New Jersey Incentives, Locations, Crew Lure Big Productions Looking for a Good Break

For his first film since winning the Oscar for 2018’s “Green Book,” Peter Farrelly again ventured into new regions of the country. The 40-day shoot of “The Greatest Beer Run Ever,” set between fall 1967 and spring 1968, was split between Thailand and northern New Jersey.

Thailand filled in for Vietnam; bars, churches and other locations in Newark, Paterson, Jersey City and North Bergen were convincing doubles for New York City of the era.

The entire film was to be shot in New Zealand until COVID-19 scuttled those plans. Farrelly heeded the advice of his friend, Sony Pictures Classics co-president Tom Bernard, who told him “if you’re going to shoot in New York, go to New Jersey. It’s cheaper and you got all the same stuff.”

On top of that, he was able to work in the home state of his producer Andrew Muscato, a documentarian making his narrative feature debut.

Farrelly, who took advantage of Louisiana’s tax credit when shooting “Green Book” — they even used Hammond, La., to replicate the Bronx — had never been to Jersey City. “Manhattan’s only four minutes away, it’s a beautiful view, there’s a million nice restaurants and they’ve got great crews here,” he says. It’s a selling point that the state is pushing hard as it attracts more than a half-billion dollars in film and television-related activity this year.

Farrelly wasn’t alone in making the New Jersey of today resemble the New York of another era. Nearly all of the Hulu series “Wu-Tang Clan: An American Saga” was set in Staten Island and Manhattan in the 1990s but northern New Jersey got the role as the production shot in 10 cities and towns, among them Irvington, Montclair and Secaucus.

“We worked hard on them,” says Steven Gorelick, executive director of the New Jersey Motion Picture and TV Commission. “They felt they could spread out a little bit more here, and meet the COVID-19 protocols more easily while they’re here on location. And because it was warehouse-based, they also had office space. And they still have that space under lease because they’re contemplating doing a third season.”

“The Greatest Beer Run Ever” and “Wu-Tang Clan” are among scores of productions pushing 2021 film and TV production spending beyond half a billion dollars in the Garden State, a record year following 2018’s $121.4 million (the first year Gov. Phil Murphy reinstated tax credits) and then 2019’s $421 million before COVID-19 largely shut down location and studio shoots.

The state has seen a boom in productions since reinstating its tax credit — now between 30% and 35% — in 2018 during Murphy’s first term in office. He recently won another term.

“Production is at all-time record high and my gut tells me all boats are rising — ours, just proportionally, I think, is due to incentives,” Murphy says. “We are extremely competitive as it relates to incentives. And I would say as part of that, I’m particularly proud of things like the diversity bonus so it’s not just competitive in a dollar and cents sense, but it’s consistent with our values.”

“Greatest Beer Run” producer Muscato, a Basking Ridge native who lives in Jersey City, considered producing in Georgia. After the state’s voting laws changed, he read an article in which Murphy made a plea to productions to move to New Jersey.

“I threw it out to the group, asking ‘Can we actually shoot in Jersey?’ From a financial side, even though we only shot for eight days, the way the incentive is structured we were able to still get the rebate. It was kind of an easy pitch to the rest of the team.”

This year has seen Netflix’s “Army of the Dead” shoot in Atlantic City; the long-gestating story of Casablanca Records, “Spinning Gold,” film in Newark and Jersey City; and “Shelter” from Amazon Studios and MGM Intl. use Essex County locations.

Following the pandemic, “Death Saved My Life” was the first major feature film to shoot in the state, choosing the South Jersey towns of Haddonfield and Collingswood. Halle Berry’s “Bruised,” and the Tony Soprano origin story “The Many Saints of Newark” are other Jersey productions released this year.

Television productions were the first to take advantage of the tax credit in 2018, followed by independent features. Warner Bros.’ “Joker” was the first major studio picture to utilize the tax credit. Increasingly, the state has seen a mix of TV and film projects, and fewer of the projects that kept crews busy in the state — ads and reality TV shows.

“There might be this anomaly where we have fewer projects, but they’re obviously much, much bigger projects since we got our tax credit,” says Gorelick, who plans to start reporting filming days rather than numbers of productions in the near future. “You have movies here that are not filming here just for a day or two, but weeks and months at a time. That’s a huge difference.”

In 2006, the state started a small program — $10 million a year — that attracted several productions including “The Wrestler” and “The Messenger.” The fund ran out of money in 2012 and, with the lack of incentives, the economic impact of film TV plummeted — to $82.8 million in 2013 and $62.6 million in 2015.

Today, for productions with a budget of more than $1 million, the New Jersey Film and Digital Media Tax Credit Program provides a transferable credit of 30% of qualified film production expenses against the corporation business tax and the gross income tax. For any project under $1 million, the credit can be used if at least 60% of the production expenses are in New Jersey.

In addition, there is a diversity incentive of 2% for hiring minorities and women; 5% more is tacked on when production is within the state’s eight southernmost counties. The current system is in place through 2028.

“We’ve got an incredible diversity of a look and feel — urban, suburban, rural, shore, mountains, everything in between,” the governor says. “As it relates to studios, I think lengthening the incentives window helps.”

In August, Murphy cut the ribbon on the largest film studio in the state, Cinelease Studios Caven Point, in Jersey City. Boasting 70,000 square-feet of stage space, it’s also the first purpose-built facility of its kind in New Jersey.

More permanent facilities could be on the way: Gorelick is in talks with studio developers eyeing locations in South Jersey’s Cumberland County, the Atlantic City area and Malaga near Rowan University in Glassboro.

“What you want to do is build the foundation for a permanent industry,” Gorelick says. “You want to build bricks and mortar businesses that can support, long-term, the industry by creating permanent jobs. That means attracting studios, equipment houses, post-production facilities, all of which we’re getting now.

“These programs don’t sunset until 2034, and it’s unusual for a state to make that kind of commitment. We want to see bricks and mortar development.”

In November, Netflix bid more than $50 million to acquire the abandoned Fort Monmouth military base and turn it into a production facility. Coming just as Murphy was in the throes of a heated re-election campaign, he says that interest from Netflix “triggered a whole wave of discussions and deliberations among senior staff members and presidents of institutions of higher education about the broader reality” of how to create educational programs to benefit the film and TV industry.

Currently, the state has been working with NBCUniversal on production assistant bootcamps at which graduates are able to leap straight into a production; Sony Pictures is co-sponsoring one early next year.

Gorelick, a Rutgers grad who has been with the film commission since 1980, and Murphy, who was president of Hasty Pudding Theatricals while at Harvard in the late 1970s, emphasize the ability of New Jersey to not only represent itself — “The Many Saints of Newark” is a prime example — but the ability of locations to be a stand-in for other locales in different eras.

“New Jersey historically has largely been a place where you film something that is in fact intended to be New Jersey or maybe New York City, like Paterson standing in for New York City in ‘West Side Story,’” Murphy says. “That’s going to change over time. Having more soundstages will make New Jersey a universal location.”

Gorelick takes particular pride in noting how stories by New Jersey authors such as Philip Roth and Harlan Coben are being shot in the areas in which they are set for the very first time: HBO shot the 1940s-set limited series “The Plot Against America” in and around Roth’s hometown of Newark; Livingston native Coben’s “Shelter” was shot in Essex County.

Gorelick says he’s seeing a dramatic change in attitude toward the Garden state. “I think the film industry views New Jersey as a huge backlot.”

Muscato adds: “The communities and the way they were settled in New York and New Jersey had a lot of similarities. There’s an authenticity that you wouldn’t get if you filmed elsewhere. And when we’re filming at a park in Jersey City, it’s a little quieter than Manhattan, less stressful, with very supportive local governments and local communities.”

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