How state’s small firms benefit when movie and TV production comes to town

Cinelease Studios' Caven Point facility.

There’s the relatively painless way to figure out the impact of the film and television scene’s growth in New Jersey: Measuring the overall revenues attached directly to the more than 600 projects filmed in New Jersey last year, including almost 100 feature films.

As for the promised bonuses to the small businesses in the towns where those films are being shot … Those aren’t nearly as easy to track.

But for a small-time bed & breakfast business booked for eight straight weeks in Clinton Mayor Janice Kovach’s Hunterdon County backyard when a film crew set up in nearby Lambertville this month, the benefits are clear as day.

“The amount of money spent in Lambertville on restaurants alone — not even taking into account the local lumber yards or other services called on — is fantastic,” she said.

Promoters of the industry and the film companies bringing new business to the state said small businesses in New Jersey have been reaping rewards from the state’s nascent film and TV ecosystem.

One of those new entrants is Cinelease Studios, which in 2021 opened Jersey City’s Cinelease Caven Point, the first purpose-built facility of its kind in the state. The company, which has been a provider of equipment to the film and TV industry for more than 40 years, manages about 2 million square feet of studio space across six states.

Gannon Murphy, executive vice president of Cinelease Studios, said it has seen it in other markets, and now it’s seeing it in New Jersey as well: Where films get made, ancillary businesses there benefit, whether it’s dry cleaners, painters, caterers, lumber business or security firms.

“If they can identify the opportunity, if they’re willing to jump in feet first and go on the wild, crazy train ride that production can be sometimes, and they’re willing to learn how to just say ‘yes’ and keep showing up, and learn a little bit about the client base … there’s great potential,” Murphy said.

Cinelease Studios has its own auxiliary business situated just down the street from its large studio in Jersey City, a sister entity that provides equipment for the industry, called Cinelease Lighting and Grip.

Murphy said the staff in Jersey City feels like they’re becoming a strong part of the fabric of the city, and participating in the revitalization of the post-industrial gray zone they inhabit.

“We’ve seen residential complexes pop up around us; we’re seeing a charter school pop up right next to us,” he said. “We really think this is an example of what it’s like to be a part of the organic growth of a community.”

Kovach said New Jersey’s localities are just starting to be convinced of the benefits of being open to film business, and not all are there yet.

“It doesn’t help that, when productions have come in, I like to say that they take the path of most resistance,” Kovach said. “But it is the case that navigating local government with home rule can be difficult sometimes.”

That’s where Kovach, as a local leader familiar with the inner workings of municipal government, and also a member of the New Jersey Motion Picture and Television Commission‘s board, steps in.

“I’ve been working to help mayors know what to ask and help productions know what constraints there may be within communities,” she said. “I always try to get those involved with productions to talk through the whole project before they come to a mayor and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to burn down a building on a piece of property in your town.’”

Unsurprisingly, local leaders don’t always jump at those opportunities, Kovach added.

The idea that these productions can act as an economic lightning rod … that’s a bit more appealing. And Kovach believes that’s exactly what’s happening, and what there will be a lot more of.

“All towns open to business will absolutely be benefiting in some way, shape or form,” she said.

N.J.’s ‘extensive crew network’

Studios and film equipment companies are flocking to the Garden State to get in on the action. When it comes to those manning the lights and cameras, promoters of the industry said they were already here.

Clinton Mayor Janice Kovach said that’s oft-overlooked aspect of how equipped the state’s film industry was for the growth it’s seeing today.

“The fact is, living in New Jersey is cheaper than living somewhere like (New York City),” she said. “Across the state, we had an extensive crew network already living here.”

Steven Gorelick. (Courtesy photo)

Steven Gorelick, executive director of the New Jersey Motion Picture and TV Commission, went as far as to say that the state has for some time now hosted the industry’s second-largest talent pool outside of California, which has a hard-to-beat Hollywood draw.

“A lot of those people … wanted for a long time to work at home, instead of traveling to New York or going out West,” he said. “So, I hear it all the time now: They’re thrilled about the renaissance (of film and TV work) in New Jersey. They’re so grateful for what’s going on here and that they can go home at night and see their children.”

Considering that Gorelick can cite a total of about 3,000 film and TV shooting days that last year featured in New Jersey, there’s a lot of work to go around for these professionals.

“We also hear stories of people moving here all the time now,” he said. “These crews go where the work is. And they’re coming to New Jersey for it.”

Whether or not locals are truly realizing benefits from the perks offered to the sector is central in a debate about continued support of New Jersey’s subsidy program. Local lawmakers are currently weighing an overhaul that would boost the dollars awarded by the tax credit program and change certain provisions that opponents say would diminish the program’s accountability.

In response to the changes in the proposed bill, which was advanced by the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, New Jersey Policy Perspective released a statement that argued the tax credits are a bad investment.

“Study after study shows that the cost of film tax credits overwhelmingly exceeds the benefits, as the jobs created are temporary and often go to specialists from out-of-state,” read a June 22 statement from Peter Chen, the group’s senior policy analyst. “At a time when New Jersey is facing upcoming budget shortfalls, cutting a check to movie and television companies will enrich high paid executives and corporate shareholders at everyone else’s expense.”