Buffalo-area production designer says local film jobs have dried up

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Traveling is just a part of life these days for people from Western New York who work in the film industry.

“Nobody in Buffalo is working in Buffalo. They’re having to find work elsewhere,” production designer and set decorator Emily Powrie said.

Powrie likes to keep her bags ready in her Buffalo apartment.

“I had a job in Chicago at the beginning of last year. I normally work in New Jersey and Newburgh so I’m usually never home,” she said.

Powrie’s latest job was as set decorator for the recently released film “Pinball: The Man Who Saved The Game.”

“It is about Roger Sharpe. He actually loved the game of pinball so much and fought to get it legalized again in New York City and there were a couple other states in the country that had it banned because they thought it was for gambling,” she said.

The production company shot the film in the city of Newburgh, in Orange County, New York. Powrie said similar opportunities upstate have gradually gone away since the state trimmed its tax credit in 2020 from as much as 35% to 25% in most cases.

She said it’s forcing crews to work in the New York City area or often out of state.

 “You miss family. You miss friends. You miss events. You miss your community,” she said.

Industry members like Powrie and actress Mary Stuart Masterson are advocating for the governor’s plan to restore the credit to previous levels and increase the pool of public money available from $420 million to $700 million. Masterson, who is also the founder of a sound stage and a non-profit that trains people for jobs in the industry, spoke in favor of the proposal at the capitol this week.

“It’s really bold and it needs to be bold because we’re completely lost in this sort of arms race of tax credits and it’s all over the country now,” she said.

Critics of the credit, like Empire Center for Public Policy Fellow Ken Girardin, said New York, rather than participating in a subsidy arms race with states like California and New Jersey, should be brokering a disarmament. 

“We should let them leave and we should work with other states to get rid of their incentives so that we’re not involved with this silly race to the bottom where the real winners are the film and television studios,” Girardin said.

He published a report last month, arguing state economic development numbers claiming the program generated billions in direct spending and earnings in 2019 and 2020 makes big assumptions about whether productions would still set up without subsidies. Those same numbers, he said, show New York as a state is getting significantly less back in tax revenue than it’s spending.

“The state’s own consultant reports have shown that for every dollar the state gives for these film productions, we lose about 50 cents,” he said.

But Powrie said as somebody responsible for purchasing items for sets, she’s seen firsthand just a piece of what a production can do for a community.

“When we film locally, we shop locally,” she said.

Powrie said if the tax credit expansion, which is included with some changes in both the Senate and Assembly budget counter-proposals, does not happen, she’ll have to assess her future.

 “It’s a tough decision because I want to keep doing what I love but what I love isn’t necessarily here right now,” Powrie said.

The Empire State Development report the Empire Center analyzes suggests the state does get a better than one to one return on tax investment when factoring in taxes collected by New York City and other local governments. Girardin suggested that is an attempt by the state to try to make it appear the credit pays for itself and is also based on assumptions about the secondary effect of subsidies.

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