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Backstory: As the cameras roll, New Yorkers yell 'cut'!

Some residents resent having to dodge booms and dolly tracks as the city grows as a moviemaking hub.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 9, 2006


It's around 9 p.m. on a warm, cloudless night in Manhattan, but on my street in TriBeCa, a historic neighborhood of converted lofts and cobblestoned streets, a thunderstorm rages. A car zips by through the maelstrom and comes to an abrupt halt. Behind the furiously flapping windshield wipers sits a woman, seemingly distraught.

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Cut! The rain is actually being sprayed from a five-story boom, and the lightning is being simulated by a series of square, screened-off panels that flash sporadically and tremulously, just like real lightning. I don't recall the movie - it was months ago, actually - but it seems like a semi-monthly occurrence here, anyway.

For some residents, in fact, it has become too much of an occurrence. As more and more production crews rumble into New York with their semitrailers bulging with lights and dolly tracks, boom cranes and cameras, the city is being forced to balance its promotion of the film industry with residents none too thrilled to have their neighborhoods used as a back lot.

If there's one thing New Yorkers don't like, it's having their parking spaces, which are coveted like heirlooms, usurped and their walks to the gym impeded. The problem has become serious enough that the city has had to declare "hot zones" from time to time - places off limits to filming.

"They take up all the street," says Carmen Miraglia, the owner of Erbe, an exclusive Italian spa on a swank street in Soho. "They park their big trucks in front of the store, and, you know, nobody can see anything, and they basically own the street."

The commotion over camera crews is a problem many other cities would like to have, of course. While New York's iconic images have always been a significant part of American cinema - Times Square and the Empire State Building, as well as the slums of the Bowery and the fire-escaped streets of Soho - filming them has not always been a major production here. This industry has mostly been the domain of Los Angeles, where huge sets had simply simulated the notoriously mean streets of Gotham, creating an image of a city at once distraught and terrifying, romantic and exhilarating.

But now, those murky New York corners with their steaming subway vents and lingering wise guys have become some of the safest places in the country. Times Square has morphed from the mugging capital of the country to a glistening and Disneyesque haven for tourism and shopping. And this transformed cityscape, as well as the city's relentless promotion of the industry, has come to beckon the hulking caravans of major film production crews.

"It's absolutely exploded in the past couple of years," says Julianne Cho, assistant commissioner of the mayor's Office of Film, Theatre, and Broadcasting. Indeed, 14 feature films are currently being shot in the city, as well as 16 prime-time television shows and over 90 daytime, cable, or late-night shows. "There isn't really one particular area - we want to make sure that film production is distributed equitably throughout the five boroughs."

Yet, the same economic transformation that has brought Disney to Times Square has also brought converted lofts, chichi boutiques, and residents who complain loudly about the noise and inconvenience. Ms. Miraglia, for instance, has seen at least 10 production crews set up in front of her place in the past year, and her business often loses clients when the film crews park their convoys of equipment trailers.