The feature "The Many Saints of Newark" used a real streetscape for period effect.
Tax Incentive Seed Money Helps Filming Flower in Garden State
With a rich history in entertainment, New Jersey is reestablishing itself as a premier destination for filmmaking
BY Meredith Ogilvie-Thompson
In 1929, Thomas Edison was awarded one of the first honorary Academy Awards for his work decades earlier at the Edison Laboratories in West Orange, New Jersey. During that period, he launched what would become America’s most lucrative export and a multibillion-dollar global industry: moving pictures.
More than a century after Edison’s pioneering efforts, New Jersey — with its deep pool of talent, diverse locations and some of the most competitive tax incentives in the country (including a diversity credit for productions that meet the requirements) — is reestablishing itself as a go-to location for film, television and digital production.
“If you’re in Hollywood and going to plant a flag on the East Coast, it should rightfully be New Jersey,” says the state’s governor, Phil Murphy. A former banker and ambassador, Murphy brings a combination of fiscal discipline and diplomacy to New Jersey’s efforts to build up filming. The result has been a sevenfold increase in local spending since Gov. Murphy took office. Revenue from entertainment
production in the Garden State was $67 million in 2017 — the year before Murphy’s term began — climbing to just over $500 million for in-state production spending from filmmaking in 2021.
“We are absolutely purpose-built for film, television and digital,” says Murphy. “Our location, our talent, the fact that we are a quintessential union state, and
this is a big union industry. You add
all that together, this is a no-brainer
industry for us.”
“At the root of the [diversity] bonus is its connection to the very identity of New Jersey. We have this wonderful diversity of cultures and people from all over the world.”
- MICHAEL USLAN
Chairman, New Jersey Motion
Picture and Television Commission
Since the incentives were enacted in 2018, 175 feature films have been shot in New Jersey, generating $1.1 billion in spending. Because the bill specifically supports resident talent, it is also attracting people back to the state who had previously moved to find work in the industry.
“One of the advantages New Jersey has over most of the other states in the country, outside of California and New York, is [that New Jersey has] more top end personnel to hire,” says Tom Bernard, one of New Jersey’s film commissioners and co-president of Sony Pictures Classics. “They had incredibly lucrative tax incentive deals in places like Michigan, Louisiana and Georgia, but they didn’t have the personnel that were born and bred and lived there. So, they don’t have enough crew to create a business that will have the volume New Jersey does.”
Growing up on the East Coast, film producer Deborah Snyder— who shot part of “Army of the Dead” in New Jersey last year — never imagined film production in New Jersey would become what it has grown into today. “Hollywood and movies seemed so far away,” she says. “Now, I believe these incentives and the amount of work that the New Jersey Film Commission is putting into building up the industry is fantastic. Being able to come back and film where I grew up didn’t seem attainable back then. It’s now a possibility and it’s amazing.”
Bell Works in Holmdel became a key setting for the Apple TV+ series "Severance."
Attracting business that might have gone to other states is exactly what New Jersey is aiming to do and, so far, it’s working, says veteran producer Michael Uslan, chairman of the New Jersey Motion Picture and Television Commission.
“We’re getting tons of repeat business, and virtually everybody who has worked in New Jersey comes back or wants to be active in Jersey and do it again,” Uslan says.
In addition to a 35% transferable tax credit allocated for qualified salaries, New Jersey is one of only two states to offer an additional incentive (up to 4%) if productions meet certain diversity criteria. Developed to align with wider industry guidelines, the incentive aims to increase diversity onscreen — in terms of the types of stories being told and the actors involved — as well as the composition of the crew and inclusivity of companies involved with production.
“At the root of the [diversity] bonus is its connection to the very identity of New Jersey,” says Uslan. “We have this wonderful diversity of cultures and people from all over the world contributing to our common identity so it was important to us.”
New Jersey also delivers a myriad of location options. Filmmakers can access rural countryside, mountains, coastal towns with period houses and hardscrabble urban streets all within a few hours’ drive. The state has a database built specifically for location scouts, with tens of thousands of images to peruse online.
*The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted shooting in calendar year 2020.
Numbers Confirm Explosive GrowthSince the state’s new production incentives were enacted in July 2018, the number of film shoots — and tax rebates for them — has soared.
500 (million $)
Total Spending on Filming in New Jersey
In response to increased local production, student film festivals and vocational training programs are popping up across the state, as are outreach initiatives to underserved communities. There are even periodic “P.A. Boot Camps” that train people for their first job on a film set.
“You can go work as a P.A. in one of the departments and, if you qualify, can then become an apprentice and a full-fledged member of the union — so that makes people excited to be here,” says Bernard.
Having codified the incentives into law, Gov. Murphy recently extended them through 2034 to attract longer-term investment in soundstages and other production facilities.
With the constant influx of production, New Jersey is fielding dozens of inquiries for warehouse properties that can be transformed into studio spaces and broadcast hubs, facilities for equipment rental, costume and prop shops, car and camper rentals, post-production houses and plenty of other businesses that service the production industry. “When you compare the cost of a gallon of gas or a hotel room or a piece of lumber in New York City to New Jersey, there’s a great advantage to working here,” says Bernard.
For Gov. Murphy, however, the social reasons are equally compelling. “It’s the values that we stand for,” he says. “And not just the value in terms of the economic sense. But certain states are going to have issues on a lot of the big social debates that we have as a country right now. LGBTQ, women’s right to choose and voter protection, to pick three examples, where a studio will never have any doubt whatsoever where New Jersey is going stand on all of those.”
All this leaves Bernard confident about New Jersey’s filmmaking future.
“I think it’s going to be one of the centers of filmmaking within the next 10 years,” he says. “It’ll be one of the go-to places in the world.” ✻