NEWARK - The influence of the American film industry is global, but its roots are local, right here in New Jersey. The modern motion picture industry began on the cliffs of Fort Lee in the early 20th century, its work produced on celluloid film invented only a few years before in Newark.
But for those supporting a state-backed effort to make sure that future film and television made in New Jersey demonstrates its diversity, seeing is believing.
"We are America," said state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D - Newark) at the first state Diversity in Film Forum, held at Express Newark inside Newark's historic Hahne & Co. building on Wednesday. "We need diversity so when my little girl turns on the television, she can see Latinas and African-African women in strong roles, and not just cooking in the kitchen."
The forum, sponsored by the New Jersey TV and Motion Picture Commission, the state Office of Diversity and Inclusion, and the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (NJEDA), was sparked by recent legislation designed to spur film and television in the Garden State.
The Garden State Film and Digital Media Jobs Act, renewed in July 2018, provides a tax credit worth 30 percent of production expenses if 60 percent of production, excluding post-production, are through vendors in New Jersey or if the qualified film production expenses in New Jersey exceed $1 million per production. The tax credit can increase to 35 percent if applicants use South Jersey locations.
A bonus tax credit of 2 percent of expenses is available if an application includes a diversity plan to hire a staff that includes at least 15 percent minorities and women on New Jersey-based productions.
State Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), the primary sponsor of the film and tax credit legislation, noted how this additional two-percent increase in the film tax credit can contribute to an overall boost to the film industry in New Jersey.
"Diversity is going to make for better productions and is economically attractive," said Weinberg. "I grew up in southern California, but I'm not happy with New Jersey being known as Hollywood East. I'm waiting for Hollywood to be known as New Jersey West."
New Jersey First Lady Tammy Murphy pointed to her husband's effort to revive a new five-year, $75 million film tax credit program after a period of dormancy during the Christie administration as a "win-win" for all parties involved.
"We here in New Jersey benefit from the purchase of goods and services, like hotel nights booked, as well as payments to workers, translating into hundreds of jobs," said Murphy, as both local politicians, including Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, and film industry players from NBC Universal, Paramount, and Sony looked on. "This effort will not only promote our great state, but highlight the tremendous diversity that New Jersey boasts."
The desire for greater diversity in New Jersey film and television production was highlighted by two separate montages shown during the forum. The first depicted images from film and television classics such as On the Waterfront, Atlantic City, and The Sopranos. The other showed segments from local independent filmmakers, including some from Newark.
The difference between the two was pointedly highlighted by Hester Agudosi, chief diversity officer for the State Office of Diversity and Inclusion.
"I love that [first] video, but it wasn't very diverse, right? That's why diversity and inclusion matters in film production," Agudosi said. "We want people to have a clear understanding of what we as the state expect from them to bring to the table in order to receive the credits that New Jersey is so graciously offering. We want to incentivize the production and utilization of people of color and women."
Robert Asaro-Angelo, commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development, noted how the film and tax credit program, including its diversity incentives, can have an important impact beyond budgets.
"When employers hire someone they are making an investment in a person's dignity. Dignity comes when all workers regardless of their sex, race, national origins, or immigration status are afforded the same rights in the workplace as everybody else around them," Asaro-Angelo said. "Those values that we preach should be reflected back to us on the screens on your homes and in our theaters."