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NJ In The Eye Of The TV And Movie Camera

Filmmaking and reality TV are happening in NJ with the help of the New Jersey Motion Picture and Television Commission.

New Jersey is one of the smallest states in the U.S with a size ranking of 47. But it’s grand in its appeal to film and television production companies, simply because they find the state’s diverse geography, architecture, and locales a compact treasure.

With West Orange’s place in film history as the site of the first motion picture studio, the Black Mariah, created by Thomas Edison, and then Fort Lee as the first motion picture capital in America, it’s fitting that New Jersey is a tantalizing cinematic setting, historically and by what it has to offer.

The New Jersey Motion Picture and Television Commission is located at 153 Halsey Street in downtown Newark. It’s the state agency that leads film and television professionals to the right destinations for their productions.

Steve Gorelick, 54, has worked at the Commission since 1980 and now is its executive director. In his comfortable office, decorated with an array of movie posters, he spoke about how his career evolved and the scope of the Commission. 

Gorelick, no stranger to the state, was born in New Brunswick and raised in Edison. Upon graduating from Rutgers University with a B.S. in English, he moved to Plainsboro. After taking a short hiatus from New Jersey when he got married and lived in Brooklyn for a year, he moved to Kendall Park and finally settled in South Brunswick.  

The Commission, created in 1977 by an act of the state legislature, went into operation in 1978 to promote film and TV production in the state. “Its efforts are geared toward creating employment and revenue for the state,” Gorelick said.

About 400 feature film have been made in the state since the Commission went into operation. Among them are: “Atlantic City,” “Big,” “The Amityville Horror,” “Annie,” “Stardust Memories,” “Wise Guys,” “Presumed Innocent,” “Malcolm X,” “A Bronx Tale,” “Quiz Show,” “Donny Brasco,” “As Good As It Gets,” “Analyze This,” “You’ve Got Mail,” “A Beautiful Mind,” “Superman Returns,” “War of the Worlds,” “The Bourne Ultimatum,” “Cadillac Records,” and “The Wrestler.” Television series such as  “Saturday Night Live,” “Sesame Street,” and “As the World Turns” have also been filmed in New Jersey since the Commission began.

Montclair can boast that "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit," "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," "Reading Rainbow," "Analyze This, Analyze That," and "The Sopranos" are productions that have been filmed in the township over the years.
   
Despite all the variety that the little state has to offer, certain locations stand out as favorites for movie backdrops. These include the Meadowlands Sports Complex, the Prudential Center’s new sports arena that is home for the New Jersey Devils, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (it’s cheaper than Lincoln Center), the Atlantic City boardwalk, Seaside Heights, Ocean Grove, and Spring Lake.

If a classic Victorian home is desired, film crews can be directed to Cape May or Plainfield. For the film “Kinsey,” a big old Victorian house was found in Plainfield. Cranbury is a good place for colonials. “I.Q.,” with Walter Matthau, was partly shot there. Cranbury and Plainsboro, in the northeast section of New Jersey, are flat, like the Midwest. "Analyze This" and "Analyze That" are among movies filmed in Montclair. “Anger Management” was partially shot in Cranbury, Hightstown, and East Windsor. Deep woods can be found in the Pine Barrens in Burlington, Ocean and Atlantic County. “13th Child: Legend of The Jersey Devil,” starring Cliff Robertson and “Fallen,” with Denzel Washington, were set in Pine Barrens territory.

The New Jersey Turnpike is used frequently as is the George Washington Bridge. Palisades Interstate Park was the setting for the carnival scene in “Big.”

The Commission puts home owners and other entities together with the filmmakers. It doesn’t own any of the homes that are used. They are owned privately, by an organization, or by a production company. People who live in homes being used for a movie vacate for the duration of the film and receive payment from the film company. “One True Thing,” with Meryl Streep, was partially filmed in Morristown. The owners of the home moved to a hotel for a month.

Although filming in townships can cause disruptions, Gorelick said the locales have never been more cooperative because they are looking for employment and revenue. Using smaller-scale cities in New Jersey is easier that using New York City or other metropolises.

Besides finding specific film locations, the Commission gets firearms permits, location permits and environmental permits. If explosives are part of the plot, a special permit is needed to make sure chemicals are not a detriment to the area. For example, propane burns clean.

The biggest current boon to the Commission is the prevalence of reality TV shows made in the state. This year scored the largest number ever. Gorelick has his opinions about the reasons for its popularity: “Keep in mind that reality TV dominates airways because New Jersey is very representative of America. New Jersey people are real, they are the salt of the earth … people relate to them. I take it back to ‘Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,’ about a nice guy, not that attractive to women, rough around the edges. They whipped them into shape. The show seemed to keep coming back to New Jersey guys…that was the start,” he said.

Whether or not one is a fan  of the genre, statistics on reality viewership are irrefutable. “Jersey Shore” is the highest rated show in the history of MTV. “Jerseylicious” is the highest rated show in the history of the Style Network. “Real Housewives of New Jersey” has the highest ratings of the “Housewives” shows.

Gorelick doesn’t see having New Jersey known as a haven for reality TV as a thorn in his side. Quite the contrary. “I am pleased about it because it brings revenue and attraction to the state," he said.

He pointed out that many of the shows are geared to help people. In “Tabitha’s Salon,” Tabitha travels around to help failing salons. “Kitchen Nightmares” host, Gordon Ramsey, goes to failing restaurants—such as Leone's in Montclair—to give them a makeover.

Gorelick’s favorite is “The Messiest House in America.” He finds it cathartic to watch the houses get cleaned up. “The best thing about the reality shows is they are inexpensive for the production companies, get high ratings, are addictive to viewers, and offer diverse themes for diverse audiences,” he said. 
 
For bringing their business to New Jersey, the state offers the film and TV industries a tax incentive. A 20% tax credit is given to filmmakers if their works satisfy certain requirements: a project has to meet the definition of a film as outlined in law. It has to be a feature film or TV show exceeding 15 minutes in length and intended for national distribution. Companies have to spend 60% of project budgets in the state, less production costs. They then receive a tax credit based on qualified expenses. In the news, recently, Governor Christie announced that he was revoking the tax credit for “Jersey Shore” because he doesn’t see it as being representative of the state. Censorship is not an area in which the Commission is involved.

Gorelick’s future aspirations include creating an infrastructure for the film industry in New Jersey that will make it easier to do massive productions, even a TV series with a live audience. In order to do that, more permanent studio space is needed.

He considers himself lucky to be involved as an insider with film and television on a daily basis. He said: "The experience of going down to a set of Sidney Lumet, George Roy Hill, seeing these craftsmen at work is a joy. Also, you go into the studio, you see these elaborate, amazing sets. For 'A Perfect Murder,' they built a panorama of the New York City skyline. The cinematographers see the state in a way we don’t. It gives us a different perspective. When Martin Scorcese filmed ‘The Age of Innocence,’ he described a staircase at the Hoboken train station, then you see how he described it (visually), frame by frame. The magic of movies is what I like."

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