Role models: N.J.’s film industry advocates point to trickle-down economics spurred by tax credit luring productions

Cinelease Studios' Caven Point facility.

Advocates of New Jersey’s film scene — and the state incentive program that’s been cardinal to its post-pandemic growth — report of coffee shops being greeted with 100-beverage-long orders by film crews.

And it’s just one example, they say, of how the economic benefit of this resurgent local industry is staying in New Jersey, and not escaping back to Hollywood.

Heads of Garden State’s nascent film industry are eager to relay such stories. Like a pitch for the latest blockbuster movie, they’re all joining forces together to fight … any apathy or misconceptions people might have regarding their industry and the business potential it represents (for much more than coffee houses).

Rolls off the tongue less than “supervillain” …

But, for them, there’s no greater triumph than bringing together businesses such as Netflix and NBCUniversal, local film gurus and unions that represent the entertainment labor force. That’s just a few of the cast members of the new Screen Alliance of New Jersey.

Gannon Murphy. (Screen Alliance of New Jersey)

Film production company executive Gannon Murphy is president of the trade association, which is going on its second year of operation.

“I’m fortunate enough to do this in a few other markets, so I recognize that the politics of the incentive require us to position the narrative in the right way and to get constituents as well as legislators to understand how important this is,” he said. “We all agree that we want to get ahead of that in New Jersey.”

Although New Jersey’s film industry is working on a 2034 timeline for the current iteration of the N.J. Film and Digital Media Tax Credit, the program has been amended and expanded since its 2018 reintroduction under Gov. Phil Murphy. The state had a previous tax credit suspended by former Gov. Chris Christie.

The Screen Alliance of New Jersey’s stated goal is to ensure the incentive program remains sustainable and transparent for the foreseeable future.

“And (policymakers) have a willingness to ask us how we can do this better, how we can make this industry a long-term viable powerhouse, and we’re just incredibly appreciative of that,” he said. “(Through this new group), we’ll be meeting with them in their offices, telling our success stories and helping group this together as a public-private partnership, which is how we see it.”

Without the tax credit’s continued support, a number of businesses would pull up the stakes and leave for other states. At least, that’s the view of Murphy, a general manager for Cinelease Studios, which operates Cinelease Studios – Caven Point, the first purpose-built studio in the state of New Jersey.

Avi Kelin. (File photo)

He and Genova Burns Partner Avi Kelin, co-general counsel for the trade association, argue there wouldn’t be the same business case to remain in the state otherwise. But, as it stands, businesses that serve the film ecosystem are happily setting up shop in New Jersey — in large part due to the incentive.

In short, the incentive is working wonders, they say. So, they created a group to voice that.

Having all components of the film economy be at the table when the message is delivered, including the labor component, is something they felt strongly about.

“In other states, you have different groups — one for content producers and others for everyone else,” Kelin said. “We felt it was important for us to do this under one tent with a unified voice. We’re not going to agree on everything. But we all want this industry going in the same direction. That’s the key thing.”

Jamie Payne. (File photo)

Jamie Payne, owner of the Palisade Stages sound stage facility in Kearny, said he would’ve himself liked to have a trade association’s backing when he was getting started in New Jersey three years ago.

But, especially as the film sector has seen year-over-year growth enough to eclipse $600 million in economic impact in the state, there’s no better time than now, he adds. People want a resource to find out how to get more involved in the fast-growing film space. That’s the role he hopes the Screen Alliance of New Jersey can fill.

“New Jersey, being the birthplace of film that it is, people have an awareness of the importance of the industry, but are sometimes not as appreciative of how they can actually be part of it,” he said. “I’ve been doing as much as possible with those who reach out to me to help them get involved.”

Here’s an example: The owner of a restaurant Payne and his wife frequent had his eyes opened to the stream of revenue that television, movies and commercials can represent through catering. Payne is happy to report that’s not an apocryphal story — that business owner is happily taking advantage of that now.

“These film productions are business magnets,” he said. “And we have a real opportunity here to help small businesses grow all over the state. … In fact, I was just in a conversation with representatives of towns in New Jersey. I was talking about how a feature film that’s going to start shooting at a location here is actually using 73 different locations. They hadn’t appreciated how the impact can be so spread around.”

More than education about what’s going on in the state’s film scene, Kelin hopes their new trade group can steadily instill a local pride in the Garden State’s part in making movie magic happen.

“Not everyone might be convinced yet that the film industry is relevant in New Jersey,” he said. “We’re here to say it is. And that there’s a role in it for everyone.”