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A Taste of Hollywood
by Gregory Lamberson
Four feature films were produced in Western New York this summer. More are under production.
Is this a growth industry?
If you created a list of qualities that come to mind when thinking of the Buffalo Niagara region, film production would probably not rate very high on it. We have our sports teams, our fine arts, our natural wonder of the world, but we don’t have any major motion pictures congesting our streets or movie stars idling along our sidewalks.
We do, however, have a burgeoning film community: This summer, at least four independent feature films were produced or are being produced in the area.
Buffalo has always had its share of token Hollywood productions: James Caan’s Hide in Plain Sight; the Weinsteins’ slasher film The Burning, which helped build Miramax; Robert Redford’s The Natural; and the recent Keanu Reeves vehicle Henry’s Crime all filmed in the Nickel City. But these productions—which import cash to our city and region—are few and far between. More often than not, we get the Bruce Almighty treatment, in which a film crew comes to shoot innocuous establishing shots for several days, while “Buffalo” is recreated in another city or on a Hollywood sound stage. Or we get Poultrygeist, the low-budget comic gross-out horror film directed by Troma Entertainment icon Lloyd Kaufman. There are few chances for local aspiring filmmakers to work on a production with established professionals. That’s where guys like me come in: the DIY (do it yourself) filmmakers hoping to make it big by making it small.
In 2009, I directed Slime City Massacre, a sequel to my first feature, over an 18-day period in the abandoned buildings surrounding the Central Terminal. Debbie Rochon, an actress who has appeared in more than 200 films, including Slime City Massacre, just made her directorial debut here last month with the horror feature Model Hunger (with me as the line producer and first assistant director); Lloyd Kaufman has returned to the area to shoot Return to Nuke ’em High in Niagara Falls; Deftone Pictures Studios just wrapped the sci-fi opus Ombis (featuring more slime creatures) in Angola; and Dan Monroe, a one-man army, is shooting House of Horrors: The Gates of Hell.
What sets Model Hunger and Return to Nuke ’em High apart from the other films on this list is that they were initiated by out-of-town filmmakers who elected to come to Buffalo because of personnel, locations, or both.
“Projects like Debbie Rochon’s help to keep our local crew base strong and sharp,” says Buffalo-Niagara film commissioner Tim Clark. “Making movies involves intricate skills whether it’s a small budget indie or a big studio project. Having experienced crew and other support services makes a huge difference in attracting more projects to the region. The film industry is also a close-knit business. If the crew on a small film feels they had a good experience, they’re apt to tell others, and the word spreads quickly that our region is film-friendly and a good place to place a project.”
Even a small visiting film generates income for the local economy by providing jobs for artist residents, warm bodies that require food and housing, set construction, costumes, and vehicles. When a small production comes to town, its makers are likely to stick around for the duration of production, not leave for greener pastures after grabbing shots of our architecture or the falls. On Model Hunger, six local actors and two crew members were paid for their services, in addition to caterers and a set carpenter; numerous volunteer positions were filled by area residents as well.
“The return on investment of the film and television business in Western New York is staggering,” according to Clark. “The experts tell us that millions of dollars are directly spent in our community on things like crew, vendors, restaurants, hotels, and the like. When you factor in the radiating economic impact, the numbers climb much higher.”
Two locally produced films will be distributed on DVD later this year by a legitimate company, Alternative Cinema (as opposed to being self-distributed on a filmmaker’s own website): Sam Qualiana’s Snow Shark: Ancient Snow Beast, the first feature shot in Lockport, and Ken Consentino’s violent superhero riff Crimson: The Motion Picture, filmed in Niagara Falls.
If you worry that our beloved city is transforming into a bubbling cauldron of cinematic slime, rest assured that non-exploitation films are being made here as well. Gerald Hartke has spent several years producing Nicholas of Myra: The Story of St. Nicholas, a comparatively expensive film that is nevertheless attempting to create a grand-scale Hollywood biopic on the equivalent of what a one-hour TV episode would typically cost. Hartke’s team created a one-quarter-scale mockup of an ancient sailing ship, and transformed the Albright-Knox Art Gallery into interiors representing Constantinople.
Anthony Vescio is the writer and producer of a Granted, a dark drama which filmed at such locations as DBGB’s, Mohawk Place, Artspace, and Full Circle Studios. The film is in post-production, and should be completed by the end of the summer. According to Vescio, Buffalo’s reputation as a friendly city extends to production niceties as well.
“You don’t realize how much support there is in Buffalo until you start to add up all the little things. Every location we went to basically let us have the run of the place. The employees chipped in and helped us, we were able to freely use power, and both times we shot in bars they turned on their sound systems and concert lighting without us even asking. The guys at Mohawk Place stayed extremely late and never once pressured us to hurry. DBGB’s even supplied us with free food. You can’t ask for better support than that.”
For many of us, little things are happening in this city that could lead to bigger films and greater opportunities; the hope is that our film community can help build a local film industry. On Facebook, the Buffalo Niagara Film Professionals Association numbers almost 200 members. Rich Wall, operations manager for the Buffalo Niagara Film Commission, recently revamped its website, making it easier for filmmakers to locate crews, locations, and other services.
“To attract large-budget pictures to our area we have to have a strong union crew base,” Clark says. “We have been working closely with the entertainment industry unions to increase the number of card carrying union crew members to help sell the virtues of making films in Western New York.”
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