By Jon Chesto
The Patriot Ledger
October 26, 2008
QUINCY — The protagonists of the new science fiction show on Fox recently investigated bizarre deaths in a Worcester office tower, a grimy warehouse in Stoughton and a cozy diner in Milford. All these gruesome scenes that have opened various episodes of “Fringe,” an offbeat hybrid of “The X-Files” and the CSI franchise, should be translating into big bucks for the local film industry. But we’re not seeing any of the production company’s money because the Boston-set series is being shot in Brooklyn.
Massachusetts has enjoyed a renaissance in movie production in the last two years because of aggressive tax incentives that the Legislature created. But this state has gone more than a decade without a full-scale TV series production – despite the fact that it seems like a new show debuts every year that’s set in the Bay State. Sure, a few building exteriors might appear in a David Kelley show such as “The Practice” or “Boston Legal,” but that’s not much help for the area’s economy.
Local industry leaders are crossing their fingers that the dry run could be coming to an end now that two TV pilots are expected to be shooting here by the end of the year. One of them, Spike TV’s two-hour pilot based on an Irish mob, seems definite. The other, a TNT drama known as “Bunker Hill” and starring Donnie Wahlberg and Bridget Moynahan, also looks likely.
Chris O’Donnell, business manager of IATSE Local 481, says the last series that was shot here was the short-lived cop drama “Against the Law” in 1990. Of course, nearly everyone in the local film industry talks with great reverence about the days in the 1980s when “Spencer: For Hire” crews were as common on Boston streets as duck boats are now. O’Donnell isn’t the only person who refers to that series as the “Holy Grail.”
Securing a TV series is important because it creates a steady stream of employment for film workers in the area. Movie productions can come and go in a feast-or-famine style, but anywhere from a dozen to two dozen episodes for a given TV series will be ordered at a time. A series could eventually help ensure there’s a surplus of potential crew staffers on hand and an expanded infrastructure to help when a movie company is considering shooting a film here.
The already-established crew base, sound stages and sets in L.A. and New York are key reasons why most TV shows are shot in those two cities. But there are important exceptions in every TV season. For example, the Showtime series “Brotherhood,” which was originally envisioned for Boston, has wrapped up a third season in Providence, where the city is as important a character as any of the ones played by the actors.
O’Donnell says the tax incentives that many states have put in place – Rhode Island and Massachusetts both offer film companies a 25-percent tax credit on production spending – in recent years make it much more affordable for TV shows to be produced where their scripts actually take place.
Nick Paleologos, executive director of the Massachusetts Film Office, says he’s not worried about the growing competition from other states that are trying to outdo Rhode Island and Massachusetts by increasing the size of their own credits. New York recently tripled its film and TV tax credits to 30 percent, and Michigan raised its maximum credit to 42 percent. Paleologos says the current level in Massachusetts is more sustainable than Michigan’s because it properly balances the interests of taxpayers with those of the movie industry.
But he says that construction of a major sound-stage project – like the one that will be considered at Plymouth’s town meeting Monday – could play a crucial role. Such a project, he says, would help prove that this area has the infrastructure to support a TV series, especially during New England’s infamously unpredictable winters.
We shouldn’t get our hopes up just yet. Most pilots don’t get picked up to be full-fledged series, and not all series return to the location where their pilot was filmed. (The pilot for “Fringe,” for example, was shot in Toronto before the series moved to Brooklyn.) But Paleologos says a pilot’s location is often a crucial factor for determining the eventual home of a successful series.
This area has long been a popular setting for TV shows, from blockbusters such as “Cheers” and “St. Elsewhere” to less successful programs like “Boston Common” and “It’s All Relative.” Hopefully, the next time producers come up with a way to portray Boston on the small screen, they’ll also find a way to get it right – by making their stories come to life right here.
Jon Chesto, The Patriot Ledger’s business editor, may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org