Why I Moved to New York City - Hollywood is Far Behind the Times
by Alex Billington
November 14, 2012
It's time to get the hell out of Dodge. After living in Los Angeles (in lovely Sherman Oaks) for four years, it was time to get out. I moved there back in late 2008 because FirstShowing.net (my second company since age 14) was getting bigger, and it was time to move away from my childhood home of Colorado Springs into the big city of Hollywood. The local paper even wrote a story about me moving out there. But I'll admit now, something didn't feel right. I never liked LA. Any time I visited, something felt off about it. Now I've made a decision to do something that I've wanted to do my entire life - I moved to New York City. Why, you ask?
Editor's Note: Some of these thoughts were originally written before Superstorm Sandy left the East Coast in ruins. However, the courage and tenacity and love I've observed as the city and the region recovers has reiterated exactly why I want to be here. Even though I am moving in right after one of the worst natural disaster's in the city's history, I couldn't be more excited to be here to help New York get back on its feet.
On the East Coast of the United States lies a city I have loved my entire life. My Grandma from my mother's side had an intrinsic love for New York and would often take my Mom and her brothers on trips there as children. It must be in my blood, because I have loved New York for as long as I can remember. It's the one city I have visited more times than any other city in the entire world, and I lived there once during a college summer break working an internship (that I didn't really care for). There's a certain energy, a vibe, a feeling I get just standing on the sidewalks. I can look up at the buildings all around me and feel this sensation that I only get in metropolitan cities (like London or Paris). The buildings. The subways. The people all around.
It was that attraction that first drew me to New York City; I fell in love with it almost immediately, and have spent as much time there as possible. In the last few months alone I've visited twice, the most recent trip mostly for apartment hunting (and conducting Skyfall interviews in town). Every time I visited, it wouldn't feel right leaving at the end. I already felt at home and just wanted to go back to my yet-to-exist apartment deep in the city, not the airport. It was an intensifying yearning that finally got to me. Now was the time. I'm 26, I'm single, I'm tired of Los Angeles, I love New York, there's no better time than now; a new adventure.
As I neared four years of living in Los Angeles, while I was generally pretty happy being right at the steps of Hollywood, something didn't feel right. I felt as though I had somehow lost my way in this sprawling city of traffic, smog, movie studios, valet stands and food trucks. I spent more time frustrated at traffic and worried about keeping bugs out of my apartment than exploring the city, growing my business, or visiting any of the places that surrounded me. It all came back to that feeling the first time I ever visited LA (for a press event in 2006). There's something off-putting about LA, besides traffic, that never sat well with me (more later).
This site—FirstShowing.net—will continue on, and will definitely get even bigger and better based out of NYC. But it's time for me to grow as a person. To be where I truly belong, to regain that staunch ambition and passion I had in 2008 when first moving out to LA, to expand the business and overcome the struggles I've had in recent years. I can't explain why it happened in November of 2012, but this is when the next part of my life begins. How does all this connect to writing about movies? Well, this has been my sole focus for the last six years (it was founded in June of 2006). It's hard for me to explain my complete thoughts about running the site, but I came across a blog post recently from another young writer that captures it perfectly.
The entry was written by Jake Orr, a 24-year-old London theater (as in the stage/plays) critic who runs the blog A Younger Theatre. He recently decided to take a "break" from the non-stop work of attending and reviewing shows, and in his post he eloquently explains why this break was necessary at this point in his life:
"When your love for something becomes your life, your every moment and time, then it borders on obsession. It's an addiction. But it's not always a healthy addiction. If I followed up every invite I got in my inbox then I'd never see anything more than the back of someone's head in front of me at the theatre. I'd no doubt strike up small but insignificant friendships with ushers and box office managers in the hope that they can offer me a moment of friendship and connection. What I'm saying is simple: theatre is my passion, but it can't be my life too. There have to be borders, I have to define where my theatre passion starts, and where my life, as Jake Orr, begins."
So here I am, as Alex Billington, defining where my life begins. And it begins in New York City. It's not that I haven't lived an admittedly amazing life so far and enjoyed every second of it, but I believe wholeheartedly in honesty. My heart was telling me I honestly belonged in the Big Apple. Specifically, in Manhattan. I explored a few apartments in Brooklyn, but wasn't satisfied. It didn't feel like the place I wanted to live, the city I dreamed of being in. So I made the decision, spent an exhaustive couple of days looking at apartments all over Manhattan, and finally settled on a studio that I will hopefully be moving into soon (Sandy took out my first apartment two days before I was supposed to move in, but I found a replacement just this week).
Jake goes on to explain a very vital internal conflict only extremely passionate, dedicated people are familiar with: "This is the crisis that I face on a weekly basis. My passion invading my personality and my personal life... I can't let theatre consume me, despite this love inside my chest that aches and tries to burst forth at every given chance... I'm so much more than just theatre." I could say the same about my love for movies. But, maybe, I don't really know. Maybe I spent too much time chasing Hollywood the last six years and not enough time living a balanced life, living in a city where I'm happy to walk around the streets, where I'm happy it snows in the winter, where I'm happy that I don't have to actually drive in a car to get somewhere.
But I'm a passionate person. It's in my blood. I'm an entrepreneur above all, I have been since I was kid. I ran my first business from ages 14 to 18, then started this one when I was 20. I remember attending the Grindhouse junket afterparty in LA and being anxious that they'd check my ID - it was my 21st birthday. I didn't start this site to make money (and I don't run it for the money now). I started this website to make a difference. To enhance the moviegoing experience so that everyone could experience movies with the same unabashed, exuberant excitement that's inside of me every time I go to a highly anticipated midnight show.
Hollywood is Extremely Far Behind the Times
I moved to Los Angeles in late 2008 with the hope that it would be my big break. I was already in the sights of the studios, being invited to press events—usually in LA—and set visits (Watchmen in Vancouver in late 2007 was my first visit), and I felt like I could take on the world. But Los Angeles is not a city that invites innovation. After four years of living there, they're just barely getting around (at least in my neighborhood) to putting technology at the forefront of development. Did you know LA has subway? Neither did I. It barely goes anywhere. LA's public transportation sucks. I would read about places like San Francisco and New York getting city-wide wifi, but LA seemed more concerned about widening the 405 or arguing about marijuana.
I was lured into Los Angeles because that's where "Hollywood" is. But anyone who has ever driven around the actual part of LA known as Hollywood, knows that it's not an appealing place. It's dirty, there are bums all over, it's disorganized, the parking and traffic is horrendous at all times of the day. This is the infamous Hollywood? I quickly discovered none of the actual movie studios were in Hollywood (except Paramount) but rather split between the Burbank area (WB, Disney, Universal) and Century City (Fox) or Culver City (Sony). But I managed fine, mostly because I love driving, and was excited to explore this West Coast city.
It's really Hollywood, the "industry" not just the city, that is behind the times. It's very evident in the way they continue to fight piracy with archaic and ruthless tactics, and in the way the studios have been slow to accept the internet as the dominate interactive platform of modern communication (Variety and Hollywood Reporter have been the print magazine Hollywood kings for years and are just now caving into the modern digital era). The movie marketing/distribution industry is behind the times (the filmmaking side is actually where genuine innovation is found) and, subsequently, the city that lives on this industry, is behind as well. There wasn't much I saw LA do to encourage technological innovation, especially compared to New York.
Even South Park recently made fun of Hollywood and the ancient business models they're still addicted to in an episode parodying the death of Blockbuster and DVDs. It's worth watching if you haven't seen it yet, as it shows how Hollywood is still stuck on these old models. Filmmaker Tiffany Shlain also recently commented on Fast Co's Branch discussion about the differences between Silicon Valley and Los Angeles: "Hollywood is based on models that were developed 80 years ago that need to be rethought. The budgets are so large that they are keeping companies from creating a lot of inspired work. S.V. is much more nimble." I'd rather be in a city that embraces progress instead of holding onto old models for as long as they can pinch pennies.
Many movie fans collect stubs, but the collection I was the most proud of in LA was my movie studio parking passes (pictured to the right). It only took about two years, but I kept my pass onto the lot of every movie studio in town (from top down): Paramount, Warner Bros, Fox, Disney, Sony, Universal, DreamWorks Animation, Disneyland (yep!) and IMAX. I loved, and can say I still love, going onto studio lots. Fox screens most of their movies on the lot, but even after 30 odd visits, I can still go and feel the same "this is where history was filmed" exhilaration. It was one of my favorite parts about being in Los Angeles - access to the movie studios. But I discovered after four years that this access wasn't essential. Screenings take place everywhere, and happen just as often in New York (both Les Mis and The Hobbit are hosting their press junkets in the city). Though I may miss the lots, I don't feel like I'm really missing out by moving away.
What I did not enjoy was the traffic and time it would take to get to the studios. Traffic gets worse every year in Los Angeles. I was warned about it before I even moved there, but was reminded every time I set foot in my car just how awful it truly is. It is not an exaggeration to say that if it's between 6AM and 8PM during a week day, no matter where you are in LA, you're either in or will hit some traffic. I couldn't stand it, it drove me crazy. It drove me to stay at home and off the streets as much as I could. I wouldn't even leave my apartment on Fridays after 4PM, because Friday evenings are the worst for traffic, even around my area (aka "the valley").
The only other Los Angeles-based enterprise that I respectfully admire is the Arclight Cinemas chain of movie theaters, which had a Sherman Oaks location right near me. A shining beacon of quality and excellence standing tall in an otherwise scuzzy city. But they were so good, I never wanted to go anywhere else to watch movies. My first roommate for two years in Los Angeles worked at the nearby Arclight as a projectionist, and I got to hear all the good and bad behind the scenes, before he left the job. I'm glad to see that Arclight is aggressively expanding now, but they're still miles behind the Alamo Drafthouse, who I believe are the greatest innovators in the movie exhibition world.
I had hoped to find a city that would encourage a small online business like a movie blog to thrive. But that's not the city I found living in Los Angeles. Every day I spent there, places like San Francisco and New York (even Seattle) became more appealing as I watched them push for and encourage technological progress. It was the never-ending traffic, and the realistic lack of technological innovation, that were the two biggest factors behind why I had to leave LA. I hoped to progress my business but felt constrained and confined in a city I didn't even want to drive around in anymore. It was time to get out and make a change for my future.
Home Sweet Home Amongst the Skyscrapers
I don't feel any remorse or concern about leaving LA behind. I had my time there, and enjoyed most of it. I went to Disneyland. I have been to Oscar parties, Golden Globes parties, Bel Air parties, Chateau Marmont parties. I've been to every single movie studio, explored every lot, sat in every screening room. I've seen the Hollywood sign (many times). I've driven to Vegas and back. I've flown out of LAX and Burbank. There's not much there that I feel the need to be around (except, of course, all my friends and colleagues who I already miss). But as for my "job", this business, and movies—while it is "Hollywood", New York is not far behind. It has a strong film community. Hell, there's probably more movies filmed in New York than in LA nowadays (considering most studio productions have moved out to places like Toronto, New Mexico or New Orleans).
There are people like Darren Aronofsky, a personal favorite filmmaker, who prove every single day that living in New York and working in film is not only possible, but enriching and viable. He's one of the biggest advocates of NYC being a movie town, and filmed most of his latest project Noah in/around the city. There are many filmmakers (like Noah Baumbach, Spike Lee, Woody Allen, Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese) who love NYC and love living and working here. It is the opportunities and innovations the city provides and encourages that inspire me the most. It's the energy that will refuel my ambition and reignite my passions.
So, I moved — finally living my dream of living in Manhattan in New York City. I cannot predict the future and don't know where this new adventure will take me or my business, but I know that I am already happier, healthier, more excited and completely revitalized by being here than in Los Angeles. I was looking around for lists of NY-based filmmakers and found this article titled New York Stories: Why Filmmakers Love the Big Apple. In it, there's a quote from documentary filmmaker Robert Richter that I need to repost:
"How do I love New York? Let me count the ways: It is the energy and those fabulous places to see, the restaurants with ethnic cuisines from everywhere, the great museums, Off and Off Off Broadway, the hellish heat and devilish cold, cherry blossoms in Prospect Park, autumn leaves turning gold and red, memories of childhood and a career, and all of the history that happens here. It is almost everyone in the world conveniently reachable through a subway trip. Wherever I've traveled and relished what I saw and did, I always return to New York, thankful for the experiences and thankful for coming back to the best place a documentary filmmaker can live and work."
That is exactly how I feel, and I'm not even a filmmaker. Los Angeles can't provide that, it never could, even when it tries. It is a city where work always comes first, money and glamor rule the streets, and innovation moves slowly. That's not the city for me, that's not the city I want to live in to grow myself as a person, to push this business and website beyond these last six years into another six years of success, influence and inspiration. I want to rediscover a new world, get lost looking for the best pizza joint, or find hidden gems around the block, and establish a balance between living my own life, and living a life connected to movies.
I am incredibly thankful for everyone who has ever encouraged me to live my dreams, inspired me in any way, and helped me make this move possible. From my loving parents who I owe everything, to my cousin Andrew and his wife Kelly (who used to let me stay at their Queens apartment and now live in New Jersey) to my college friend TJ and his wife graciously allowing me to crash at their place in the Financial District until I find an actual home. To everyone else that has ever read this website, or told me congratulations on my success. I wouldn't have been able to get here without knowing I'm not alone. You inspire me in return.
The question I am most often asked when explaining why I moved to New York is: "what about your site?" Don't worry. It'll still be here, alive and kickin' as always. Ben Pearson, our newest writer, is based in LA, Ethan lives in Indiana, Jeremy (and soon Tim) lives in the southern movie mecca of Austin, Texas. Living, loving and working in movies does not require being in Los Angeles. Cinema is, and will always be, global. LA offers some access, but I learned after four years that I would rather be in a city I can truly call home, where I can wake up happy every day, and be energized and rejuvenated daily. For me that is New York City.
So here I am, at the beginning of a new chapter in my life. It's time to start this New York adventure on the East Coast, and see where it takes me, where it takes us. "It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might be swept off to."