New York City Film Permits – Coming to a Neighborhood Near You

19 Mar

Want to call a bit of New York real estate all your own? Just request a film permit from the city and, once granted, you’ll be able to arrogate, as the city puts it, “the exclusive use of city property, like a sidewalk, a street, or a park” – at least for a day of two.

Quite a bit of this sort of short-terming goes on in Manhattan these days, and in the other four boroughs too; and you can arrogate the dataset devoted to all that activity, and for free, on the New York city Open Data site via this link:

Once you’ve gotten there, just click the blue Export button holding down the center-right of the screen, and select CSV for Excel once the Download As menu appears.


The data commit to cell form (as opposed to celluloid), nearly 40,000 permits secured between January 1, 2012 and December 16, 2016 (as of this writing; the data are ongoingly updated) somewhere around the city, and not just of the cinematic oeuvre. Television, commercial shootings and what are termed theatrical Load in and Load Outs – presumably scenery and equipment installation work for on-stage productions – are likewise inventoried.

As per so many open data renderings, a quick autofit of the sheet’s columns need be clicked, and you’d also probably want to let the EventAgency and Country fields in F and M respectively fall to the cutting room floor; their cell entries are unvarying and as such, unneeded.

A first, obvious plan for the data would have us break out the number of permits by New York’s five boroughs. This straightforward pivot table should serve that end:

Rows: Borough

Values: Borough

Borough (again, show values as % of Column Total)

I get:


Ok – the field headers need retitling, but the data speak clearly to us. What’s slightly surprising, at least to me, is the smallish majority accruing to Manhattan. This native New Yorker would have thought that the storied island’s mystique would have magnetized still more filmic attention to itself; but perhaps Brooklyn’s latter-day repute for hipness packs a measure of ballast into the weightings. A very quick read of the Brooklyn zip (or postal) codes (column N) attracting the cameras turns up neighborhoods in the borough that border the East River, e.g., the perennially photogenic Brooklyn Heights (i.e. lower Manhattan skyline looming large in the background) and trending Williamsburg, for example.

We could then proceed with a natural follow-on, this a distribution of permits by category:

Rows: Category

Values: Category (Count)

Category (again, by % of Column Total)

I get:


(Note: for information on New York’s permit categories, look here.) Television permits rule decisively; presumably the repeated filming regimen demanded by weekly series explains the disparity.

Now let’s break out category by borough, something like this:

Row: Category

Column: Borough

Values: Category (% of Row Total)

And we should turn off grand totals for rows; they all add to 100%.

I get:


Remember that the percentages read across. I’m particularly surprised by Manhattan’s relatively small plurality of movie and television shoots, and by extension Brooklyn’s relative appeal. What’s needed here, however, are comparative data from previous years; for all I know, nothing’s changed among the borough distributions. (Remember as well that the above table plots percentages, not absolute figures. Exactly one Red Carpet/Premiere was shot during the five years recorded here.) Note at the same time Manhattan’s huge differential among Theater permits, a predictable concomitant of its concentration of Broadway and off-Broadway venues.

And what of seasonality? We can answer that question easily enough by installing StartDateTime into Rows – grouping by Months and Years – and pitching the same field (or really any field, provided all of its cells are populated with some sort of data) into values via Count.

I get (the screen shots have been segmented in the interests of concision):


Among other gleanings, October seems to present a particularly attractive month for filmmakers, though the reasons why would and probably could be searched. Note in addition the spike in permit activity in 2015, and the fairly pronounced retraction in permits last year, at least through December 16.

But permit counts don’t tell us about the duration of the shoots, which naturally vary. But those data are here, and are welcomingly precise. To calculate permit lengths, all we need do is fashion a new field in the next free column (its position depends on whether you’ve deleted the superfluous fields I identified above), call it Duration, and enter in row 2:


That paragon of simplicity yields a decimal result, quantifying the proportion of the day awarded the permit holder. Copy it down the Duration column and then try this, for starters:

Row: Category

Values: Duration (Average, rounded to two decimals).

I get:


Remember we’re working with fractions of days; if you wanted results expressed in hourly terms you’d need to supplement the formulas in Duration with a *24 multiple.

We see a notably consistent range of average permit time allotments across categories with the obvious exception of Theater, whose set-up needs appear to require substantial permit times. Remember that a duration of .63, for example, signifies about 15 hours.

And if you simply add the durations (at least through December 16), the aggregate permit day count evaluates to 32,843.97. Divide the result by an average 365.25-day year, and 89.92 years worth of permit time report themselves, across a jot less than five years. That’s a lot of New York that’s been declared temporarily off-limits to the public.

Now you may also want to distribute permit prevalence by New York’s zip codes, but here a pothole obstructs the process. Because the areas requisitioned by the permits often straddle multiple codes, that plurality is duly recorded by the ZipCode(s) field, e.g. 11101,11222,11378.

But a workaround is at hand, though not the one I’d first assumed would have done the deal. What does seem to work is this:  First, range-name the ZipCode(s) field Zip, and in an empty cell – say R1 (or somewhere on a blank sheet), enter a sample zip code, say 10001. Then, say in R2, enter


That’s an array formula, its entry requiring Ctrl-Shift-Enter, programming into its result those telltale, curly braces. The formula conducts a FIND of every cell in Zip for evidence of 10001; and when it finds it – somewhere in the cell – it posts a 1 to the formula, after which all the 1’s are counted. In this case I get 1950 permits having freed up a smidgen of acreage somewhere in the 10001 code, in the neighbourhood of the Empire State Building.

You can next copy and paste all of New York’s zip code listings into a blank spreadsheet area from here, entering New York City in the search field. Enter the above formula with the appropriate cell reference in the first of the listed codes and copy all the way down. If you sort the results largest to smallest, these codes return more than 1000 hits (note I’ve retained the web site’s neighbourhood field):


That generic “Brooklyn” 11222 code topping the list points to the borough’s Greenpoint neighborhood, one of those districts hard by the East River, as is Queens’ Long Island City.

The formula that doesn’t work, contrary to my original surmise is

=COUNTIF(Zip, “*”&R1&”*”)

That’s in effect the one that had served us so well in my various key-word assays of Donald Trump’s tweets. It doesn’t work here because, for example, the zip code 11101 entered singly is vested with a numeric format; 11101, 11222,11378, on the other hand, stands as a textual datum, and COUNTIF likewise regards the two entries as different; and because it does, it won’t find both instances of the 11101s in the same formula. But FIND does.

Got that? I think that’s a wrap.


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