Makin’ Movies — A Multimillion Production Company Becomes a City’s Hope for Prosperity
“And if hired, would you be OK with filming in Syracuse?”
Now, Hollywood writer and filmmaker Jeremy Garelick had nothing personally against Syracuse, a middle-of-nowhere type Central New York city of a whopping 150,000 or so population and a hell lot of snow. But considering when filming is in question one thinks of LA or NYC, he was surprised by the suggestion of Syracuse of all places, to say the least.
“Central New York?” he asked, “Why?”
“They have great tax breaks up there,” was the answer. Garelick was intrigued — and he had every right to be too. You see, Garelick had this dream of creating this generation’s universe of high school movies since he was a college student. After being advised by a professor to hold off on it for a decade, he had been bidding his time collecting scripts and looking for high schools to buy all over the United States.
He wanted to look into this “great tax break” and potentially take advantage of it to make his dream come true. And come true it did, in the form of American High Productions.
Filming used to be a Los Angeles thing — it happened at Hollywood. Now however, backed by generous tax incentives, new areas like Dallas, TX and Atlanta, GA are coming into play. New York State has one of the best in the nation when such incentives are considered. According to the New York State Government’s website, the film incentive program is $420 million worth, and The New York State Film Tax Credit Program offers as much as 40 percent tax credit on production, and 45 percent on post production. Since January 1, 2011, 1,451 applications have been accepted to the Film Production Tax Credit program, generating an estimated $22.7 billion in spending and 1,371,933 hires, according to the New York State Government. Sure, a Hollywood set might be nice, but an incentive like this one makes an obscure Central New York city like Syracuse too sweet of a deal to miss.
From the outside, A.V. Zogg Middle School in Liverpool, NY (5.7 miles from Syracuse) looks like any other suburban middle school. Surrounded by classic, picket fence suburban homes and trees that stay dead most of the year due to the cold, the three-story brick building has not been in use for a while until Jeremy Garelick bought it and turned into American High. Still very much resembling a middle school, American High is full with a ready to use film set, costumes and props, a production studio and various film equipment. It is impressive, but why go through all the trouble just to shoot a high school movie?
“The hardest part of shooting a movie is to find a place for the production,” says Micheal Schade, a producer at American High. “It is an expensive process. With American High right here, we have what we need ready.”
Schade’s enthusiasm is apparent as he talks about American High — and he has every right to be so. In addition to being a production studio, American High is also a training center. Schade says part of the agreement in buying the building was that “something educational” had to keep happening within its grounds. Knowing the importance of having a local crew ready to help with production, they decided to train one themselves and thus formed The Academy at American High. Schade says The Academy partners with local universities and provides internships to students.
“They’re being trained on professional Hollywood level sets, something other college students don’t get to do,” says Schade. “I went to Boston University and I didn’t have this opportunity before I graduated. They’ll be years ahead of their peers when they graduate.”
However, you do not need to be a student to be a crewmember at American High which is a great opportunity for Syracuse locals looking for jobs as well.
“In NY or LA you do not need to be a college grad to work on a film set. In fact, if you studied film the crew will tease you a bit on set because so much of what you need to learn, you can only learn by actually being on the set. So of course if you’re a Syracuse local wanting to get involved, you can,” Schade says.
And that is exactly why cities like Syracuse are this eager to have a production on their grounds. The city of Syracuse is one of the 10 poorest places in the United States, according to data released by the U.S. Census Bureau. Owen Shapiro, co-founder and artistic director of the Syracuse International Film Festival and program coordinator of the film program at Syracuse University, says given that Central New York has lost and is continuing to lose industry like Carrier, GE and other businesses that employed a lot of people with reasonably paying jobs and nothing to replace them with, film making has a tremendous amount of potential.
“Hollywood is decentralized, highly decentralized, so really there is production going on all over the United States and Canada, and Mexico as well,” says Shapiro. “For example, Atlanta, GA, film making industry there has become an 8 billion dollar a year event. The state gives a generous tax incentive to production companies coming in. But the incentive is not simply tax equals money. Think of it as a way of stimulating economic growth by giving them a discount for the amount of production it would take to make a film in that area.”
That means that if you have a production in Syracuse through American High and you have a crew of 40 people on the shoot, with about half a dozen actors for that shoot. Those people are all going to be generating income for the city. They’ll be staying at hotels, eating at restaurants, buying gas and doing other things that will all translate into money. And it’s not even counting the money that the film production company is leaving in the city in the form of other costs and expenses that come with the production. Sounds like a pretty sweet deal — and even if that takes time to develop, students are already taking advantage of the opportunity.
Losa Amara Meru is a recent Syracuse University Television, Radio and Film program graduate. She held several positions with American High so far — she worked on “Banana Split” as a background actor, “Looks that Kill” as a production assistant and “Big Time Adolescence” as the Background Production Assistant.
Meru’s days meant a lot of different things and tasks. She I went on runs, set up and took down basecamp, helped carry all sorts of things, unloaded equipment, wrangled extras, made sure the public didn’t interfere with the film set, drove transportation vehicles, transported cast and crew members, and always made sure the crew was taken care of. As a background production assistant, she checked in and looked after the background actors, made sure all hiring and SAG paperwork was filled out, coordinated with the 1st AD on who and when to send background actors to set, and worked with the wardrobe department to make sure every background actor was checked for appropriate outfits and scene continuity.
“American High helped me as a filmmaker by allowing me to learn up close and personal from more seasoned filmmakers in a remote and intimate setting. By learning about the core necessities of film production in Syracuse specifically, I was able to really understand what goes into producing independent, 3–5 million dollar films, and the amount of effort and hard work it takes from everyone involved,” says Meru.
American High brought a lot of excitement to Syracuse, and a lot of promise. Will it be able to keep up with these? Shapiro is hopeful.
“I’m not saying we’ll be as big as Atlanta, GA but we certainly can use Atlanta and other cities and states as models for how much we can generate here,” says Shapiro. “It takes time to do it and it won’t happen overnight. People were impatient thinking once that building opened it would overnight, but it takes time and it is starting to happen.”