|Studios USA, then known as Universal TV, began preproduction on the Emmy Award-winning NBC series Law & Order in New York City in February, l990. It was originally produced under the NABET umbrella. (Author's note: NABET is the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians.) When NABET and the IA (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) joined forces in the early 90's, the union continued to honor the original NABET agreement with Law & Order's producers. Since the newly merged IA would not concede contract negotiation differences on other projects, the studios imposed an unofficial boycott on New York. Law & Order was literally the only show in town. Nine years (several thousand projects and ratified IA contracts) later, the series is still one of New York's premiere productions and employers. |
Co-Eexecutive Producer Jeffrey Hayes was there from the beginning. "Law & Order took over an abandoned pier on the Hudson River at 23rd Street. It took some work to clean it up, but back then, we had the run of the place. We had unlimited parking, and a lot of different locations we could shoot for free. We could go anywhere on the pier and get different looks, usually the run-down look, and we had all the room we could hope for. But, safety was an issue back then. The neighborhood was shaky, and the bus stop was several blocks away. If we worked late, we walked the women to their cars or the bus. Forget about getting a cab late at night down here. When the Pier (Chelsea Piers Management Company) took over, it became a much, much nicer facility. Cabs come day and night. The bus was rerouted and now there's a stop right in our parking lot. At night now, there's no problem. It's all lit up. The whole neighborhood uses the place and the neighborhood itself has undergone a major gentrification. Day or night, it's much safer."
However, for Hayes and the Law & Order production staff, the transition period was difficult. "Pier Management tried to accommodate us, but they were doing a massive construction. Our PA's were constantly doing 'rolls and cuts' with construction workers."
Now that Chelsea Piers is it's own metropolis (there are ice skating rinks, golf driving ranges, a gym, a heliport, restaurants, batting cages, basketball courts, gymnastics, indoor soccer and volleyball, an indoor pool, a marina, a five-camera show, Spin City, that likewise shoots out of Chelsea Piers), there are added disadvantages.
"Because Chelsea Piers has become it's own 'destination' now, we are allotted about 20 parking spaces. The crew has to pay (market rate) to park. They get a monthly deal, but it's still very expensive compared to paying nothing. Plus, we just can't go shoot anywhere we want now. If we do, we are paying somebody for something. On the other hand, it's a real restaurant, or a real gym that we'd have to pay for anywhere, but it's conveniently close to us right here on the pier. There are trade offs."
According to Hayes, the major problem with Chelsea Piers as a production facility, is the incompatibility of it's overall usage. "The Management is trying to accommodate us, but they have no real idea what our business needs to operate efficiently. They have their priorities. We have a sports facility next to us and they will book an event with crowds and noise, and then ask us if we can move our shoot days on our own stage. They are not demanding, but they can't understand why we can't do it." Hayes feels that unless you design a facility from the ground up, you can't really have a public space and a production studio as one entity without encountering a myriad of problems.
In addition, the Law & Order stages are not properly soundproofed. "So we hear helicopters, cruise boats coming in and out of the marina. Though I personally love boats," admitted Hayes, "it causes sound problems when we're on stage. But, we do shoot exteriors on the pier and in the marina. That's a lot of production value. So there are pros and cons."
Did Universal ever consider buying the Pier and dedicating it solely to production? "I approached them about it several times over the course of our being here," reflected Hayes, "but they are hard pressed to think further than the next pick up" (of the series by the network for the coming season). Since Universal is not in the business of Real Estate, they continue to rent the space at the Pier. According to Hayes, it's lucky they have it. "The problem now, in New York, is you can't get a place with any height. If you want to do a series, you'll have a hard time finding a facility to accommodate you."
Hayes regrets that Universal never invested in their own NY-based facility. "They've always had a presence in New York, but we could never doing anything unless it was on our pick up. If it was a year's pick up, we had to amortize everything over the year. Which meant we had restrictions on the number of sets we could build. We could have saved the studio a lot of money if they allowed us to do what we knew to be true. Of the sets we did build (squad room, hospital, morgue and forensics lab, Riker's Island jail and interrogation room, the DA's office, and the Courtroom, all on three stages) we have saved the studio a bundle."
But Law & Order did not always have a courtroom on the stage. For the first four or five seasons, the courtroom scenes were shot at a practical courtroom location in one of the civic buildings downtown. It was donated by the City of New York, and dedicated to Law & Order on an exclusive basis.
"We really have to thank the City for that," said Hayes. "Their giving us that courtroom made the series possible. You're never going to build a courtroom for a startup show and then find a place to put it. They gave us exclusive access, enabling us to install a lighting grid and leave it in place and keep other equipment in the room. That courtroom was ours, free of charge from the City, and that enabled the show to get on it's feet."
Now that the show has a courtroom built on a sound stage, they save time, and have the flexibility to convert it into four different types of courtroom settings. "But we still go downtown to the civic center and shoot our exteriors."
In fact, the City of New York has become it's own character in the show. With an 8-day shooting schedule, they shoot an average of four in and four on location. "Because it's so easy to get in and out of here," noted Hayes, "we may be out for a day and in for two, and out for two, and in again. When we do go out we really want to show off New York. Not your Statue of Liberty shot, but a real New York-type thing. We're shooting a night exterior on Duane Street this week. The cobblestones, the overhangs. It's going to look great!"
In all, Hayes feels that Universal has been supportive of the show being shot on location in New York. "During the first two years, they did want us to take it somewhere cheaper. LA? Toronto? But the head of Labor Relations (from Universal) and I negotiated with all the unions and told them we had to cut $50,000 per episode to bring the numbers more in line with LA. Universal was going to move it unless we could cut that money out. So, we got all the unions and guilds together and in two meetings, everybody pitched in and came through and gave something back. It really did save $50,000 an episode and saved Law & Order for New York." Hayes is proud that the deal became the boilerplate for one-hour dramatic television in New York, and paved the way for other shows.
But with all this increased production in New York, Hayes feels that the production on the whole is suffering. "Neighborhoods are getting burned out. A feature will come in and tie-up so many blocks for so long, the neighbors get very annoyed. I don't blame them. I call it vehicle-size inflation. Big campers, buses, tractor-trailers, honeywagons. It takes up so many blocks. Law & Order's unit is the same size as features like The Godfather and Serpico. We look so small compared to something like You've Got Mail which was not a night location show, or stunts. These units take up blocks and blocks, it's unbelievable. We suffer for it when it creates a 'hot zone,' and our show, which can get in and out in a day, is restricted from filming in those neighborhoods. It makes it doubly tough for us because a feature can scout for months and decide months in advance they want to shoot on a specific block. We get 8 days to prep an episode, and the City can say yes or no. Sometimes we press the issue and have gotten them to relent, but sometimes they won't. Makes it tough for us. I think the City should treat us differently than big features. We work differently. We've been here for 9 years. We were the only employer of production people in the City for a season or two, and we don't burn locations or neighborhoods. We should be recognized for that and get more leeway than a feature, because we don't operate the same way."
For the most part, Law & Order maintains an excellent rapport with the Mayor's Office. The NYPD Motion Picture and Television Unit (aka "the Movie Police") has become a pivotal partner in helping facilitate shooting.
And in those 9 years and 200 episodes filmed in New York, they have recently reached their 20,000th location file.
"We've been keeping busy," admitted Location Manager, Moe Bardach. "Our location budgets per episode have remained fairly consistent over the years, coming in somewhere between $25-30K. That includes shooting four to five interiors/exteriors per day and we're out about four days per episode."
Filming on City-owned property helps keep the costs down. "We rarely 'pay off' neighboring businesses," stated Bardach. "Although it has been known to happen in New York, I do everything I can to minimize it. We have a well-staffed department and we work with everyone. We find if we keep communication open, they don't hold us up for money."
In Bardach's 6.5 years with the show, where they are out on the city streets for at least half an episode, it's been the rare occasion where they've had to pay off a neighboring business. "We go out of our way to reach out to neighbors in advance. Sometimes, on the day, even after all our advance work, a merchant will approach us and say: 'You are impeding my business.' I'll move the truck 50 feet to alleviate the problem. I'll try that first. We don't want to set a precedent. If they jump in front of the camera, or make a commotion, I'll enlist the help of the movie police assigned to us. Because at that point they are disturbing the peace, and we have a permit with the City to be filming. It's one thing if we're on their property, or photographing their exterior, of course we pay for that. But if we're not on their property, we're on the public sidewalk and filming inside another location, we don't pay."
Bardach's major complaint about the recent boon in film production in New York of late is that he finds himself following feature films, and sometimes even large budget commercials, who have left a lot of big money deals in their wake. On Law & Order's budget, it's hard to compete with that. "It's a lot easier for us now because the show is very popular and it's a top-quality program. People believe in it, and that helps when it comes to doing location deals."