Hollywood East: Massive vacant space in old Lucent building brings starpower to North Andover
By Crystal Bozek and Drake Lucas
Lawrence Eagle Tribune June 1, 2008
NORTH ANDOVER — Owners of the massive Osgood Landing may have once lamented the barren space that exists in the previously thriving manufacturing plant. But as it turns out, 600,000 square feet of vacant property is a find for Hollywood producers.
The former Lucent plant on Route 125 has landed on a short list of prime filming spots across the state.
The building’s executives didn’t seek out the status, but weren’t about to pass up a chance to make some money on space that has otherwise been unprofitable. They’ve now made it their mission to court state film officials.
“We met and told the Massachusetts Film Office we were definitely interested in more films,” said Ellen Keller, vice president of commercial real estate for Osgood Landing. “We certainly hope more come.”
The Massachusetts Film Office toured the site earlier this month in a meeting that was brokered by the state Office of Business Development with an eye toward future filmmaking. Prior to that, Osgood Landing had been transformed into a set for three films in just seven months: “The Box,” “This Side of the Truth” and “The Surrogates.”
The films brought big stars, such as Cameron Diaz, Tina Fey, Rob Lowe, James Marsden, Ricky Gervais and Bruce Willis. They also have drummed up business at local restaurants, thrift shops — even the airport.
A location scout first discovered the former Lucent building almost two years ago when looking for a place to shoot commercials for Comfort Suite Hotels and an Internet company.
“The scout said, ‘Ellen, you’ll see. Once people find out about you, more and more people will start coming,'” Keller said. “It’s been somewhat word of mouth. Many of these film people know each other.”
That same scout, Jeff MacLean, brought “The Box” and Cameron Diaz to Osgood Landing in November, transforming part of the building into NASA headquarters — and word spread.
“This side of the Truth” came in April and “The Surrogates” wrapped up a couple weeks ago.
From telecommunications to films
Osgood Landing once was New England’s manufacturing hub for Lucent Technologies, employing more than 12,000 workers. But the telecommunications company started to crash in the 1990s, and thousands of workers have been laid off from what was once the Merrimack Valley’s largest employer.
Now about 500 workers are in the building, and those jobs will be phased out in the next year.
Ozzy Properties bought the real estate in 2004. Despite its best marketing efforts, however, Ozzy only has been able to lease out 60 percent of the 1.5 million-square-foot behemoth.
The remaining 600,000 square feet — the equivalent of 101/2 football fields — is a film producer’s dream, according to Massachusetts Film Office Executive Director Nick Paleologos.
“I didn’t quite have a sense of it until I walked through and realized how vast it is,” Paleologos said of his recent tour. “It’s huge, and it’s in great shape. A lot of these warehouses they’re using haven’t been occupied for 10 years.”
He said the building’s size, composition and good condition allow for great flexibility in what producers can do with it.
The state film office keeps a list of a dozen or so locations — warehouses, hockey rinks, former department stores — to provide to producers and film studios interested in shooting in Massachusetts.
There’s no charge to get a property on the list, Paleologos said. It just needs to be large and film-friendly. Other cities and towns with properties on the list with North Andover are Woburn, Boston, Allston, Worcester and Chelsea.
Location manager Jeff MacLean advertises Osgood Landing on his New England Locations Web site. He said not only is the scale of the building unique, but the fact that it isn’t packed with workers means filming can take place during the week.
“What else is like it?” MacLean questioned. “The manufacturing floor is pretty incredible, and whole front entrance is impressive looking and useable. And it’s right by the highway.”
MacLean said the building is so large that an entire set can be put up with almost no effect on the other businesses in the building.
“It’s perfect for filming. The only way to make it better is to make it more empty than it is,” MacLean said, laughing. “But then they’d make no regular money there. It’s completely unrealistic.”
A set waiting to happen
Keller said Ozzy Properties has thought about building a permanent soundstage in the building, but has yet to make the leap.
“With all the big open floors, it practically is a stage,” Keller said. “You can create a lot of looks.”
While spacious, the property still is limited in the films it attracts because most of the space doesn’t meet height requirements for some sets.
But Keller said once a warehouse space with much higher ceilings opens up next year, bigger-budget films that need larger stages and sets will be welcome.
“Some of these productions need 30 feet of clear height. Imagine a giant airplane hangar,” Keller said. “We have that in the warehouse.”
Productions typically rent out space for a little more than a month at a time — two weeks to set up, a few days to shoot, and another two weeks to disassemble.
“They are very meticulous,” Keller said. “They create such realistic sets.”
Parts of Osgood Landing became a 1970’s-era NASA work site and a police station for “The Box.”
For the sci-fi flick “The Surrogates,” a floor was transformed into FBI headquarters. Crew members also hung a green screen in the loading area.
For the Ricky Gervais comedy “This Side of the Truth” the space was made into an office setting. Filmmakers even used the building’s front lobby for a scene.
Ozzy Properties still is learning how to accommodate film crews. Keller has two people assigned to a set during filming in case producers need anything.
Keller said the most interesting requests have been for old furniture and items found around the building or in its storage area.
“Stuff we think is junk, they love, such as old signs and furniture,” she said. “They run around asking, ‘Can we have that sign? Can we have that clock?'”
She said one large vintage clock in particular will play an important role in “The Surrogates,” ticking down the seconds.
“It’s a type of vintage office clock you find throughout this building,” Keller said. “When this was AT&T, or maybe even Western Electric, they had these big clocks in the middle of every floor. … It looks old-fashioned. The movie company liked it.”
Give and take
Paleologos said in the past, films were shot in Massachusetts because the script took place in Massachusetts. But that changed in January 2006.
That’s when the film tax incentive program came into play, through which the state will reimburse film companies through tax incentives for up to one-quarter of their local production costs.
The companies can use these to reduce corporate income taxes, sell them to other firms or sell them back to the state for 90 cents on the dollar.
Now films will come to Massachusetts even if they have nothing to do with the state. For instance, the second Pink Panther movie, which filmed in and around Boston last summer, actually takes place in Paris.
“I’m constantly telling folks to draw a circle around Boston and you can find anything you want,” Paleologos said. “If you want Seacoast, mill town, suburbia, we have it, almost any look. Now if the movie is calling for a New Mexico landscape, we’re not getting that one.”
Seven major movies currently are being filmed in the state.
Locally, “This Side of the Truth” takes place in Andover, Haverhill and Lowell. And not far away, Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds have been in Rockport filming the Disney romantic comedy “The Proposal.”
North Andover Town Manager Mark Rees said he welcomes the filming, but so far no money has come directly to the town. That could change if a studio wanted to film on town-owned land.
There is, however, indirect economic impact of the films being made in North Andover: — Lucent pays taxes, the crew and stars dine at local restaurants, and filmmakers rent equipment, need transportation and hire locals for their crews and extras, for instance.
Paul Martin Antiques on River Street supplies filmmakers and television producers with props like wooden file cabinets and bedroom sets. His things have appeared in movies including “The Cider House Rules” and “The Good Shepherd.”
Andover’s “Hot Dog Guy,” Don Cowan of Methuen, recently was called in by producers and asked to drive to Boston, where he would sell a hot dog to Jennifer Garner in the movie “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past.”
Lawrence Municipal Airport Manager Michael Miller said money is funnelling in there from an increase in jets landings.
He never knows who is in the planes, but he’s seen more jets since filming started in Haverhill, Andover, Lawrence and Lowell. The airport receives a $10 landing fee for the small, single-engine planes and as much as $100 for small jets.
“Hopefully the cast and crew will go to restaurants and stop at stores,” Miller said. “Anything that draws attention to North Andover in a major way and provides revenue for the local businesses is great for the region and great for the area.”
A recent state study conducted by the Department of Revenue showed the Bay State receives $17 million in income, sales and other taxes for every $100 million in film tax credits.
“Some people say the money goes only to Boston. I’ve seen exactly the opposite as we get repeat business,” Paleologos said. “The places they spent most their time were Lowells and Gloucesters, Burlingtons.”
And there’s more than economic impact: There’s the excitement of celebrity.
Star sightings are causing a stir with people camping out by Osgood Landing for autographs. Rob Lowe, who starred in “This Side of the Truth,” dined at several local eateries, including Palmers in Andover.
Nancy Parnigoni, manager at Orzo Trattoria in North Andover, said Lowe and his manager came for lunch while he was filming at Osgood Landing.
She said Lowe was very low-key and was surprised to hear that an article was in the local newspaper about the filming.
“I told him it’s not every day you have such A-list move stars down the street filming,” she said.
At least for now.