Working with Hollywood Filmmakers at BCC

Before major movies compete for Oscars and Golden Globe Awards, Bronx Community College students, faculty, and staff have often witnessed, on the campus, the making of a number of movie segments that comprise those movies.

When Robert De Niro’s crew of actors, extras, and technical people rolled all their equipment – in eight trucks and tractor trailers – onto Bronx Community College’s campus to film parts of “The Good Shepherd” movie about the CIA for three weeks last semester, many BCCers asked how our campus had been selected for yet another Hollywood movie. One of the reasons is the classical beauty of BCC’s Stanford White designed buildings.

Pina Martinelli, Director of Administrative and Events Management Services, is the key person who helps determine who films on the campus. With the collaboration of Bronx Community College’s Dean David Taylor and Vice President of Administration and Finance Mary Coleman, Pina has been able to establish BCC as a user friendly film location.

In nine years of working with film and TV crews at BCC, Pina has helped negotiate logistical requirements and contractual document guidelines for filming and videotaping on our campus for a number of movie and TV productions. Some blockbuster movies include “A Beautiful Mind,” “The Thomas Crown Affair,” “The Siege,” “Mona Lisa Smile,” “Kinsey,” “Stay,” “Riding in Cars With Boys,” TV’s A & E History Channel story on “Helen of Troy,” as well as a music video with KC and Jo Jo.

Why do film and TV production companies appreciate BCC’s campus?

Pina says, “They love the gorgeous ‘period’ architecture of the Gould Memorial Library Building, Philosophy Hall and Language Hall, as well as the grassy Quad. The exterior of the GML building is of particular interest because it resembles the NYC Court House downtown, but is not as well known as that building. The NYC Court House is so easily recognizable now in shoots it no longer holds the same impact as it once did, so crews want something similar that hasn’t been used as much.

“The Rotunda of course is a unique space, and can be transformed into anything the Director and the set designer envision for the shoot. It could be a ballroom, as it was for The Thomas Crown Affair, a war room as it was for The Siege, or a small lecture room ‘in the round,’ as it was for Kinsey. This is also the case for the GML Auditorium. In addition, they also like the rooms behind the GML Auditorium, which I call the ‘catacombs,’ as well as its hallways, as they can be transformed into anything the set designer envisions. Some of our other locations have a special historical look, and that is a great draw for filmmakers. This would include Begrisch Hall 226 and 228 because of the wooden seats and old lecture hall look, the pool and the locker rooms in the Alumni Gym,” Pina states.

“Bringing the De Niro film crew onto campus was the result of a year of negotiations. The Good Shepherd shoot (which included Angelina Jolie, Matt Damon, Robert De Niro and Alec Baldwin) was the most complicated and difficult film negotiation I have dealt with in nine years,” says Pina. “I have been working on it since September 2004 when the original request to scout the campus was made.” The plan was to shoot during the Spring Registration cycle in January – February 2005. For business and scheduling reasons, prep work didn’t begin until last August with film dates taking place in September and October.

Negotiations always hinge on the availability of BCC’s campus schedule and space.

“For example, I cannot permit shooting to take place during registration, commencement week, or during exams. Permission also isn’t granted for specific areas like actual classrooms, classroom buildings, hallways and stairways during regular class time or exams. Additionally, despite numerous requests to shoot in faculty or staff offices or departmental spaces, permission is never granted for these areas under any circumstances, as it is simply too disruptive,” she says.

Intern hiring is explored in talks with all movie makers. “I have been successful in negotiating the participation of our Media Technology Students in some shoots to serve as production assistants or extras,” notes Pina. “This was something Department of Communication Arts and Sciences Chairperson, Dr. Debra Gonsher, had suggested many years ago, so I make sure to include this in my negotiations.”

However, sometimes hiring students cannot occur because film companies have to meet their Screen Actors Guild (SAG) union obligations first which may specify that the shoot is a ‘closed set’ and no one can be hired. Some contracts stipulate that due to insurance issues, students cannot be hired, but conversely, other shoots are quite flexible and students can be hired. In some cases it has to do with Union issues. It basically depends on the crew she is dealing with and their flexibility.

Once the dates are set, Pina confirms them with Media Technology Professor Jeffrey Wisotsky and he prepares a list of eligible students. Until she gets a go-ahead from the crew that they will hire students, she does not proceed with that aspect of the shoot, assuming it can be facilitated she explains.

As to cost of filming on the campus, fees are negotiated because most, if not all shoots – including very large ones – have specific budgets for locations that have to include location rental costs, catering, staff and crew costs, permit fees, trucks and parking for each location.

In the past, the college’s original fee structure did not reflect upon costs for prepping and wrap up of any shoot. I have increased our original fee structure to include prep and wrap dates, along with the shoot dates to more adequately reflect appropriate costs. Additionally, the CUNY Central Office has created the CUNY Film Location Initiative project to increase revenues to the colleges, as well as exposure. This Committee is comprised of all college events directors, of which I am a part. Working in part with the Mayor’s Office of Film, Television and Broadcasting, this committee is currently working to create uniform pricing for all film shoots throughout the University system, along with devising rules and regulations for filming.

“Overtime fees for staff are included in the discussions and the contract,” Pina adds. “These fees are based on NYC Civil Service rates, and are billed separately. All reimbursements are distributed to the department whose staff worked the shoot.”

As the shooting schedule progresses, technical questions arise that pertain to a variety of building-related issues. This would include electrical issues (electrical tie-ins to the electrical grid or generator installation, which is preferred), heating and ventilation (specifically with reference to equipment noise during shooting), use of specialized lifts for access to potentially unsafe areas, removal of signage, specialized permit requests based on the set design, proposed space alterations, including window removal, light fixture or bulb removal, doorknob and door removal, painting and furniture refinishing. “It’s quite extensive, but doesn’t end there,” Pina states. “I also receive calls about garbage removal, holding areas for extras, additional spaces for filming or eating for the film crew, as well as office usage, especially with regard to the use of a fax machine and phone.”

Then there are other requests. For example, Pina says that directors and actors are often unavailable for luncheons or talking to Media Tech classes because filmmaking is tightly scheduled to avoid delays that can result in increased costs. Hollywood moviemaking is a big business.

Some requests are outlandish or dangerous, says Pina, and she refuses these queries, in consideration for the safety of the BCC staff as well as visiting movie crews. For example, during The Good Shepherd shoot, the crew asked if they or college personnel could access the Rotunda’s dome to completely block out the light. I refused because the dome is accessed through a series of ladders and tight crawl spaces that are dangerous to traverse.

Once camera crews come onto the campus, Pina is helped by BCC staffers, including Jessie Smalls (Events Management Assistant Director), Wayne Murphy (PPS Administrative Superintendent), Michael LoBello (Laborer, Carpenter and Maintenance Supervisor), George Meyreles (Supervisor of Electricians), Michael Dillon (PPS Power Plant), Nick Kounas and Frank Gaizo (Locksmiths), Andre Hurni (Campus Planning/Architect), Miguel Ancher (Principal Custodial Supervisor), Luther Maybank (Senior Custodial Supervisor), Richard Cacciato and Mac Holden from Public Safety, to facilitate this multifaceted process.

Pina states, “I may serve as the ‘front-line’ liaison and do a lot of the logistical planning and administrative work for these shoots, but I could not do any of it without the support of the staff and my superiors. We truly are a team!”