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TV Shows and Films Set in NJ Can Spell Big Payday for Tourism Industry

Shows like "Boardwalk Empire" are top draw for tourists, even if they're not filmed in the Garden State.

buscemi boardwalk empire
Credit: Macall B. Polay/Courtesy of HBO
Steve Buscemi portrays Nucky Johnson in the HBO hit "Boardwalk Empire," which is set in Atlantic City but isn't filmed there.

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.

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