Every week, I receive numerous requests from no/low budget filmmakers in search of New York City locations for cheap. Some I can help with; most, I simply don’t know where to begin. While it’s certainly possible to make low-budget films in New York, it often requires a personal connection to secure those more difficult locations for an affordable price (friends and family! friends and family!).
Over the years, I’ve noticed there are five locations in particular I get asked for over and over again that are incredibly hard to find if you don’t have the budget for them. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but if you’re on page one of your script, you might want to think about avoiding these five.
1) The Dilbert-Style Cubicle Room
It’s an easy visual cue – set your protagonist in a Dilbert-style cubicle, and as per the Hollywood lexicon, you instantly identify him as a put-upon employee lost in the daily drudgery of the workplace. Below, the set from Office Space:
The problem: first, filming in any office space is extremely difficult – either you shoot in a functioning office, which means a major disruption to their daily operation and a pretty invasive presence (you want a random extra sitting at your desk?); or, you shoot in a vacant office space, requiring you to completely dress it from scratch.
What makes the Dilbert-style cubicle rooms especially hard to find is that they’re actually pretty rare in New York – enormous 90s-style open-plan bullpens are just not the norm anymore (excluding super hip warehouse offices, of course). In addition, directors always seem disappointed that real cubicle walls tend to be much higher than those in the movies – you actually need some height to see it all and not feel claustrophobic.
By contrast, here’s a vacant office, giving you a sense of how much set-dressing is necessary to make it look occupied. You’re now paying to rent computers, chairs, office supplies, phones, etc., etc. And because you’re dealing in the world of expensive commercial real estate, the fee will still be in the thousands of dollars.
Best bet – make friends with one of those put-upon cubicle workers and ask him to open up the office after hours.
Whenever a movie or TV show needs a jail, there’s one location we all end up filming at: the Nassau County Correctional Facility:
The prison has pretty much everything you could want – a yard, offices, a cafeteria, and of course, rows of cells. Unfortunately, the prices for filming here can be prohibitive to smaller projects.
What’s the alternative? There really aren’t any. There are some holding cells scattered around New York in various municipal buildings, but they’ll still cost you; otherwise, productions just build from scratch.
3) Anything medical
Need a doctor’s office? Waiting room? Operating room? Nurse’s station? Most productions turn to hospitals.
A number of hospitals throughout the five boroughs are actually quite film-friendly. You can’t shoot in functioning areas, of course, but many have wings or entire floors that are vacant, offering just about every kind of medical location you could want. Unfortunately, they can be pricey.
Finding an alternative can be tricky, since anything medical requires a very certain look. Actual doctors offices tend to not be receptive to filming regardless of budget. Sometimes, you can cheat it at a health-related facility – say, a senior citizen home – but that can be almost as expensive. Maybe ask your family doctor politely?
4) Anything abandoned
Filmmakers love abandoned locations.
Whenever someone has to hire a hitman or play in a high stakes illegal poker game or do anything remotely nefarious, there’s simply no choice: you go somewhere abandoned (I applaud each and every filmmaker who bucks this stupid cliche).
That abandoned locations can be expensive or difficult to secure often takes amateur filmmakers completely by surprise. “Why would anyone care if we shoot there?” they’ll ask. “It’s abandoned!”
In reality, very, very few abandoned locations are actually abandoned. There’s an owner somewhere, and they’ll be the first person to get sued when you get hurt on their property. They don’t want you there, and no amount of waivers will convince them otherwise.
For abandoned places that do clear, any major production will carry out a hazard assessment before filming. Most fail for obvious reasons: asbestos, structural problems, etc. For the ones that pass, the fees are expensive because safe places are actually so in demand.
Some low-budget filmmakers are of the mind that you should just break-in and wing it. I’ve nearly fallen through enough floors to think this is a really fucking stupid thing to do.
5) High-end apartments
This one seems obvious, except it’s one of the most frequent requests I get from low budget productions.
In my experience, wealthy folks allow filming in their apartment/townhouse/mansion for one of two reasons: either they want the money, or they’re excited by the idea of having their property in a movie or TV show.
Productions will often turn to event spaces, hotel rooms, and building common areas as alternatives, but these can still cost thousands of dollars.
I’m not saying these can’t be found in New York for cheap; just don’t ask me for help!