Management Firm Strives to Make JFK's Terminal 4 Picture Perfect

Rebecca Douglas
Published in: 

In addition to handling roughly 57,000 flights and 9.5 million passengers last year, Terminal 4 at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York maintained a thriving film career. The bustling international terminal routinely appears as a backdrop in everything from major movies and television series to travel articles and corporate brochures.

Managing the film, television and photographic shoots falls under the purview of JFKIAT, the private company that manages non-aviation activities (landside and airside) at the terminal. Currently, the shoots occur about twice a month - a brisk pace given the various meetings, facility tours and logistic arrangements that need to be made before crews arrive, notes Rita Nederman, who manages shoots for JFKIAT's commercial department.

"I don't know of any airport that does as many as we do," notes Janice Holden, chief commercial officer for JFKIAT.

Access fees for shoots in Terminal 4 generate about the same revenue as a small concession, Holden reports, preferring not to be specific. Attracting and managing the crews, however, require a separate set of attributes:

Experience - After the 9/11 attacks, many airports stopped allowing film crews in post-security areas. Conversely, the first commercial shoot at Terminal 4 occurred in December 2001, seven months after the new building opened and three months after 9/11. When passenger traffic plummeted in 2002, JFKIAT continued to allow access to camera crews, and its staff learned the ins and outs of the business in a relatively calm operating environment.

"Production companies liked our can-do attitude from the beginning," recalls Holden. "The more shoots we did, the better we got at it. The last two years, we've had record passenger volumes, and we can still offer the kind of experience that's necessary to shoot in a busy terminal environment."

The Look - "The architecture of our building is astonishingly beautiful," notes Nederman. "Film crews typically want high ceilings and immense windows with planes visible on the runway in the background, and that's just what we have."

The terminal's "international vibe" also helps. "It has a general European look and feel," explains Holden. "But with the right set design, it can look like Tokyo, Berlin, India, or almost anywhere."

Ample Infrastructure - With 1.5 million square feet of space, the sheer size of Terminal 4 offers distinct logistic advantages. Film and photo crews can shoot in a corner of the expansive arrivals hall without monopolizing the passenger-critical area.

On-site space for 10 to 12 large equipment trucks and trailers makes the terminal particularly attractive to production companies because it allows them to keep crews and celebrities close at hand. A freight elevator near the staging area outside the terminal's main building facilitates equipment transport.

Resources - Throughout the years, JFKIAT has identified workers from facilities, security, catering and other key departments who work well with film crews; and they're requested when shoots are scheduled.

"Film companies are often concerned about our ability to accommodate crewmembers and extras," says Holden, "but we're used to handling A380s (with passenger loads of 500+). The numbers aren't intimidating because we know how to get them through security checkpoints and guide them to their shooting location."

Safety, stresses Nederman, is JFKIAT's top priority. "Protecting passengers, tenants, airport employees and production company workers is a constant effort," she notes.

When The Bourne Ultimatum filmed in Terminal 4, special permits and approvals from the Port Authority and police were needed for special effects and prop weapons. But even non-action films such as Fair Game, Garden State and Old Dogs required extra vigilance. "You have obvious things like 12-foot-by-15-foot lighting balloons suspended from the ceiling, electric cable strung everywhere and tracks laid for the cameras," explains Nederman. "But it's also about small details, like the placement of a chair or ladder."

Each film or photo crew receives a specific security/evacuation plan.

Contacts - After hosting camera crews for almost nine years, Terminal 4 enjoys positive word-of-mouth advertising from location scouts, reports Holden. "There's a core group of about 35 who are based in New York, and they all talk with each other about their experiences at different locations," she explains. "We've never had a shoot that didn't end with an amazing letter of commendation, so we continue to be a sought-after location."

Specific traits cited in the glowing post-production letters include knowledge of film crews' needs; patience with the creative process; good rapport with airlines, airport tenants and the Transportation Security Administration; overall professionalism and tenacity to complete a given shoot.

Financial Lures - Tax incentives provided by the city of New York help attract production crews to JFK, which is located in the borough of Queens. Many states offer similar provisions and rebates.

Expertise - "Our business is managing the terminal," explains Holden. "Managing the filming process isn't that different. We work to marry their needs with the operational needs of the airport and passengers."

Typically, the department has two to three weeks to review scripts, finalize contracts/insurance requirements and coordinate security crews, facilities workers and catering providers. Lead times for major feature films are longer - often one or two months - because producers are juggling more locations. Smaller projects and still shoots (photography only; no video or film) are sometimes pulled together in a matter of days.

During filming, 15- to 20-hour days are common because Nederman prefers to take a "hands-on" approach. "It's not an egomaniacal thing," she qualifies. "It's best to be present to make the spontaneous decisions that need to be made to keep the cameras rolling."

Resolve - Knowing when to say no is vital to managing film crews, stress Holden and Nederman. "Controlling passengers is easy compared to managing photographers and directors," Holden remarks. "What the crew promises will take two hours can easily become four if you're not careful. We've learned what can get done in a given amount of time and are constantly evaluating what to schedule. It's a difficult blend of 'can-do' and a firm 'no' that's in a film crew's own best interest. We wouldn't be able to continue affording them the opportunity to shoot here if we didn't manage the process so carefully. We make it clear that the terminal is a strictly controlled area."

Hollywood Cool - Although they consider working with the likes of Clive Owen and Hugh Jackman a major job perk, Holden and Nederman maintain a professional focus. "People throughout the airport become instant star groupies," laughs Nederman, "but we need to concentrate on the larger issues, like safety and security."

That said, a few celebrities stand out in their minds as particularly accessible and friendly: John Travolta and Robin Williams (who shot Old Dogs at Terminal 4 in 2007), Jeff Bridges (A Dog Year, shot in 2006), Russell Brand (Get Him to the Greek, in 2009) and Matt Damon (The Bourne Ultimatum, in 2007).

"I used to tell everyone when a movie or commercial with the airport in it was coming out," recalls Nederman. "Now, it happens so often, I don't even mention it."


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