Forum panelists: Film Tax Credit program is about getting minorities involved in all aspects of film industry

Recent releases “Black Panther,” “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Captain Marvel” have shown that moves with minority and female leads can be box office blockbusters.

The film industry, however, needs to do more to promote minority involvement in all aspects of the industry.

Such was the sentiment of panelists Wednesday in Newark at the Diversity in Film and Television Production Forum.

The event not only discussed the state’s new Film Tax Credit Program, but the bonus tax credit of 2 percent of qualified film production expenses for companies that develop and successfully implement a diversity plan for the hiring of at least 15 percent women and minorities in their productions.

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Newark) said the issue needs a leader.

“Diversity in film and television is extraordinary and necessary so that, when my little girl turns on the television, she can see Latinas and other minorities in strong roles — not just cooking in the kitchen,” she said. “It is critical for us to be sure that we have these conversations and that they are inclusive of everyone.”

New Jersey Secretary of State Tahesha Way said the stats on the subject are telling.

The USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, she said, examined the gender and underrepresented ethnic status of leading characters across the top 1,200 films from 2007 to 2018 and found that just 28 percent had female leads overall.

And, while 40 out of the Top 100 films in 2018 did feature a female in a leading or co-leading role, just five were African-American, three were mixed race, two were Latina and one was Asian-American.

Behind the camera, Way said, the Initiative found that, out of the estimated 1,200 directors of the top films between 2007 and 2018, just 5 percent were African-American, 4 percent were female and 3 percent were Asian-American.

“Diversity, inclusion and equity must be more than buzzwords, and, in this regard, New Jersey has an incredible amount of untapped potential,” Way said.

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka said changing these stats can help change cities such as Newark in many ways.

“The diversity tax credit helps to ignite not only filming in the city of Newark, but also the young minorities who are striving and working hard to be a part of this industry without the opportunities to break in as others may have,” he said.

The New Jersey Economic Development Authority will review Film Tax Credit diversity plans in collaboration with the Office of Diversity and Inclusion in both pre- and post-production to ensure a film’s continued eligibility.

To qualify for the Film Tax Credit Program overall, films must spend at least 60 percent of their total budgets in New Jersey or incur more than $1 million qualified production expenses in the state.

Steve Gorelick, executive director of the New Jersey Motion Picture & Television Commission, said the industry is built to help many.

“The people who profit from this are the local shop owners and providers of local services — and not just the ones who cater to the industry,” Gorelick said. “Yes, it’s the lumberyards and the locations being rented, but it’s also the hardware stores, the diners and the bakery where you buy doughnuts for the cast and crew.

“When ‘The Joker’ filmed here in Newark, for example, they transformed all the storefronts along Market Street and paid every single storeowner to do that, while also hiring hundreds of extras. For reasons like that, mayors such as Ras Baraka are very enthusiastic about productions filming here.”

David Smith, vice chairman of the NJMP&TC, said the Film Tax Credit Program is not about getting Hollywood A-listers to visit New Jersey.

“It is about below-the-line costs — the caterers, the hotels, the truck drivers and all the members of the different unions and crafts,” he said.

Samuel Okparaeke, director of the Essex County Office of Small Business Development and Affirmative Action, agreed. It’s why he publicly gave his phone number out at the event.

“For those of you who are minority business owners, we are here to help you get involved,” he said.

Gorelick said that, while film and television industry workers in Newark, Jersey City and Paterson certainly have kept busy with television series such as NBC’s “The Enemy Within” and Warner Brothers Pictures’ “The Joker,” the Film Tax Credit Program has now begun benefiting the entire state, with productions currently planned along the Jersey Shore and in Atlantic City, Camden and Trenton.

“Virtually every major studio and every major network is contemplating filming here now,” Gorelick said.

Jose Lozano, CEO and president of Choose New Jersey, said the NJEDA is planning to approve the first group of eligible film and television projects in April.

“Many already have submitted their diversity plans, so we look forward to some well-represented productions filming in New Jersey,” he said.

And, while a recent headline in the New York Post read, “New Jersey is poised to turn itself into Hollywood East,” state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck) — the prime sponsor of the Film Tax Credit Program — said that, while the sentiment is correct, she is not happy with the title, given that Fort Lee is the true birthplace of American cinema.

“I am waiting for Hollywood to become known as New Jersey West,” she said.

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