POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, May 02, 2013
ALBANY, N.Y. » The sweeping gun control measure signed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and hailed by Democratic leaders has a surprising critic: Hollywood.
Officials in the movie and television industry say the new laws could prevent them from using the lifelike assault weapons and high-capacity magazines that they have employed in shows like "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" and films like "The Dark Knight Rises."
Twenty-seven pilots, television and feature projects, including programs like "Blue Bloods" and "Person of Interest," are now in production in New York state using assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, according to the Motion Picture Association of America. Industry workers say that they need to use real weapons for verisimilitude, that it would be impractical to try to manufacture fake weapons that could fire blanks, and that the entertainment industry should not be penalized accidentally by a law intended as a response to mass shootings.
"Weapons are part of our history as a culture as humans," said Ryder Washburn, vice president of the Specialists, a leading supplier of firearms for productions that is based in Manhattan. "To tell stories, you need them."
Cuomo has gone out of his way to promote the industry's success; on Monday, he issued one news release to say the state was on track to break its record for the number of television pilots shot in a year, and another to announce that "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" would begin production this week in Rochester, N.Y.
The governor has also enjoyed political support from Hollywood: A rare out-of-state fund-raiser as governor was held at the Los Angeles home of an HBO executive.
But industry officials say the state's hastily developed gun-control measures pose an unexpected challenge to their growing production business in New York — the possibility that fake police officers on television could be treated as real-life criminals.
"Without clarification that the use of prop guns is still permitted on sets, many of the dozens of productions currently shooting in New York could be forced to go elsewhere," said Vans Stevenson, the senior vice president for state government affairs at the Motion Picture Association, which is the powerful trade association of the movie business.
But some lawmakers, feeling stung by conservative and upstate voters over the gun-control law, do not wish to vote on it again, even to make what the industry describes as a technical correction. Gun rights activists, who are challenging the new firearm restrictions in court, have mocked the idea of a so-called Hollywood exception.
"They're saying, ‘Why are we being held to this standard when Hollywood is getting a pass, and they're the ones who are promoting the violence?"' said Thomas H. King, the president of the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association.
The new laws expand New York's ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and beginning next January, they will prohibit the possession of magazines that hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition. Movie industry lawyers who have reviewed the measure say that they are concerned that the ban could apply to the magazines used in prop guns on dozens of productions in New York state.
Firearms on film and television sets are modified to shoot blanks; in some cases, the barrels are completely blocked off. But the guns, in many cases, feature magazines with a capacity above 10 rounds, and industry officials worry that uncertainty over potential legal liability could be enough to drive studios to relocate their productions to other states.
Asked about the industry's concerns in February, Cuomo expressed support for revising the law. "There's no reason not to make a change like that to give an industry comfort," he said at the time.
But since then, as it has become clear that any changes to the gun law will be difficult to get through the Legislature, administration officials have begun arguing that the law will not affect film productions, and say they are no longer pursuing an amendment.
The New York Police Department already grants permits to allow the use of firearms in productions, and California offers an entertainment firearms permit. Stevenson, the motion picture association official, said he believed Cuomo and lawmakers could agree on a fix, "as their intention with this law was never to impact the use of props on set."
But Republicans, in particular, are not eager to revisit the issue. The Republican leader in the state Senate, Sen. Dean G. Skelos of Long Island, said recently that he would oppose an exemption for movie productions. "I don't believe they should be treated any differently," Skelos said in an interview with The Buffalo News.
Entertainment is big business in New York, and both Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, an independent, and Cuomo, a Democrat, have courted and celebrated the film and television production industry. Film production in New York was responsible for more than 46,000 jobs in 2011, according to a study prepared for the motion picture association. The budget that the Legislature approved in late March included a provision to extend the industry's tax credit, which was set to expire at the end of 2014, for another five years.
"You'd hate to lose a $100 million picture because there was a scene in it that required automatic weapons and we were unable to accommodate them," said John Ford, the president of Local 52 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.
Ford knows the issue firsthand — he once handled firearms on the sets of "NYPD Blue" and "Goodfellas."
"Say what you want about violence and guns and whatnot in the movies, but the fact of the matter is we don't get to decide the content of the movies," he said. "If there's not a little wiggle room in there for us, then they'll make the movies somewhere else. It'll just cost us jobs."
Some New Yorkers whose livelihoods depend on the film industry are worried that lawmakers are not taking the issue seriously enough, and are not comforted by general reassurances from politicians.
Bohdan Bushell, a special effects coordinator at J & M Special Effects in Brooklyn, which supplies firearms for independent films and Broadway shows like "Phantom of the Opera" and "Jersey Boys," said any uncertainty could drive studios to move out of state.
"If a producer has to jump through more flaming hoops than they already do to shoot in this crazy city of ours, they're going to go: ‘When is too many hoops? Is this the last one? Am I done now?"' Bushell said.
"California is hungry for our work," he added. "The Southern states with huge tax incentives — Louisiana springs to mind — have very little problem with whatever form of firearm you'd like to carry around with you."
Industry officials said they tried to warn Cuomo's office, as it was drafting a gun control bill, that the legislation could affect the film and television production. They were joined by Bloomberg's office, which says it told the governor's office, before the gun measure was passed, that the movie and television industry was concerned.
But the bill was passed rapidly: Cuomo, a longtime gun-control supporter, was eager to move when public outrage was high, because, he said, that was the only way to get the Legislature to act on the issue.
The Legislature moved so fast — the Senate approved the measure on its first day in session, and the Assembly on its second — that few lawmakers, and almost no one in the general public, had time to read, digest or debate the details.
"There was no chance for anybody to weigh in — like, ‘Hey, you forgot to take this into account,"' said Tom J. O'Donnell, the president of the Theatrical Teamsters Local 817, which represents transportation workers, casting directors and commercial location managers.
Now industry workers are pleading for elected officials to take a second look. Washburn, the theatrical armorer, said he had already made two trips to Albany, and had spoken to at least 20 lawmakers as well as aides to the governor.
Washburn, who recently finished filming "A Walk Among the Tombstones," a movie starring Liam Neeson, at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, said Albany lawmakers should not underestimate how quickly one of the state's most prosperous industries could shrink.
"Our generators are on wheels, our carts are on wheels, our trucks are on wheels," he said. "Everything is on wheels, and it goes where it's wanted."