Rochester/Finger Lakes Film Commission – Genesis

09 Sep

Note: What is now the Rochester/Finger Lakes Film Commission is celebrating it’s 31st year of bringing film production to our region this year, 2021. As the first post in a more active blog reflecting where we are and where we’re headed, it seemed only appropriate to reflect on how we got to where we are. With that in mind, we are proud to present the reflections of Jerry Stoeffhass, filmmaker and current Deputy Director at NY State Governors Office for Motion Picture & TV Development. We thank Jerry for his continued enthusiasm for and support of filmmaking in the Rochester/Finger Lakes region, and the mission of the Rochester/Finger Lakes Film Commission.

When Nora first asked me to write something about how the Rochester/Finger Lakes Film & Video Office got started some 30 years ago I thought…wait! …wait, 30 years??! Really?? I have to admit, the realization made me feel a little, uh, OLD. Thinking back on it started poking a lot of memories though, memories of all the people who got behind the crazy idea of what has become the successful three decade run of the office Nora heads today. And the more I thought about it, the more I started to feel like Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane) in Citizen Kane: “A fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn’t think he’d remember. You take me. One day, back in 1896…” 

Ok, ok, it wasn’t that far back. It was in the late 1980’s after my partners Jeff Ureles (co-writer/director) and Bill Coppard (Executive Producer) and I had finished making our indie feature Cheap Shots – using all Rochester crew and equipment. We’d gotten some help from the New York State Governor’s Office for Motion Picture and Television Development (MPTV) with things like shutting down Routes 5 & 20 outside Batavia so we could film at an abandoned motel cabin colony there. Before that experience I had no idea you could shut down a busy highway to make an indie movie. I’d never heard of a ‘film office’, and was impressed to see how a government agency could connect a little project like ours with the NY State Police, Dept. of Transportation, local officials etc. – all for free!

After the movie was over I started getting calls –mostly from commercial producers—looking for help with location scouting requests. At the same time the MPTV office down in NYC started calling me to help them scout for features willing to look Upstate. There were no film offices outside metro NYC at that time, so pretty soon I became the Upstate ‘go-to’ guy for locations. It wasn’t making me rich, but it was a great learning experience, and helped me grow my contacts across the state.

Bill Coppard was the one who first came up with the idea of starting a local film office in Rochester, so we took the idea to County Legislator Bill Benet, who had helped us with government relations on Cheap Shots. Benet drew on a discretionary fund he oversaw to fund a feasibility study, which I did, and which then led to a one-year grant from New York State to set up and run a 17-county regional film office (14 Finger Lakes plus 3 Western Region counties). We had a ribbon cutting ceremony at the now long gone PCI Studios on June 27, 1990, and the Rochester/Finger Lakes Film Office was officially born as a dba for me.

June Foster came aboard as my Assistant Director, and we basically had a year to prove ourselves before funding ran out. What was then called the Greater Rochester Visitors Association (now Visit Rochester) gave us a home in their offices and some staff support. One of our first tasks was to compile a directory of local resources so that when a producer called we could show them the unusual strength of the area community in terms of experienced crew, talent, equipment and support services.

I say “unusual” because at that time Rochester was home to the largest experienced crew base in the state outside New York City. Local companies like Kodak, Xerox and Bausch & Lomb were making a constant stream of corporate videos and training films that kept area crew and vendors working. We were able to help service those locally generated productions, but more importantly our mission was to market the regional assets – beautiful locations, local crew and resources, competitive prices—to the downstate, national and even international production industry and attract more productions that would bring more jobs and spend to the area.

To help get that word out two more key people came on board – Ruth Cowing and Jane Ford—who were instrumental in helping June and I publish first, a monthly newsletter and later a production guide to local crew, support services, hotels, etc. We joined the Association of Film Commissioners International and I started making trips to NYC and LA to spread the word about our fast-growing production community. We took ads in Daily Variety and the New York Production Guide.

It’s easy to be a successful salesman when you have something great to sell, and we were successful, attracting enough production each year so that the Monroe County Legislature kept funding us. We formed a Board of Directors – Bill Benet, Malcolm Spaull (then head of the RIT School of Film & Animation), Pete McCrossen (then GM of the Lodge at Woodcliff), and, later, Monroe County Legislator Pieter Smeenk. With pro bono help from legal eagle Jeff Newman, we became a 501(c) (3) not-for-profit.

In our first three months of business, we responded to requests from NYC, LA, Seattle, Atlanta, even Japan and Australia. Callers included Disney, 20th Century Fox, CBS, Discovery Channel, Lucasfilm Commercial Productions and a host of others. From a “Rocky Mountain waterfall” for a national spot for Toyota (Buttermilk Falls), to a house to burn down for Rescue 911 (found one in Spencerport!) to a spooky house for The Addams Family (nope, didn’t get it) or the perfect small town for Reader’s Digest’s An Old Fashioned Christmas (got it! Angelica NY) – the productions started coming. And along with them came the jobs and the spend.

Our splashiest success was the return of Luke and Laura for the legendary ABC soap opera General Hospital. To put it in perspective, the wedding of Luke and Laura in 1981 was the most-watched daytime tv event ever with almost 30 million viewers. But the characters hadn’t been together on the show since 1983 and the network wanted a big “event” episode for their return.  When the producers learned they wouldn’t be allowed to parachute their stars into Niagara Falls, we stepped in. So in September 1993 we had stunt people parachuting from helicopters into the Middle Falls at Letchworth State Park, blew up a pickup truck at the Newark Diner, bad guys scurrying around the caves below the High Falls downtown—and Rochester was cemented as the fictional Port Charles in soap opera history forever.

I left the film office in 1998 to come down to New York City where I’ve worked for the state film office ever since. And in that position, I was happily able to stay in touch with June and later with Nora when she took over to help with their efforts to keep the city and the region busy with more and bigger productions. There were a lot of people in the early years who helped get things started, and a lot more who’ve kept this crazy thing running, and they can all be proud of the three decades of work and exposure the office has brought to Rochester and the Finger Lakes.

After all, film pretty much started in Rochester; its only right that it stays in the picture.