She says it shows that the word is getting around about different areas of the state.
“That’s why you always want to look for new locations because you always want new looks,” Gorelick explained. “Directors, production designers are always looking for something that hasn’t been used before. And that’s why it’s spread out to all over New Jersey.”
Gorelick said he is seeing more productions in smaller towns, such as the ones used for the Shyamalan film, which is creating new excitement and buzz for these areas. “They’re extremely excited because they haven’t had filmmaking before,” said Gorelick. “It’s a new experience. And that tends to generate a lot of cooperation because it’s something fresh and new.”
“We’re thrilled to see the municipalities and the other counties embracing it, and then the state working with us to help make it possible,” said Simmons.
“We’ve had a tremendous year there,” Gorelick said of South Jersey. “We’re trying to get more and more done in the southern part of the state. South Jersey’s starting to cook. There’s no question.”
Gross pointed out that New Jersey offers a lot of flexibility for productions, such as using the lobby of an office building, that is not always feasible in the city. “There’s a lot of opportunities to do certain things that you can’t do in New York City, but that you could do in New Jersey,” said Gross. “That’s what I’m seeing.”
“New Jersey has a lot to offer,” said Simmons. “We have urban areas. We have suburban. We have rural. We have river towns. We have beaches. We have warehouses. We have transportation, old railroads and things like that. So, some of the grittier historical sites that a lot of film productions are interested in.”
She referenced a shuttered Gloucester County jail that consistently generates such interest.
Another crucial aspect of building the ecosystem, Simmons said, is receiving the embrace of local colleges and universities to continue developing the talent pool, in a number of roles in front of the camera and behind the scenes, while creating more local economic impact.
“If your educational institutions aren’t in. If your businesses aren’t in. If the municipalities and the counties aren’t in. If the state’s not in. Then the industry is not in,” said Simmons. “That’s really what it takes for films to be successful. And that’s what we’re seeing here. And it’s really exciting to watch a new industry start.”
Gorelick said that while last year was Jersey’s best production year ever, this year looks like its possibly even busier.
“It’s building. It’s going to continue to build as we have more studios,” said Gorelick. “That allows some larger productions, especially television productions.”
He joked that there are so many projects that are being filmed now, in post-production, or in development, that it is tough to keep track of them all. Some of those projects include movies, such as “Plan B,” starring Jon Heder, which was filmed in Bordentown, Collingswood and Cherry Hill; “Our Man from Jersey,” filming now in Jersey City, starring Mark Wahlberg; and “Mother’s Instinct,” filmed in Cranford, starring Millburn High School graduate Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain.
On the television side, the third season of “Wu-Tang: An America Saga” is being filmed in Kearny, while AMC is using the old Izod Center as a base of operations for its upcoming “The Walking Dead” spinoff “Isle of the Dead.”
The projects range in size and scope, spanning multiple platforms and streaming services and backed by a variety of studios and production companies. “This is becoming a big industry in New Jersey, employing thousands of people every year now,” said Gorelick. “And it’s just increasing as we build more studios, attract more production. So, it’s becoming an essential industry in New Jersey.”
And while Gorelick, Simmons and Gross agree that the economic impact is the most important piece, they believe there is an image benefit for the state, the particular town or region a project is filmed in, and even for each individual property or building.
“It creates a great vibe for that property,” said Gross. “It will also create a positive buzz that’s that intangible that you can’t put a price tag on.”
“In Gloucester County, when we were in the midst of framing initiatives for recovery, one of the things that we did was to identify our key emerging industries,” Simmons explained. “And we identified film as one of them. And pride of place really was a piece to that.”
“You have all this production appearing on motion picture and television screens throughout the world, and that is a tremendous advertisement for New Jersey in terms of attracting people who want to live here, who want to work here, companies that want to move here and vacation here,” said Gorelick. “We know for a fact people will go visit and tour places where films have been shot.”e