The Catskills, with its beautiful scenery and quirky towns, offers ready-made backdrops for movies and TV. Add talented local crews and substantial tax credits, and it's no wonder increasing numbers of film and television productions are setting up here. In this episode, we speak with the Hudson Valley Film Commission's Laurent Rejto, and with a local innkeeper whose B&B was a key location for an upcoming film about werewolves.
Thanks to our sponsors, the Catskill Mountains Scenic Byway and the Phoenicia Playhouse.
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Transcribed by Jerome Kazlauskas via https://otter.ai
Brett Barry 0:03
Welcome to Kaatscast, a biweekly podcast delivering interviews, arts, culture, and history from New York's Catskill Mountains. At the Phoenicia Belle Bed and Breakfast in Phoenicia, New York, there's a giant maple leaf-shaped sign advertising maple syrup. There are also some lawn signs that read, we support Midland gas. I met with owner Tom Fraser and was compelled to ask, do you sell maple syrup at the Phoenicia Belle?
Tom Fraser 0:33
Brett Barry 0:35
Do you support Midland gas?
Tom Fraser 0:38
No. In fact, I'm ignorant...totally about Midland gas.
Brett Barry 0:43
There's also a fresh blanket of snow on the property. Despite a pretty mild winter here in the Catskills.
Tom Fraser 0:49
First...no, I suppose (is) the way it's called.
Brett Barry 0:52
The building that usually serves as the Phoenicia Belle underwent some temporary transformations for the upcoming film, "Werewolves Within."
Tom Fraser 1:00
I think the producers coming from California thought...oh, there's going to be snow in the Catskills that time of year, but for the first time since we've lived up here, we're covered in pho-snow, not the real stuff.
Brett Barry 1:14
Lights, Camera, Catskills! This week, film in the Hudson Valley. Sponsored by the 52-mile Catskill Mountains Scenic Byway; following New York State Route 28 through the heart of the Central Catskills. For maps, itineraries and links to area restaurants, shops and accommodations, visit sceniccatskills.com.
Tom Fraser 1:44
We have the Bed and Breakfast here on Main Street. That is the moment being used as a location shoot for a film called, "Werewolves Within," that I think is a comedy based on a virtual reality video game. We've been descended upon by a movie crew here and Phoenicia, not only the Belle, but the town itself. The whole of the Hudson Valley has been descended upon by movie crews because it's a great location for a lot of different films. We were extras in a little film called, "You Can Count on Me," which was filmed here good 10-12 years ago. That to my recollection was the beginning of when films started to find locations up here. Woodstock Film Festival, of course, you know, and the whole Hudson Valley Film Commission has just blossomed since then.
Laurent Rejto 2:38
I'd love to talk about "Werewolves Within" because I've known Josh, the director for about 14 years. He was born here and went to school and Onteora high school where my kids went, then his mom was the principal. So we have, we have a very long relationship. My name is Laurent Rejto. I'm the director and founder of the Hudson Valley Film Commission. The Film Commission is basically an organization, a nonprofit organization that solicits, supports, and promotes local film, TV, and new media production in the Hudson Valley, the Mid-Hudson Valley specifically, we work mostly in the counties of Ulster, Dutchess, Orange. We also work in Sullivan, Greene, Delaware, Columbia. So I've watched Josh go from making short films to two years ago, he came back and starred in a movie where they needed a makeup artist they needed a grip, they needed a few people. So we recommended a whole bunch of people. A year later, Josh came back and did a very low budget movie called, "Scare Me," and we recommended again some people to fill some of the roles that he needed. That movie was a very low budget movie was around $500,000. But it premiered at Sundance in 2020. So that was fantastic. The film ended up getting Josh a contract to do another film called, "Werewolves Within," so one year after he was doing "Scare Me," he was back with a tier two movie. Tier two means that it's above $6 million. So it went from 500,000 to that produced by Ubisoft, the gaming company, it's based on one of their games. They ended up hiring a line producer out of the city, but he's worked very closely with us and they've hired almost entirely locally in every capacity that they can. Josh is all about hiring locals. The entire group and gaffer crew, for example, seems to be local all the makeup crew, almost the entire construction crew. They just built a huge set at Woodstock Film Studios. So it's been the ideal. The perfect example of how to grow the industry from within, you know, all the resources that are at hand and Josh understands that probably better than anyone we've worked with.
Brett Barry 5:11
Can talk a little bit about the explosion of film in this region, statewide, region wide?
Laurent Rejto 5:16
We've always had films in the region that the industry has changed radically. So everything used to be 35 millimeter, we used to get some massive film productions like "The Night Listener" with Robin Williams, "War of the Worlds" with Tom Cruise. Those are really big productions. But things have changed over the years they everything went digital, at some point in the films became kind of our meat and potato productions. There was a point where everything's kind of stopped and it's because the tax credits just didn't exist and we were competing with other states that were way ahead of New York in terms of giving film tax credits, and we were competing against Canada and Canada has always been in an issue in terms of offering more dollar for the buck. New York State knew that there was an issue in terms of upstate, because costs are exponentially more expensive. As soon as you leave the city, the film zone, it's called, which is anything that's more than 25 miles from Columbus Circle. In order to encourage film productions to work outside of the film zone, they initiated a 10% additional tax credit, unfortunately...when they first did it, they decided that the 10% would only go to counties north and west of Albany. In 2011, we started writing in our annual reports that there was not a level playing ground in terms of the Mid-Hudson Valley, the county executive and assembly members and the state senators actually passed legislation to resolve that New York State had a 30% flat tax credit, and in November of 2016, that additional 10% tax credit went into effect. From that point on, we started getting more films.
Brett Barry 7:10
And how has that impacted the growth of film in this area in terms of numbers or what you've seen?
Laurent Rejto 7:17
In 2016, we tracked about $9 million in direct spending. A year later, we tracked $30 million for 2019. We just finished our data and based on 25 films, we tracked 46 million and so we've seen a huge rise in terms of spending. That's mostly because we're getting now some of the major TV shows: HBO, Netflix. Last year, we had 42,000 rooms that were rented just for the film's and that's a airbnbs. That's hotels, it's motels, it's inns. At the same time, we had 500 local crew members that were hired throughout the year and over 4,000 actors and experts were hired.
Tom Fraser 8:00
Overall, it's been great for the community, not only in accommodating the crews when they descend, but also employing local people, and that's especially what's positive about the Hudson Valley commission that's, you know, creating these crews that are here, and every now and then we do get location scouts coming through and give us their card and think about the possibility of the Belle being used or even just you know, the town is location. But this is the first one that's really for us actually come through and is really using our house for location shots: interior, exterior; it's actually been taken over for three weeks total, one week preparation, one week shooting and then one week tiding it back up again. Normally, this time of year is a busy season ski wise, but it's not been a great ski season so far this year. So for us, it was great to have you know the income from the shoot in and speaking for the community as a whole with the other businesses involved. I think it's been, you know, a really great experience for Phoenicia altogether.
Brett Barry 9:18
So tell me a little bit about what the Hudson Valley Film Commission does to foster relationships between the film companies and local crews and to provide whatever services you're providing or resources.
Laurent Rejto 9:32
Typically, the Hudson Valley Film Commission receives anywhere from seven to ten phone calls or emails a week, asking for help with some specific production, whether it's locations or crew or cast, or vendors. Usually, its locations people are looking for some location they have set in their mind and we try to match it as quickly as possible. So I will create a custom gallery, we have over 15,000 photos in our library and we're also always post on social media because we want to find exactly what people are looking for. Then we move on to promoting local crew and convincing people that if they hire a local crew, they're going to save money on lodging and they're also going to benefit because local crew members, they know the area that you have connections, they know locations, they know the local police officers, they, you know, they bring so much more than some producers might expect. Everyone should take into consideration that we have extremely well trained professionals in the area, those professionals are used to working in the city, they would rather work at home, we have a great pool of union workers and non-union workers. So we can satisfy anything that a production needs right here in the Hudson Valley, our directory is absolutely available to anyone who wants to see it. So we have a lot of people who just go to the directory and contact people directly. You know, very often we don't even know that someone's been contacted because we try to make everything as available as possible, we try to make sure that we take all the bureaucracy out of it when we provide for example, locations, we always give the name of the owner and we're not a middleman, we're not interested in slowing down the process, we want to make the process as quick as possible. When we refer local crew, we want them to just contact them and hire them. The idea is to make it easy and accessible for all productions.
Brett Barry 11:40
So if I'm a local makeup artist or videographer or even someone who has a piece of property that would lend itself well to a film, what's the best way to make those services or locations available?
Laurent Rejto 11:54
We're very easy to contact. Our website is hudsonvalleyfilmcommission.org or email is firstname.lastname@example.org. film email@example.com. On our website, people can fill out a form if they can offer some sort of crew position. If they're an actor, we have a place where they can fill out their actor information. In terms of locations, usually people will just contact us by email and we can explain to them how we prefer to receive the photos. We don't make any of that public, those are all put into a library that we will keyword specifically to meet the parameters that a production might need and then we will send it to specific location scouts that are looking for whatever specifics they mentioned. The Hudson Valley has always been a place where art has flourished and where people have have embraced it, but they've also embraced labor. Woodstock is a perfect example where people would work at the glass factories, and then at night, since it was nice and warm in the glass factory, they would have concerts or they would have readings. That tradition is true throughout the Hudson Valley where people embrace working really hard. Picking fruits and then picking banjos. That tradition continues with film. It's not glamorous, you know, a lot of people think are the film business, it's incredibly glamorous and red carpets. It's not that it's waking up at five in the morning being on set at 6 a.m. and working 14-16 hour days. But it all works together where the labor and the creativity work together and create this atmosphere that I think is embraced in this area more than probably any other area, and that's that's tradition, that's something that's been here for centuries. Certainly when you go back to 1895, and the Byrdcliffe Colony, the...the utopian colonies, you know where...where people would...would make art or they would make furniture or they would teach dance. Film combines all of those elements together. But it pulls it from all of the specific arts, and then when it all works perfectly, you end up with a fantastic movie. It's not always about the outcome. It's very often it's about the process. So very often, we'll experience a fantastic production where people become friends for life, and maybe their movie sucks. But you know what, it was a fantastic experience and everybody loved it, and they...they spent money and they provided an ability for local workers to pay their local taxes and stay here instead of having to work in Georgia or going to Louisiana or New Mexico to work and that's...that's really our goal in the end is to keep local workers working locally.
Brett Barry 14:56
Thanks to our sponsor, the Phoenicia Playhouse located in Phoenicia, New York. (An) historic 150-seat theater that's home to community theater, film screenings, local community events, road productions, and corporate meetings. The Playhouse is located in a beautiful hamlet of Phoenicia, New York, convenient to Main Street shops, local eateries, and outdoor activities more at phoeniciaplayhouse.com, and on Facebook and Instagram. Don't forget to subscribe and we'll post a new episode in two weeks. Until then, the Catskills offer plenty of opportunities for social distancing. We hope you can make some time to enjoy them. Stay healthy everyone, and thanks for listening. This is Brett Barry.