Could Syracuse Become a Mecca for Filmmaking and Production

Mar 16, 2015

Can Syracuse be a location and production center for major films and television programs, such as "The Undersigned"?
  At least three blockbuster movies have been filmed in Syracuse in recent years.  And it has people wondering if Syracuse could become a Mecca for filmmaking and production?   However, the desire to produce more films here requires tenacity.

The first major film to put Syracuse on the map as a city for filmmaking in recent years was “The Express”.  It chronicles the life of Syracuse University football legend, Ernie Davis. The production brought in actor Dennis Quaid. Those crews have long since packed up and returned to Hollywood but, independent filmmakers in Syracuse are producing movies all the time.

At Shoppingtown Mall in Dewitt, two production studios are almost hidden near the entrance of the movie theaters. Rufus Morris is the President and CEO of Kingdom Entertainment and is working on a children’s feature-length film called “Nineveh.”  The colorful sets grab your attention.  But for a major portion of his work, he travels elsewhere.

“I can go out to Hollywood or LA as an independent production company...  take my money and resources and shoot a project there for far less than shooting it here at home”.   

Morris says the key reason is the availability of people who have many years of experience lighting sets.  He says he would pay the same price locally for people who are much less qualified.

 One of the independent movie releases out of Syracuse in recent years, “King Lee” is a movie that was shot mostly in the city and some scenes in Boston.  That’s where Co-Writer and Director Jonathan Case now lives and works as a TV News Producer.  He feels Syracuse shows promise in the film industry.

 “If the infrastructure were built-up and the filmmaking community kinda comes alive in Syracuse; I think there’s no doubt that it could be. There’s certainly enough talent, there’s certainly enough drive and passion among the film younger filmmaking community.”

Case and his production team quickly blew through $10,000 dollars of seed money and he paid for the rest.  In terms of producing a film on location, Case says he never found a city more welcoming than Syracuse; however he wishes independent filmmakers were more valued as an artistic, cultural and economic force. As much as Rufus Morris loves Syracuse, a major city that he feels is making it more enticing for the film industry is Atlanta.

“Literally, Lionsgate and other major companies are relocating to that market because it’s more cost-effective.  They’re welcoming, inviting.  That’s what Syracuse… it has to happen to in order to attract outside money, resources and investors to come here.”

One of Morris’ employees is Michael Widger who has produced films. He’s forthcoming about the other challenge for independent filmmakers is sometimes, just getting their films noticed.

   “It just goes to show that people... it’s almost like they don’t care unless you can tie someone famous to it. Some kind of taste of pop culture.”

  So, it begs the question can Syracuse become a major hub for film production? Here’s Deputy Commissioner of Neighborhood and Business Development, Ben Walsh.

  “I don’t think we’re ever going to be on the same level as Los Angeles, New York City, or Vancouver, but there are opportunities and we’ve seen that recently.” 

Or at least that’s what Walsh said in the fall of 2012… everything preceding was the story more than two and a half years ago... Now, that we’ve successfully returned back to 2015, let’s get you caught up.  Remember Rufus Morris ? He closed down his Shoppingtown Mall Studios and relocated to Atlanta about seven months ago.

 “Out here there’s not only major feature films and television series being shot but, there’s a lot of independent projects and music videos.”

However, just as Morris is getting settled in there, Syracuse seems to be on the brink of becoming the Film and Production Mecca that he and everyone else is hoping for.  That’s because of State Tax credits implemented by Governor Andrew Cuomo and the fact that Onondaga County now has a Film Commissioner. Eric Vinal was making the pitch in LA recently at an industry trade show for movie and TV producers to come here and save 45 percent in production taxes… an extra ten percent over New York City.

 “I mean, people can come, they don’t even have to film their movie here to do the post production here. So, as we develop these post production facilities, a movie could film wherever but, because of these tax incentives they may say let’s go to Syracuse / Onondaga County to do our post production work and get that tax credit, even though we didn’t film in that area."

Construction on the Film House production company's Dewitt location began this winter.

  As it turns out, Vinal’s work is right on cue as the Film House from LA decided to build its production studio Hub in Dewitt.  CEO Ryan Johnson saw instant value. He says California doesn’t offer any discounts to filmmakers.

 “Nothing ever films in LA, anymore. Incentives are a huge part of your film financing these days, and the fact that New York and Cuomo’s really done an amazing job of being competitive, if not, a frontrunner in a lot of ways.” 

Johnson feels that he will be able to convince his friends and colleagues to come here and steer other projects from going to other states.  The Film House also intends to shoot and produce several films locally. Syracuse and Onondaga County are also getting noticed by Canadian Filmmakers.  Whistler Films President and Producer Malcolm Williamson says some scenes of their movie, “Free Pour” have already been shot in Canada by Syracuse University students.

“So more than simply to come to Syracuse to use it as a location, we decided to invest in the community and actually make this our US home for shooting films. And we said well why don’t we just take advantage of everything that’s here, the people, the good training and maybe we could have our businesses operate here... make movies, do our technology and create some employment opportunities.”

Williamson’s company, Armory Pictures International, and plan to hold an open casting call for actors.The Landmark Theater is the backdrop for an initial TV pilot series “The Undersigned.”  

 Owner of Skycron Studios in Ottawa, Cory Carlick eventually wants to move operations here. He’s filming the week of April 18th.

“Because you have such a tradition of the stage and the arts and that sort of thing. The people that have come in on the crew in Syracuse and Central New York... they’re ready to go !”

So, Syracuse as a Film Mecca ? Not so sure.  However, film and TV producers are finding the right incentives they need and the facilities to apply their trades. They all claim that Syracuse and Central New York is Cinematic.