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Can local media evolve into a regional export industry?

486555_463002623720776_1684002666_nSome argue that in order to be nationally relevant, content producers must be located in New York or Los Angeles, because that’s where the industry’s decision makers are located.  They suggest that locating outside of those two cities will prevent content production companies from accessing national platforms, though there are many who have already debunked this assertion.

In 1970 Ted Turner bought a single broadcast television station in Atlanta, WTBS, and grew it into an international cable news network known as CNN. He spawned other cable networks too, like TBS and TNT.  Time Warner acquired the media company in 1996, in a $7.5 billion deal.

Today, media distribution is becoming increasingly decentralized with the advent of disruptive new mediums for content consumption – which empowers content owners by allowing them even easier access to a national audience than Ted Turner had in his time.  This trend continues. Sony has announced it intends to build an internet based television service that threatens to undermine the traditional hard line fiber optics cable service providers, and foreshadows the emergence of new content distributors using online subscriber based platforms.

The Fox network just announced that it is doing away with “pilot season” – a longstanding industry practice to solicit new programing on an annual basis – and plans to search year long for new content. Surely, this is a sign that cable distribution itself is becoming decreasingly relevant as more consumers look to Netflix, Hulu, and other online platforms for original entertainment content.

These emerging realities will make content distribution even easier than it was before, when accessing an audience required syndication by broadcast stations in each market.  Still, that older and much more difficult model saw wild success with content that was being produced outside of New York and Los Angeles.  In 1983 Oprah Winfrey took over AM Chicago, the city’s poorest rated morning show. By 1986 her show was nationally syndicated.

Old guard thinkers in Buffalo have suggested that we would never be able to attract national talent to come and film here.  But we are a mere 45 minute flight from New York (and a mere 90 minute drive from Toronto, the capitol of Canadian media), and powerful personalities travel much further to film at studios that could otherwise be filmed anywhere.  For example, Judge Judy lives in New York but films at the Sunset Bronson Studios on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. She is flown by private jet to film during alternating weeks, Tuesday through Thursday.

There is a considerable volume of daytime television that isn’t brand-bounded to a particular geographic location either, and could just as easily be produced here in Buffalo Niagara – at a much lower cost relative to New York or LA.  For instance, the Jerry Springer Show is filmed in Stamford, CT, as is Maury. Most court room television shows, daytime dramas, and game shows are filmed in LA, the highest cost location for doing so.

With new tax credits introduced by the Cuomo Administration, the cost advantage of filming those programs here would be considerable. The tax credit, which originally reimbursed 30% of production costs on a project (excluding costs for actors, producers, writers and directors), has been enhanced for certain Upstate areas and beginning in 2015 will reimburse 40% of labor costs incurred.

green-room2Until as recently as this past year, with the launch of the Pierce Arrow Film & Arts Center (PAFAC), we didn’t have an operating sound stage in the region.  Not even a year old, they’ve already enabled two films to be produced locally and are now offering a green room and NYS certified soundstage for rent at a daily rate, while making additional production services available to users at an additional fee.

“These are exciting times to be doing what we’re doing here and I really believe that we are finally moving in the right direction as city and as a creative community to accomplish these sort of milestones in Buffalo,” said Garrett Vorreuter of PAFAC.

It’s a great model to spawn content producers, and our real estate market is inexpensively conducive to it.  Building out a sound stage within an existing structure costs about $200,000. We certainly have no shortage of defunct or underutilized mall spaces that could be suitable for adaptive reuse: Summit Park; Rainbow; Main Place; etc.

How can we accelerate the cultivation of our local media into a regional export industry?  Here are my suggestions:

  • Make Cuomo’s film production tax credit permanent for all 8 counties of Western New York, for all genres of content production, and for all categories of labor costs incurred;
  • Encourage a local group of investors to launch an internet based cable television service, with the intention of sourcing a significant portion of original content locally;
  • Fund the build out of sound stages for use as shared working spaces for upstart content producers;
  • Establish professional programs in various genres of cinematography at the University at Buffalo and Buffalo State College (UB already has a liberal arts Film Studies program, but highly specialized professional programs will give the region a talent advantage);
  • Establish vocational training programs in production and editing at Erie Community College.

Sure, it is perhaps a complicated strategy to subsidize an industry by reimbursing 40% of its production costs through a tax credit – but we need to create jobs, and Cuomo’s tax credit is the closest thing to a government funded jobs program that we are ever going to see – so let’s make it permanent and structural so that we can cultivate the industry aggressively.

Images: PAFAC


Written by Matthew Ricchiazzi

@MattRicchiazzi on Twitter

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