As a backdrop for everything from fledging director Alice Wu’s movie “Saving Face,” to Wong Kar-wai’s upcoming romantic comedy starring Jude Law, “My Blueberry Nights,” to episodes of TV’s “Law and Order,” Chinatown is a favorite shooting location for film and video crews.
Rather than seeing film and television production as a chance to boost Chinatown’s image or generate profits, many neighborhood residents and shop owners consider it a chronic problem that disrupts daily life and exacts a costly toll on their small businesses. After a conflict erupted recently between locals and a “Law and Order: Criminal Intent” crew, businesspeople are asking the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting (MOFTB) to rein in area film production.
Under the leadership of “Chinatown mayor” Eric Ng, chairman of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA), 180 businesses in the heart of Chinatown were surveyed about their views on film and TV production. The survey showed that 82 percent of merchants opposed MOFTB’s issuance of street closure permits for film production. The other 18 percent either had no comment or were closed when the survey was conducted, but none of the merchants polled were in favor of film shooting.
A community forum on filming issues will be held at CCBA this week for further discussion among shopkeepers and representatives from the NYPD Fifth Precinct.
City Councilmember Alan Gerson, who represents the area, has also taken up the cause. “It appears that there are a disproportionate number of film shoots taking place in District 1. In the month of June alone, there were at least 50 film shoots in my council district,” Gerson said. MOFTB doesn’t consider Chinatown a particularly busy film location, however. Associate Commissioner Julianne Cho said about 20 film shoots took place in Chinatown in 2005 and about 30 in 2006, “significantly less” than many other neighborhoods.
“These film crews impede both vehicular and pedestrian traffic, hindering the daily routines of local businesses and residents alike,” Gerson told City Limits. “Nowhere is this inconvenience more detrimental than in Chinatown, where the neighborhood’s narrow streets make it difficult for film crews and residents to coexist. Film production blocks off parking and sometimes entrances to local establishments. This causes a significant loss in revenue for independent owners who rely on thru traffic to survive. Though some of these restaurants, barber shops, and retailers are compensated, many others are not.”
The competing activities in tight quarters turned into a street clash on Aug. 28 when a heated argument erupted between disgruntled Chinatowners and a production crew shooting an episode of NBC’s “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.”
Kuaishen Ni, owner of Hong Kong Barber Shop at 19 Doyers Street, said the film company started blocking off the street the previous evening and laying equipment on the street, which could be hazardous because it would prevent emergency vehicles from entering. The shooting did not finish until late afternoon on the 28th, he said.
When the cameras started rolling at 8 a.m. that morning, residents were barred from entering their homes and shops. Many workers were stranded on sidewalks and stores could not operate that day. A group of store owners and workers started striking gongs to protest the shoot.
Steven Wong, a community leader and founder of Lin Ze Xu Foundation of USA on Doyers Street, said film production security guards pushed him when he tried to mediate the dispute. His secretary, Shirley Lin, said the film crew yelled an obscenity at her when she tried to reenter her basement office.
Cho, from MOFTB, had a differing account. She said the television show was only taping one scene, “a simple walk and talk with two actresses,” which should be completed in under two hours. “[L]ocal business owners chose to bang pots on the street to disrupt the production. This decision served to prolong the length of time that the crew was required to remain at the location, as well as disturb the quality of life of other residents,” she said.
She added that during this and all film shoots, pedestrian and vehicular traffic flow is maintained and police officers are on hand to ensure the safe and swift flow of traffic. But in this case the MOFTB’s field officers were not dispatched to the scene because the agency anticipated the shoot would have “low impact” on the community.
Cho said the dispute arose from miscommunication. “‘Law & Order: Criminal Intent’ hired a local member of the Chinatown community to notify local residents about the shoot, and it appears that this individual failed to do his job,” she said. An investigation into the incident has been launched, she added.
In response to the complaints, NBC Universal Television Studio spokesman Curt King said the production company took great care to comply with city ordinances and requirements when shooting on location. “We fully complied with these rules on this occasion. We take pride in our close working relationship with the City of New York and our positive record of success using the city’s various neighborhoods as a backdrop for our programs,” King said.
Doyers Street hairdresser Patty Wu said her shop with four workers lost about $800 worth of business that day. “No customers could get in, we just sat idle all day. That’s really not fair, especially [because] a large portion of our earnings depend on tips,” Wu said.
Film companies frequently offer compensation to the affected businesses, but it’s not guaranteed. “The film industry is not required to compensate local businesses, as the public spaces of this city are paid for and shared by all New Yorkers, including the entertainment industry,” said Cho.
She also disputed the results of the CCBA survey. “We strongly question this number, given that some of the businesses which signed this petition are also members of our discount card program, through which [local shops] invite business from the film industry,” she said.
The immediate effect on businesses is not all CCBA respondents are upset about. Ng and community leader Wong also are object that Chinatown is frequently portrayed in film and TV as dirty, chaotic and crimeridden; that production crews bring in their own caterers rather than patronizing local establishments; that production companies do not adequately notify the community in advance of the film shootings; and that they keep using the same narrow streets and alleyways such as Pell, Doyers, Bayard and Mott Streets. “Chinatown is pretty big. They could have chosen other parts of Chinatown where streets are a lot wider and traffic less busy,” Ng said.
Film and TV production in the city has grown in the past few years. According to MOFTB, 31,570 location shooting days took place citywide in 2005, up from 23,321 in the previous year. The entertainment industry employs 100,000 New Yorkers, contributing $5 billion to local economy annually. MOFTB has set out shooting guidelines called “Keys to the City” to try to make it all run smoothly.
Councilmember Gerson says toughening up those guidelines could help. “I believe we need to change these suggestions to enforced rules so that residents and film crews would be able to peaceably coexist,” Gerson said.