When the fourth season of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” series launches on Sunday, viewers will watch as the title credits open on politician-cum-gangster Nucky Thompson (played by Steve Buscemi) standing in silence, surveying Atlantic City’s beach as he smokes a cigarette and bottles of illegal rye whiskey wash up at his feet.
But even though the work of historical fiction takes place chiefly in the resort town that the Atlantic County treasurer (named Enoch Johnson in real life) controlled throughout the Prohibition era, neither one grain of sand nor one drop of ocean water was actually captured on tape in New Jersey. The same is true for the well-traveled boardwalk, the Million Dollar Pier, and even the unpaved path meant to depict the White Horse Pike as it looked in 1920.
Deeming it more economically feasible to set the scene using digital effects than to recreate a historically accurate section of boardwalk in Asbury Park as had been discussed, Boardwalk Empire’s producers have shot every frame inside a Brooklyn studio. But that hasn’t stopped the officials who look after New Jersey’s film, tourism, and employment interests from lavishly promoting — and reaping rewards from — the series and actively pursuing others that may not immediately appear to present the Garden State in the best light.
As Steven Gorelick, executive director of the New Jersey Motion Picture and Television Commission (NJMPTVC), said of “Boardwalk Empire, ” “It’s very good exposure for New Jersey. It’s the kind of marketing you can’t get through ads.”
Marketing Movies Makes Money
Exposure. Marketing. Publicity. Intangible benefits. Ideally, every New Jersey-focused production would directly benefit the economy with drawn-out production schedules and dazzling portrayals of the state’s assets and people, but the reality is that shows about New Jersey gangsters or housewives or tacky shore-goers bring the eyeballs and the interest even when they’re shot out-of-state.
“If anything, HBO put us in the spotlight, which is every PR person’s dream,” said Katie Dougherty, director of public relations for Caesars Entertainment for the Atlantic City region. With the help of the Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Authority (ACCVA), many of the city’s tourist amenities unveiled Prohibition-themed promotions when the series debuted. The Atlantic City Rail Line wrapped itself in advertisements and Resorts Casino Hotel spent the next two years branding itself with motifs from the era. But it was Caesars that earned its place as HBO’s exclusive partner.
With a license to use copyrighted assets for one year, the casino resort went so far as to redesign its gaming chips, loyalty gaming cards, and key cards; establish an interactive social-media campaign; mount a lighted 25- x 40-foot sign; create related hotel packages; email notices to a list of subscribers in the double-digit millions; and play the trailer on guest room and casino-floor TV monitors in its properties across the United States.
That’s in addition to literally rolling out the red carpet for the entire cast (save Buscemi, who was ill) for the screening of the series premier and transforming the One Atlantic catering space into an elegant, historically accurate speakeasy — complete with Model Ts borrowed from an antique car museum — to entertain 600 VIPs afterwards.
Managers say guests and HBO personnel reviewed the party so favorably that One Atlantic sales reps continue to mention it in their client pitches and some event hosts still come in looking to book 1920s-themed affairs.
“We weren’t looking at it from a monetary perspective but more from a positive publicity perspective for the city in general,” said Dougherty, who says her company didn’t tally revenues or expenditures from the partnership.
Caesars’ Circus Maximus theater hosted public viewings at the beginning of seasons two and three, but this year, the property has turned its attention to the Miss America pageant. Last month, ACCVA Director of Tourism Heather Colache, who remembers that the authority had previously distributed branded flasks and had decorated some travel trade-show booths a la 1920s, didn’t know of any properties reviving their own dormant promotions for the launch of season four.
“Atlantic City is constantly changing marketing initiatives. That was really hot for a year but we’ve moved on to other things,” she said before adding, “If at any time we have an opportunity to do things with Boardwalk Empire, we would.”
She notes, however, that a few establishments never concludedtheir Boardwalk Empire initiatives. The ACCVA’s own website still devotes space to tie-in content, and the Knife and Fork restaurant proclaims on its website, “Nucky ate here. Shouldn’t you?” The Atlantic City Historical Museum maintains a robust virtual exhibition called “Nucky’s Empire: The Prohibition Years” and programs speakers to enhance its online offerings. The Great American Trolley Company runs a weekly “Roaring 20s” tour that makes stops at sites featured in the show.
It doesn’t seem to matter to tourists or tourism boosters that Thompson is at best a flagrant bootlegger and a pay-to-play politician and at worst, a double-crossing murderer. In combination with the high drama of the era, his compelling and complex character echoes the existence of a historical counterpart (though one who was reportedly less violent) to breed a fascination with the time period and the locale.
Similarly, seven years after the hit HBO series “The Sopranos” went dark, a weekly bus tour still shuttles fans around the gangland that ruthless mobster Tony Soprano ruled through intimidation and violence. Visitors gawk and point at the Seaside Heights “Jersey Shore” house where MTV reality star Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi and her often-inebriated friends spent summers, and the wait time outside the Hoboken bakery owned by TLC’s stubborn Italian “Cake Boss” Buddy Valastro often exceeds a 90 minutes.
Gorelick doesn’t agree with suggestions that viewers of “Boardwalk Empire” or “The Sopranos” might be led to believe organized criminals run amuck in New Jersey or that shameless shows like “Jersey Shore” or “Real Housewives of New Jersey” reinforce negative stereotypes so much as to be detrimental. And even if they do, he says, municipalities that agree to work with them often end up laughing all the way to the bank. Of “Jersey Shore,” he acknowledges, “It doesn’t portray the New Jersey shore as ideally as you’d like it to be portrayed. But I believe that show resulted in a twenty-to-thirty percent increase in business to Seaside Heights.”
Regardless of whether the edited programs portray their host locations flatteringly, these locales can earn residual tourism income from the perpetually high interest in movie sites. Gorelick says the authors of “The Worldwide Guide to Movie Locations” call him every year to update their listings, and he fielded inquiries for years after the Tom Hanks blockbuster “Big” cast Cliffside Park as a nostalgic and idyllic suburb.
“We value these films that portray New Jersey as a beautiful place to live,” he said.
Welcoming the Film Industry
Gorelick says more than 100 reality shows shoot in New Jersey each year, and his staff of five doesn’t discriminate. Their job, he says, is not to “act as arbiters of taste” or fight with municipalities like Hoboken or Berkeley Township that have balked at granting permits to productions like “Snooki and JWoww” that they feared would be disruptive. Instead, he’s charged with scouting municipalities that will go out of their way to accommodate film crews. For example, both Newark and Jersey City have allowed shoots in City Hall and have been flexible when production companies couldn’t provide much advance notice or when they’ve run over schedule.
Still, he faces financial limitations given the fact that the commission’s modest budget has stayed flat under the state department’s Business Action Center and is likely to remain so, although there’s a contemplated transition into the NJ Sports & Exposition Authority. He also lacks the ability to offer much in the way of state-funded economic incentives because two years ago Trenton lawmakers failed to override Gov. Chris Christie’s veto of the Garden State Film and Digital Media Job Act, which would have added $40 million in additional annual tax credits to the $10 million program.
The current economic incentive program, which sunsets in fiscal 2015, offers a 20 percent tax credit to crews producing feature-length films, documentaries, or TV projects intended for national release. Despite the fact that New Jersey is relatively unusual in that its credits apply to both “above-the-line” payments to primary personnel like actors, producers, and screenwriters and to “below-the-line” expenditures for equipment rentals, catering, and stipends to remaining cast and crew, surrounding states offer as much as 30 percent for either above- or below-the-line expenses.
Though Gorelick says it’s cheaper to shoot in New Jersey than New York and that filmmakers could save money here by applying state tax credits to almost all production costs, New York — and by extension, Brooklyn — is pushing its way toward dominance in the national run to win lucrative film and TV contracts. As a beneficiary of the New York State Governor’s Office for Motion Picture and Television Development, Brooklyn can offer qualified film and TV crews a fully refundable 30 percent tax credit for below-the-line expenses along with a relatively new 35 percent post-production credit and free co-marketing opportunities with New York City’s Made in NY film and TV office.
This year, with the help of the state’s annual $420 million budget for film and TV incentives, New York City has grabbed “The Tonight Show” from its 40-year home in Los Angeles and has lured “America’s Got Talent” to its shores from across the Hudson River in Newark. And in the closing credits of Boardwalk Empire, producers thank exactly two entities: New York State Governor’s Office for Motion Picture and Television Development and Made in NY.