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.
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.
Her small underground hideaway caters to the likes of Daniel Day Lewis, Lauren Hutton, and Kate Moss, as well as wealthy locals, who come for the spa's renowned facials and Shiatsu aromatherapy massage. (Sometimes it seems the only gritty thing on New York streets these days is an apricot facial scrub.)
"The big thing is noise," says Miraglia, an herbalist who came to New York from Rome and opened her spa in 1988. "The point is this: We are a small place, we have a quiet spa - it is supposed to be really silent. Instead [we have] all this noise, engines, and tracks and food. But mostly it's the attitude of the people who work for these sorts of things, you see. They own the street - if you pass by, you're an intruder."
In March, three crews converged at the same time in Brooklyn Heights, an exclusive neighborhood of tree-shaded brownstones and stunning views of Manhattan. Warner Bros. filmed scenes from "August Rush," starring Robin Williams; Castle Rock filmed scenes from "Mostly Martha," starring Catherine Zeta-Jones; and Ethan Hawke filmed scenes from his release, "The Hottest State." Though each had different locations, the number of semitrailers on the street left neighbors clamoring for parking for more than a week.
"Individual productions can get people riled up if they're huge and if the production people aren't as nice, and things happen and they get messy," says Judy Stanton, executive director of the Brooklyn Heights Association. "But this was three, and parking is a real prize in this neighborhood."
In conjunction with the city, a production crew may block off certain streets, both to make room for their equipment and create a set for a scene. They are only required to give advance notice to neighbors, who must then relocate their vehicles during the days of filming. Crews are permitted to move cars that remain on the street.
Since the film industry now generates $5 billion a year for the local economy and employs 100,000 New Yorkers, by city estimates, neighbors must deal with the hassle. Still, to bridge the divide between production crews and residents, the city will occasionally halt filming in certain areas. "It's an internal management tool we use to track the volume of productions in various neighborhoods," says Ms. Cho. "We'll look at the size and footprint of a production and look at the overall impact it's had in a particular area, and if one area has played host to productions and has seen a significant impact over a period, we'll give it a rest."
The bright lights of a production, even during the day, can also annoy neighbors, and the city requires location managers to provide residents with blackout material to cover windows. As a courtesy, some productions will provide parking vouchers for local garages, though they are not required to do this. According to Stanton, some companies have even donated money to the neighborhood association, especially if they had to film in the area for an extended period.
Inevitably, however, a film crew has to stay longer than it originally planned. "Then it all falls apart, if there's a production delay," says Stanton.