Film office exec describes state as Hollywood East

By David Liscio
The Daily Item
February 25, 2009

DANVERS – Back in the old days, before 2006, Hollywood executives scarcely looked toward Massachusetts as a place to make movies, unless, of course, they were in need of lobster boats, clam shacks and the open sea.

Things have changed dramatically, with film production companies arriving every other month to shoot not only on location but inside vacant buildings used as temporary studios for movies that have nothing whatsoever to do with Massachusetts.

“We’re becoming Hollywood East,” said Nick Paleologos, director of the Massachusetts Film Office and guest speaker Tuesday at the annual North Shore Business Expo at the Sheraton Ferncroft hotel. “Our film tax incentive has made a difference.”

According to Paleologos, the state Legislature in January 2006 sanctioned a significant tax break for film production companies – the Film Tax Incentive Bill. The impact was almost immediate as evidenced by the number of films made in Massachusetts before and after the law was passed.

Citing a state Department of Revenue study, Paleologos said only one movie was filmed in Massachusetts in 2005, feeding about $6 million into the local economy.

In 2006, two films were made, worth about $60 million each in impact revenue. By 2007, the number had jumped to eight and the related local spending to $125 million, but the biggest increase was seen last year, when 13 film projects brought about $359 million into the state’s economy.

“It has been very gratifying,” he said, noting that as directors and producers explore beyond Boston, many towns and cities benefit as they become selected for set locations, Lynn and Salem among them. “The more they’re here, the more they find.”

The tax-break was simply constructed. Studios were told for every dollar spent in Massachusetts they would receive a 25-cent tax credit. More than $90 million was spent on the movie Ashcliffe, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, and the state receives income tax revenue from the famous actor’s salary as well as his residuals and royalties, which could continue for 20 years, Paleologos explained.

The cast, crew, extras, and thousands of carpenters, painters, electricians, and other tradesmen and technicians all pay income tax, eat in area restaurants, stay at local hotels, and fill up their vehicles at area gas stations. Movies with big box office stars, like DiCaprio, Robert DeNiro and Bruce Willis, typically spend $2 million a week, according to the film office director whose resume includes experience as a movie director, producer and Tony Award winner.

“Before we had the tax credit, the films made in Massachusetts were about Massachusetts,” he said, referring to titles such as The Perfect Storm, Mystic River, and The Departed. Once the tax credit was allowed, all kinds of movies were made here, most recently Pink Panther II, starring Steve Martin, shot in a Boston warehouse, the interior of which was transformed into scenes from Paris and Rome.
Although Massachusetts is gaining momentum as a center for film, television and new media productions, it faces two major obstacles – seasons of foul weather that make shooting outdoors difficult, and the lack of state-of-the-art sound stages.

Paleologos said three private investment companies are currently competing to spend $500 million to build a sound stage on the South Shore. If successful, the project would position Massachusetts as the strongest center for film and television production in New England, given that the Boston area offers a wide array of natural and urban settings and is home to a large pool of college-educated residents interested in related careers.

Rather than move to California or New York to pursue careers in film and television, they can stay here, Paleologos said.

In New England, only Connecticut poses as stiff competition. Rhode Island was once in the running, but since the state reduced its film tax credits, production companies have shied away, said Paleologos, adding that Louisiana and New Mexico remain tough contenders because they benefit from stable climates.

Paleologos showed a short promotional film about movie-making in Massachusetts, what he likes to call a small sliver of a bright light amid a gloomy national economy. Clips from movies locally made were spliced together, offering a poignant look at just how big a player the state has become in the film industry. Among them: Good Will Hunting, Jaws, Mystic River, School Ties, The Perfect Storm, The Departed, The Cider House Rules, With Honors, Fever Pitch, A Civil Action, and Mona Lisa Smile.

Unmentioned were others, such as Ashcliffe, the DiCaprio film that includes many scenes shot in Nahant; Surrogates, the futuristic thriller starring Bruce Willis, and Edge of Darkness, starring Mel Gibson, the latter two with scenes filmed in Lynn; Bride Wars, starring Kate Hudson, which includes many settings in Salem; The Proposal, starring Sandra Bullock, with Gloucester as a backdrop; Gone Baby Gone, directed by Ben Affleck; and The Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, not yet released.

“We’re extremely well positioned for the next 3-4 years,” said Paleologos, explaining that if the ongoing labor dispute between the major studios and the Screen Actors Guild is settled by mid-March, anywhere from eight to 12 movies will likely be made in Massachusetts in 2009.

The business expo, hosted by the North Shore Chamber of Commerce, attracted over 100 exhibitors, thousands of visitors, and featured speaking presentations by U.S. Rep. John F. Tierney and state Senate President Therese Murray, both of whom used the occasion to talk about the economy.

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