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The Reel Queens: Setbacks, scandal leave future of Queens film in question

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For the past few years, Queens has garnered a reputation as a hotspot for filmmaking and television production as city and state tax incentives have drawn the entertainment industry to the borough’s studios and streets as never before.

But Gov. David Paterson has so far only extended the state’s tax credit program through next year, leaving western Queens studio executives concerned that TV shows, which plan ahead for several seasons, will relocate their productions if they do not have a firm tax incentive commitment for the next few years.

In addition, the future of the Queens International Film Festival, which is the borough’s most high-profile film event, may now be in jeopardy after projectionists, organizers, film distribution company operators and cultural institutions recently alleged that Marie Castaldo, QIFF’s founder, had stiffed them out of thousands of dollars during the past few years. And in October, a Jackson Heights film festival was canceled after the community’s two theaters shut down permanently.

Film industry leaders and elected officials said they believed the city and state tax incentives were the key to the borough’s status as a film center. But most of them did not believe this reputation was endangered, despite current bumps in the road.

State Assemblyman Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria) cited ongoing film-related development projects in western Queens, such as the $65 million renovation of Astoria’s Museum of the Moving Image and Kaufman Astoria Studios’ $22 million expansion into a full studio with a lot, as examples of success stories amid the economic downturn and the questionable future of film and TV tax credits.

“Everything has its blips,” Gianaris said. “But production has been growing by leaps and bounds. There’s no cause for alarm as long as the tax program, which is the linchpin, continues. The western Queens economy depends heavily on the success of its film industry. We’ve managed to keep it hanging on by a string, so it’s imperative we give the program the stability it needs. Producers plan on a multi-year basis and we need to give them assurance. It’s the single most successful tax incentive program in recent history.”

Silvercup Studios CEO Stuart Match Suna has said the decision to move forward with the $1 billion expansion of his Long Island City-based studio, which hosts the filming of the TV shows “30 Rock” and “Gossip Girl” on its stages, will depend on if the state’s tax program is continued.

The state’s film and TV tax program kicked off in 2004, increasing production in New York by 85 percent, while the city’s own incentive created thousands of jobs and generated hundreds of millions in revenue. The credit is available for movies and shows that complete as least 75 percent of their productions in New York.

The credit was originally set to expire in 2013, but ran out of money earlier this year. In April, Paterson put $350 million back into the program, but only extended it through 2010.

Julianne Cho, associate commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting, said the number of films and TV shows that shoot in New York has not declined.

“Production has remained steady throughout the five boroughs, including 12 prime-time episodic series that are currently filming,” she said.

Scenes from several noteworthy films, including the Meryl Streep comedy “It’s Complicated” and Kevin Smith’s detective movie “A Couple of Dicks,” featured shooting in Queens during the past year. But last summer, Silvercup and Kaufman Astoria executives said their studios were not drawing new TV shows or pilots.

Whether producers will choose Queens as a locale in the immediate future is unclear, but the Queens International Film Festival’s future appears doubtful. A group of people involved in the screening and distribution of films recently accused QIFF founder and executive director Marie Castaldo of not paying them thousands in wages for their work on the festival over the past few years.

The alleged victims include 2007 collaborators Museum of the Moving Image and Dan Nuxoll, founder of Brooklyn nonprofit Rooftop Films, as well as James Hill, a Connecticut projectionist who took part in the festival last year, and Kerry Wallum, an Austin, Texas-based film producer who arranged a tribute to musician Levon Helm at this year’s festival that was to be presented by Kris Kristofferson, but was canceled.

Castaldo allegedly owes her detractors anywhere from several thousand dollars to $16,000. QIFF’s phone number is still in service, but its answering machine said the mailbox was full and could not receive messages.

City Council members Tony Avella (D-Bayside) and Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria) said they want Castaldo to be investigated, but Queens District Attorney Richard Brown’s office said she currently faces no charges.

“It’s clearly a pattern this woman has to defraud people and take advantage of them,” Avella said. “She’s had several aliases. It’s a shame because Queens should have its own film festival.”

Gianaris said he did not believe that a discontinuance of QIFF, which ran from Nov. 12 to Nov. 15 this year, would negatively impact the borough.

“The film festival was just getting off the ground, so I don’t think the industry depended on it,” he said.

And David Schwartz, curator for the Museum of the Moving Image, said Queens film culture would not be damaged if QIFF did not screen for an eighth year. He cited increased audience attendance at Long Island City’s Socrates Sculpture Park outdoor films last summer and Queens Theatre in the Park’s introducing film into their program as signs that the borough is still a cinema hub.

“If you look all around the country, you’ll see that a lot of film festivals are hurting because they require a lot of funding and sponsorshi­ps,” he said. “Lots of them are cutting back drastically.”

Another annual Queens cinematic showcase, The Jackson Heights Food and Film Festival, was forced to cancel its screenings in late October after the neighborhood’s two remaining cinemas — Eagle Theater, which showed Bollywood movies, and the Jackson Triplex — were shuttered.

Read film reviews by Nathan Duke at criticalconditions.net.

Posted 6:29 pm, October 10, 2011
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