David Milch is coming out with a new HBO series, Luck. It revolves around the turbulent world of horse racing, and its corrupted and corruptible characters. Like all Milchian scripts, the dialogue will be so authentic you’ll want a thoroughbred by episode 3. But here’s a spoiler alert for all the Buffalonians who’ve been waiting for Milch to come home – Luck doesn’t take place in Buffalo. And unfortunately, Luck is exactly what could bring the Queen City back.
If you’re interested in what Buffalo once was, and what it has become, ask any native for the list – closed down steel mills, failed construction projects, a misplaced university, 4 lost Super Bowls and a chicken wing that’s now duplicated in every other American city. But in the end, it’s the same closing line you’ll hear in Flint, Youngstown and Cleveland: “This country doesn’t make anything anymore.”
But in fact, there is one thing we still produce quite well – filmmakers. And many of their films have been
shot in cities just like Buffalo.
There have been notable beneficiaries of state tax incentives offered to the film industry – Albuquerque, New Orleans, Cleveland and Detroit are some. Because keeping costs low is a priority in any production, compelling tax breaks can help any city compete for Hollywood dollars. For some states it’s a highly debated program, i.e.
The Jersey Shore taking a state tax rebate on Snooki’s hair and make-up. But it can often have a lasting impact on the local economy, supporting small businesses and providing employment.
New York offers a 30% tax credit on film expenditures, and it’s been instrumental in keeping popular
television series from going out West. But although New York City and Buffalo
share the same state incentives, they don’t share the same resources. With
Buffalo’s current perception, talent would probably prefer a 6 month shooting
schedule in Minsk than flock to sunny upstate. The experienced crew in Buffalo,
though existent, is reluctant to join the necessary union to work on larger
projects. And the city is missing an instrumental resource for almost all
productions – a soundstage.
“It’s a practical thing as much
as a creative choice. If you’re going to shoot a film that takes place in
Buffalo, you might as well shoot in Toronto.” says Tom Fontana, Emmy award
winning writer/producer/director and a Buffalonian. Fontana has tried to
convince the mayor to build a soundstage on Buffalo’s deserted East Side for
years. But the “if you build it, they will come” principal is a tough sell for an
Iowa farmer, and even tougher one for a city scarred by misused tax dollars.
And so, the Catch-22 begins.
How are you going to bring films to Buffalo without the resources? How are you
going to invest in the resources without assuring films will come? If you talk
with Tim Clark, the Film Commissioner of the Buffalo Niagara Film Office, you
get the impression business is picking up. “We have a lot more production here
than people would think.” said Clark, as he ran down the list of independent
and feature films shot in the past three years. But these films are only using
Buffalo as a mere backdrop, with its variety of architecture, public buildings
and lakefront settings doubling as an unrelated location. That’s a crawling
pace for a city plagued by obscurity and threatened by extinction.
Buffalo needs more. It needs a
narrative that showcases its history, its people, its charm and its grit. It
needs what Pittsburg has in an August Wilson play, or Newark in a Philip Roth
novel. Where the city isn’t just a place, but more of a character; evoking
nostalgia for a time and place you might never have been. Buffalo has these
stories. It’s a city with strong Polish, Italian, Jewish and African American
communities; all rich with diverse storylines. A city that’s housed two
presidents, saw another shot, was the home of the first movie theater, the end
of the Eerie Canal and the Underground Railroad, and a hotbed for war protests
and race riots. The stories exist, they just need dialogue. And who better to
write it than Milch?
David Milch is a Tinsel Town macher who carries the clout to sell a
project in a two floor elevator ride. He was born and raised in the Queen City
before leaving for Yale, and ultimately winning Emmy’s for Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue
and others. His profanity laced vernacular on HBO’s Deadwood is praised by almost every published television critic,
and even a failure like John from
Cincinnati isn’t classified as “bad”, but simply “ahead of its time.” There
is no underestimating his ability to authentically portray whatever world he
chooses, whether the 15th precinct or the Wild West. And there’s no
doubting he can write Buffalo back on the map.
This isn’t an unreasonable
request. It’s the role Barry Levinson played with Baltimore – a filmmaker more
cinematically tied to his roots than Felini to Rimini or Woody to New York. With
his 1989 classic, Diner, which was shot
and filmed on location, Levinson captured the city he knew in ’59. Though it was a huge risk for producer Jerry
Weintraub, its success launched three more of the Baltimore Series – Avalon, Tin Men, and Liberty Heights. But most importantly,
Levinson proved that successful films could be shot in Baltimore, and Homicide: Life on the Street followed.
“They didn’t have incentives then, but the city basically opened up the door
for us.” noted Fontana, an executive-producer and writer on the series. “Over the 6 years Homicide was on NBC, we
were the tenth largest employer in Baltimore.” And as the series concluded,
they left Baltimore with a top notch crew, a slew of new local businesses, and
a path that would welcome The Wire.
So why not Buffalo? With the
promise of a Milchian series, any number of deserted warehouses could be
converted into a soundstage. A reoccurring project would offer local production
crews an incentive to join the union. The city’s architecture, neighborhoods
and landscapes would get more than just local appreciation. Businesses downtown
would have new clientele. Headlines would read, “Life Comes Back to Buffalo”
with a four page spread on the newest Asian fusion tapas lounge on Elmwood
Avenue. And there might now be a reason to stay, visit and shoot in Buffalo.
Shelve the plans for a new slots casino and any other misguided urban renewal
projects. With a little luck, Milch
could be the creative catalyst for revitalizing Buffalo. Maybe then we’d start
making something again.