The 5 Locations Low-Budget Films Should Avoid In New York

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:

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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.

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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.

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Best bet – make friends with one of those put-upon cubicle workers and ask him to open up the office after hours.

2) Jails

Whenever a movie or TV show needs a jail, there’s one location we all end up filming at: the Nassau County Correctional Facility:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

-SCOUT

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18 comments

  1. Hi Scout! I’m looking for an abandoned high-end apartment with medical space. I’ve got about $20 in my pocket. Can you help? Thanks.

  2. The airbnb inventory for high end apartments is surprisingly robust – I’m sure you aren’t supposed to just go in and film in someone’s apartment without asking (though if you’re good about breaking down the shoot after and it’s a student project, who will be the wiser?) but certainly it’d be a good place to start to browse and contact some hosts; at the very least you know they’re receptive to handing the keys to a stranger and walking away.

    • I would think most high end apartments have a doorman and they won’t just let you bring in a bunch of film gear without asking questions….

  3. I just want to add that if you are on the low budget shooting in abandoned places is THE WORST since working conditions will be horrible and I most always say no. There are a couple places tho that you can easily make look abandoned but are safe to work at. Obviously at a price.

    And we shot a prison scene at the police museum downtown – but not sure how pricey that was and it’s pretty limiting in the angles you can get.

  4. I have friends that do low/no budget shooting all the time and have found places all over Albany and the area that fit into all but the last category. We have never done a jail scene yet so I do not know about that either. Of course after the disruptions some people are not happy with the process and would never open their location again, some on the other hand find we work around their schedule and have no problems with us using the location again if we were to ask nicely. There are several restaurants, dinners, stores, porn shops, offices, medical facilities, churches, houses, schools… that we have shot at that they would probably be fine with us returning. The trick is to make sure to make the process as easy for them as you can so as to not sour the event and turn them off from letting you back. If they are letting you in for free or almost free you want to leave everything like you were never there.
    We have found a few really nice, bigger older homes but nothing like the two examples here.

    It is all about finding great locations and building a working friendship with the owners so they will let you return in the future if you ask. It cuts down a lot on scouting locations if time=money and scouting takes to long.

    • Oh and on a side note. As for jail scenes. We have never shot in a jail but we have found police departments that are willing to let you use a car and an officer as long as things are slow.
      That is the great thing about small town shooting.

  5. Thank you for impugning the abandoned location approach. SHTICK. The trite in our business is so … trite, no? Yours is among my favorite FB pages.

    Michael Scully

  6. I work in a cubical in a building that’s available to me 24 hours…at a media company. Which brings me to my point – don’t ask your cube dwelling friends who work at Viacom or Fox or ABC or whatever. A media company can (at least try) to stake claim to anything shot on their property, even if it’s after hours.

  7. This article is so dense. I’m a filmmaker living in NY…. not the city… the State. That giant piece of grass you folks seem to forget even exists. You can find all of these locations if you actually go north of Westchester County. And more. And it’s all affordable. Permits are easy. Most municipalities are dying for people to actually get in a car, drive a few hours, and realize you can do full features, docs, short forms, everything upstate for virtually pennies compared to “New York” and you have way more control over the environment. It’s a lot easier to close streets in Utica or Niagara Falls than it is in Manhattan. Point being – it’s not hard to find decent locations at a low cost in “New York”… you just have to learn some geography and realize that there is more to “New York” than just 1 glorified city.

  8. “As per” is redundant. Just write “per.”

  9. Does anyone know anything about how to get permission to shoot a scene at a public school in NYC?

  10. love your comments on abandoned buildings but do you know of any really cool ones to film in? seriously.

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