Having enjoyed visiting many working film studios in Los Angeles, it would be easy for me to think that all significant filming takes place on the West Coast. However, living in Midtown, I pass by film locations on a weekly basis, seeing trailers, filming equipment, and sometimes even catering (craft services) out on the street. Generally speaking, if they aren’t actively shooting, you can walk past their set up and the bustle of the activity and just get to where you need to go. Recently I was able to be an extra on a major cable TV show (update as of May 30, 2023 – it was the series finale of Succession!) that needed “upscale New Yorkers” for background and was able to experience first hand the excitement, chaos, and tedium (at times) of filming in New York City. This led me to think more about the importance of the movie and TV film industry in New York City.
Interestingly enough, the movie industry began in New York City – and so did television. In 1894, the first first commercial motion-picture exhibition was given in New York City, using Thomas Edison’s kinetoscope. Between 1895 to 1910, New York City was the capital of film production and distribution. Fort Lee and other areas of New Jersey close to Manhattan were also centers for early movies. In 1920, Kaufman Astoria Studios (which are still in operation – I had to go there for my PCR covid test before working as an extra this past week) opened in Queens.
Thomas Edison had a strict monopoly (“The Trust”) on the movie business, though, and filmmakers began to move to the West Coast, primarily in and around Los Angeles, to make money quickly before they could be prosecuted for patent infringement. Los Angeles also, of course, provided a more consistent climate for year-round filming. However, the radio industry, and then the television industry, were also born in New York City before many (but definitely not all) television shows moved to Los Angeles. Broadcast television (news, news shows, and talk shows) has remained centered in New York City. All talk shows have lotteries (and some have same-day stand by) for live audiences, and that can be a fun thing to experience. I have been in the audience at The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon (look into tickets here), Late Night with Seth Meyers (ticket process here), and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert (ticket information here) in just the past few years.
My top experience as an audience member was seeing Saturday Night Live in November of 2019, though. It is a very very hard ticket to get – you have to email them in the summer and then they select throughout the year. See the process of how to get tickets here. There aren’t many seats, and some people line up for days outside (especially for a very popular musical guest) for standby tickets. It was amazing to see how quickly they transitioned from scene to scene with the live time restriction. I would love to do it again!
My very recent experience (1/30/23) as an extra on a TV show filming in NYC was a bit of a surprise and much more enjoyable than I had thought it would be. Update as of May 30: I can now reveal that the show was the finale of “Succession”! I will upload a few photos below, although of course no phones were allowed on set.
My sister loves this particular show (I signed an NDA and can’t say much more about it until after it airs!) and saw that they were looking for “upscale New Yorkers” as background on a few days. She encouraged me to send in photos, and after I had forgotten about it, I did get an email from them asking if I would be available on two days (one to get a PCR covid test, and then the day on set) as well as measurements, dress and shoe size, whether I had an visible tattoos (nope) and if my look had “significantly changed” since those photos (also nope!). After confirming me, they sent a link to register on the RABS site (Run A Better Set) which had me fill out an I9 form, and gave me info first for the covid test. Getting to go into Kaufman Astoria Studios itself was fun, the testing process was very efficient, and after they processed the negative test I was given a call number for the shoot (#44- you were asked your number constantly on filming day) and a site to check the day before the shoot for my call time and place. On the day of filming, I started out in holding for the background people, in SoHo, had breakfast, rotated through Wardrobe, Hair, and Makeup, had a group wardrobe photo taken, and after about 90 minutes was bussed to the filming location (a private club, Zero Bond). When we first arrived, we sat quietly on another floor as the principals rehearsed just above us, but after being there about another 90 minutes, we were sent up to the set. The scene itself turned out to be very interesting (although of course we couldn’t look at the actors as we were dining patrons). Update: it was the scene where *spoiler alert* Greg is Google translating Swedish to figure out what Mattson’s plans are. It was once a much longer scene and involved Mattson, Oskar, Greg, and Tom. In the end I was not visible in the significantly cut scene. My scene partner and myself were selected to come into the room and be seated by a hostess, which kept things interesting and also allowed for some viewing of the director and staff watching the filming of the scene before we walked in. The same scene was shot many many times, with changes in camera angles also many times, and it was fascinating to hear how the scene played a little differently every time. After 4-5 hours, background was released and bussed back to holding, where I collected my things, checked out, and went home. I was paid via RABS for covid testing and for the filming, although as a non-union extra it is certainly not enough to make a living! But it was very enjoyable to see all the people and steps that go into making just one scene in a high-quality cable television show.
Obviously, New York City is synonymous with Broadway live theatre, and according to a recent report from the Broadway League, Broadway theaters of all sizes contribute over $12.6 billion per year – on top of ticket sales – to the New York City economy. The same report found that Broadway supports more than 12,600 direct jobs and an estimated 74,500 indirect jobs in NYC. Surprisingly, though, in 2019, New York City’s film and television industry was directly responsible for 100,200 jobs, $12.2 billion in wages, and $64.1 billion in direct economic output. There are more than 120 soundstages throughout New York State, most in NYC, of varying sizes. Currently under development are Steiner Studios in Sunset Park, Brooklyn which will provide another 500,000 square foot production hub to the already well-known Silvercup Studios in Long Island City and Kaufman Astoria Studios in Astoria. To delve deeper into the history and current state of NYC’s film industry, I recommend visiting the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria right next to Kaufman Astoria Studios (check out hours and ticket prices here).
Now when I pass filming while out and about, I have a new appreciation for the importance of the movie and TV film industry to New York City. And who knows, maybe I will get the chance to be an extra again. I will have no idea for a few months whether I show up in the scene I walked into so many different times (I DID NOT haha), but regardless, it was a wonderful experience for this “upscale New Yorker” to experience!