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Buffalo's film production renaissance pays off

On October 20, 2017, the most famous and culturally significant film ever shot in Buffalo came home — so to speak. Barry Levinson’s “The Natural,” the stirring baseball drama starring Robert Redford, screened before a packed house at the North Park Theatre as a presentation of Turner Classic Movies. TCM host Ben Mankiewicz and director Levinson were in attendance for a pre-screening chat. Tickets were free, and so was the popcorn. But any Hertel Avenue visitor that night would have also noticed the scores of Buffalonians streaming into restaurants and bars for some pre- and post-film food and drink.

Yes, “The Natural” continues to pay off in Buffalo, more than three decades after it opened in theaters nationwide. Imagine, for a moment, if it had kicked off a filmmaking boom in the Queen City. What would a continual pat on the back from Hollywood have done to the area’s collective confidence? And what type of economic impact might this have had on Western New York?

Well…now we know. In recent years, film productions have descended on Buffalo with thrilling regularity. And the results have been extraordinary. From large-scale studio features like “The Purge: The Island” and star-driven efforts like “Marshall,” to passion projects like Cheektowaga native William Fichtner’s “Cold Brook,” there’s been a near-constant stream of new film production. For that, we can thank the Buffalo Niagara Film Office, a two-person operation — consisting of Film Commissioner Tim Clark and Director of Operations Rich Wall — funded through Erie County and the City of Buffalo.

It’s the Film Office’s job to answer a simple question: Why Buffalo? Clark says one factor is the New York State Film Tax Credit Program, which offers a variety of credits meant to encourage production in New York. But there’s more to it than that. That’s why Clark and Wall meet with interested filmmakers early in the process to learn their specific needs, and to stress the area’s offerings.

Marshall filming | Box office for Buffalo | Buffalo Magazine

Filming for “Marshall” took place in locations around Buffalo in summer 2016.

“We approach all inquiries with a regional eye to make sure filmmakers know about our location assets in Erie and Niagara counties as well as other adjacent counties,” Clark says. “Western New York has architecture from nearly every period in American history and large locations like the Central Terminal, Niagara Falls, Zoar Valley and the Lockport Cave.”

For many filmmakers, taking advantage of the area’s unique sites fits the script and the budget. Buffalo native Greg Stuhr starred in, produced and co-wrote Jennifer Ricker’s acclaimed 2016 noir drama “The American Side.” A mystery involving a detective’s search for a long-lost Nikola Tesla design, the film featured a cast of silver screen veterans like Matthew Broderick, Robert Forster and Janeane Garofalo. When preparing to shoot “The American Side,” Stuhr and Ricker sought distinctive locations and affordability. Buffalo provided both.

“Shooting in Buffalo saved us money in perceptible ways,” Stuhr says. “We couldn’t afford [to create what] a lot of the Buffalo locations offered just as they were. We didn’t have to spend extra time and money making Fera’s or the Buffalo Club look just right. They already did.”

Marshall filming | Box office for Buffalo | Buffalo Magazine

A key dramatic scene in “Marshall” was filmed outside the Eugene Tenney Law Office at 5 Niagara Square downtown. At one point in history this building was the Buffalo Athletic Club — but never a YMCA (that part was doctored in via Hollywood magic).

Ricker says time and money went further in Western New York. And for a low-budget, independent project, this is essential.

“There is no way we could have shot this film with our budget and schedule anywhere else,” she says. “Had we tried this in another city, we’d be lucky to have a film in the can. We not only had a film that folks think was ten times the budget we shot with, but we came in on time and on budget. Those are words not often spoken in the film business.”

Buffalo native Kyle Mecca is the writer-director of “Dwelling,” a haunted-house horror film that was recently released on DVD as a Walmart exclusive. He had a deep desire to “bring Hollywood to Buffalo,” as he puts it.

“As I’ve grown as an indie filmmaker, Buffalo has grown into its own Hollywood at an exponential rate,” Mecca says. “So our pre- and post-production were both done in Buffalo, with only a small portion of post in Los Angeles. The producers and I wanted to pull our resources from home in every aspect of the production.”

Cold Brook filming | Box office for Buffalo | Buffalo Magazine

One of the many recognizable backdrops for the film “Cold Brook” included the Buffalo History Museum.

Film Commissioner Clark has had a front-row seat as Buffalo-based production has exploded. He’s seen the positive benefit the boom has had on local businesses.

“The economic impact is huge,” he says. “The direct spend of the movie industry in the Western New York economy is expected to be upwards of $40 million this year, and we’ve seen a progressive climb in this number. ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows’ was here two years ago and there were thousands of hotel room nights on that project alone.”

The largest scale recent production in Buffalo was the fourth film in the “Purge” series, “The Purge: Island.” Clark says the hotel numbers exceeded even the impressive “Ninja Turtles” tally.

“The hotels thank us every day,” he says. “These movies can have a greater impact than most conventions and other events. One hotel recently had four different movies staying with them at the same time. And it also extends to restaurants, caterers, hardware stores, fuel suppliers, equipment rental houses, and beyond.”

The True Adventures of Wolfboy filming | Box office for Buffalo | Buffalo Magazine

Woodlawn Beach was one location where “The True Adventures of Wolfboy” was shot locally.

To Stuhr, there is no doubt that a Buffalo production greatly impacts the local economy. But he sees a greater impact than just dollars and cents.

“We put a number of local artists, actors, and technicians to work,” he says. “We booked hotels, rented cars, rented equipment, rented locations, paid fees, hired caterers, patronized restaurants.

But there’s another element I think is worth noting: a film shooting around the city can be a great source of civic pride, especially when Buffalo is playing itself — as in ‘The American Side’ — and when its character is being shown off in such a beautiful way.”

“Dwelling” director Mecca is thrilled to see that “film and television production isn’t relegated to two or three cities anymore. Places like Atlanta, Baltimore, New Orleans, and Pittsburgh have thriving film and TV industries. There’s no reason Buffalo shouldn’t be counted among them going forward.”

With so many satisfied producers and directors, Clark says the future of film production in Buffalo is bright: “We are working on some very large and exciting projects for 2018 and beyond. Rest assured that there will be no slowdown anytime soon of movie trucks, crews and stars in Western New York.”

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