Hooray for HollyWOO! Worcester gives moviemakers, stars red-carpet treatment

By: Craig S. Semon | Telegram & Gazette | December 13, 2020

WORCESTER – With hockey players and rock musicians absent from the DCU Center, the stage was clear for Meryl Streep. The Academy Award winner filmed a scene for Netflix’s “Don’t Look Up” inside the city-owned arena last week.

At the DCU or on Main Street, the clack of a camera slate is a familiar one in Worcester. A handful of movies have filmed scenes in the city in recent years, from Liam Neeson in “Honest Thief” to  Matthew McConaughey in “The Sea of Trees.”

In general I think that the movies do leave a lot of money in Worcester.


Behind the scenes, one of the more important members of the supporting cast is Edgar Luna. If you’re a Hollywood bigshot or a small independent movie company and you want to film in Worcester, you have to speak to Luna first.

As the city business development manager, Luna oversees all movie projects that set up in Worcester.

“A lot of scouts have come to the city. They have seen what we have and, whenever possible, I provide them with more than what they ask,” Luna said. “It’s a very complex process but my responsibility is to provide them with the unique sites that we have in Worcester but also with any specific requests that they may have.” 

DCU Center General Manager Sandy Dunn said the scene filmed for “Don’t Look Up” in the arena featured 150 extras and 75 of its own employees (including security, housekeepers and stagehands) that worked on the production, which is “a lot of jobs,” especially during a pandemic.

Actor Liam Neeson talks before getting into a classic Chevy Nova to shoot a scene on Main Street during film production for “Honest Thief” on Nov. 14, 2018, in Worcester. T&G Staff/Rick Cinclair

“This is a time when there is not a lot of live entertainment out there, so to be able to get people working was terrific news for us,” Dunn said. “That’s great for some employment, especially this time of the year where people are looking for some money with the holidays coming up. So we’re happy. And you could see the buoyancy of the employees that were there. They were thrilled to be back and working.”

At the DCU Center, crews set up Wednesday and Thursday, filmed only on Friday and packed up and left on Saturday. Dunn did not share how much it cost Netflix to rent the arena.

Although financial numbers have not been released yet in regard to “Don’t Look Up” being filmed at the DCU Center, it’s safe to say the city received a good payday in the middle of the pandemic.

“In general, I think that the movies do leave a lot of money in Worcester,” Luna said. “Besides the publicity that we may get, in my department, we’re trying to promote the business end of the city of Worcester, large or small. It could be a small vendor or it could be a larger vendor. It could be someone who owns a large building complex or it could be someone who owns a humble home and they are looking for that particular home.”

Typically, Luna said he’ll give movie people several names of companies for the services they need.

“What happens is we meet in person or online, and they will say we need A, B, C and D,” Luna said. “I provide that information. They finally come to the conclusion that we’re going to be using three sites for three scenes, for example.”

In Lifetime’s “Christmas On Ice,” the Worcester Common Oval is prominently featured and crucial to the plot. 

For its four-day shoot for “Christmas on Ice,” Pirouette Picture LLC entered into a location agreement with the City of Worcester to use the Worcester Common and the Oval. SMG/ASM Global operates the Oval.

Pirouette Picture provided reimbursement for all costs associated with their activity at the Oval, which included a supervisor, $31.80 per hour; setup/teardown labor, $26 per hour for two persons; Zamboni operator, $28.75 per hour; skate guards; and rink snow removal, three to five people, $26 per hour, all for a four-hour minimum and overtime after eight hours. In addition, the producers paid for oval snow removal, $500-$750, depending on depth of snow and length of time; Porta-John usage $100; use of skates, $150 per day; and had to put down a $5,000 deposit.

But not everything filmed in Worcester is city property. Earlier in the day, Netflix shot a scene from “Don’t Look Up” (minus Streep) inside the lobby of the Mercantile Center and HBO Max filmed “Julia” inside the Denholm Building. “Don’t Look Up” also stars Leonard DiCaprio, although it appears he did not film in the city.

“If it’s a private building, then I provide the information of who the owner is,” Luna said.“ “I provided all the information. They came. They saw the space. They liked it…And they discuss price.”

Dusty Rhodes, president of Conventures Inc., which owns the Mercantile Center, said they are fortunate that the Mercantile Center is versatile.

Movie production is centered around a car in the courtyard Dec. 4 at the Mercantile Center in Worcester. T&G Staff/Rick Cinclair

She gave the Netflix location scouts a tour of the entire facility, including the truck tunnel, the old and maintained Foothills Theatre, the big warehouse space where COVID-19 testing is conducted, and several furnished areas that can be used as office space.

“I wanted to show them the versatility of the Mercantile Center, because they could represent another movie project,” Rhodes said. “It’s absolutely what we want to do more of, promote the city in a good way, and bring some money in. And the more scenes shot in Worcester the better.”

Rhodes said Netflix paid $6,000 to use the Mercantile Center. She said production crew set up on Tuesday, prepped Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, and shot Friday morning. The Mercantile Center was paid $1,000 a day for nonfilming days and $2,000 for the day they filmed.

In addition to filming locales, financial benefits also come in the form of local catering services (if the production chooses), local transportation (taxis, trucks, vans, and private vehicles) and local hotels.

For “Don’t Look Up,” Netflix rented 50 rooms at the AC Hotel by Marriott Worcester, Luna said.

“When they ask me are there any hotels located in the immediate vicinity, I provide them with that information,” he said.  “And, in this case, they selected the AC Hotel by Marriott Worcester and they were happy with the services.”

Mary Simone, general manager of AC Hotel by Marriott Worcester, called the Netflix production coming to Worcester a true Christmas miracle.

“When you’re in the middle of a pandemic and all this stuff starts happening, it’s a true Christmas miracle,” she said. “We love having the crews. They work really, really hard and they’re really, really nice people. After a long day of work, they appreciate the service.”

Because of the Liam Neeson movie “Honest Thief” – in which a pivotal action scene was filmed at the AC Hotel by Marriott Worcester – the hotel has been receiving inquiries from other production companies to be used, Simone said.

“The Liam Neeson movie put us on the map. So everyone wants to take a look and see,” Simone said. “We have had other scouts through and they wanted to utilize portions of the hotel in the upcoming years because of the uniqueness, because it does look like it’s a hotel that could be in Boston or New York. And the people who have walked through here just absolutely think that the city shows very well throughout the day and show really very well at nighttime also.”

T&G Staff File/Ashley Green

“The Liam Neeson movie put us on the map. So everyone wants to take a look and see,” Simone said. “We have had other scouts through and they wanted to utilize portions of the hotel in the upcoming years because of the uniqueness, because it does look like it’s a hotel that could be in Boston or New York. And the people who have walked through here just absolutely think that the city shows very well throughout the day and show really very well at nighttime also.”

In some cases, depending on the number of days that they are going to be in the city, they may require residential services for the main actors.

“Liam Neeson, we had a private residence waiting for him in Paxton,” Luna said. “And he said, ‘No, no, no, no, I want to stay in downtown Worcester,’ So he stayed in some of the apartments here in Worcester downtown, right next to the AC Hotel by Marriott Worcester. Brand-new unit, they decorated it very nicely for him and he was happy. He was there, I don’t know, maybe, three months, maybe two months.”

Most importantly, Luna said, if a film staff and crew rolls into the city, they will need parking, lots and lots of parking.

For “Don’t Look Up,” Luna said they used 450 parking spaces on for their staff on filming day at the city-owned Major Taylor Parking Garage on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, which also falls under the jurisdiction of the Department of Public Works and Parks.

“The other aspect of parking is on-street parking because the movie production, such as this particular movie, they come with a significant number of trucks. It could be anywhere from 14 to 20 trucks,” Luna said. “The meters are covered for that day, one day, two day, whatever, the case may be, and the trucks could come and easily start utilizing the inside walk to go in and out and bring the equipment.”

For “Julia,” the production used props, including a vast array of vintage television sets, from the Westerman Prop Warehouse on Suffolk Street.

Although most movie productions come with their own security, Luna works with the Worcester Police Department to monitor traffic and provide security whenever necessary.

“You realize that these movies bring highly known individual, actors and actresses. They obviously need to be protected. The equipment that they use is very expensive,” Luna said. “So that’s where the Worcester Police Department detail units come in, because they provide the much-needed security for the projects that we have.”

Movies will often have local actors in small parts and extras. And the staff has a tendency to eat, aside from catering, at different local restaurants.

Luna said there are numerous benefits when a film project rolls into Worcester to film, including the publicity it brings that might entice future projects.

“The publicity is beneficial for the city of Worcester because it’s not limited to local information. It’s information shared at the state level, national level and an international level,” Luna said. “Also, we need to recognize that the city of Worcester was selected in the middle of a pandemic for a film production to come and film scenes in Worcester. They could have gone anywhere, but yet they selected the city of Worcester.”

What makes Worcester unique, Luna said, it is unlike Cambridge, Brookline and Boston, where the dense population of those cities can be difficult.

“It’s easier for Worcester to close a street but they might not be able to close a street in Boston for too long because of the density of the population,” Luna said. “But the other thing is, Boston, Cambridge and the surrounding towns have been filmed so many times in so many movies that they don’t want to see them anymore.”

As for filming in the Bay State, Luna insists Worcester can compete with any city out there.

“Worcester is new,” he said. “If they want historic buildings, we have them. If they want parks, we have them. If they want industrial sites, we have them. If they want fancy residential neighborhoods, we have them. If they want some odd bridge or highway, we have them. You don’t need to be in Cambridge or in Boston to film a Boston scene. You can do it in Worcester.”

“Film-friendly municipalities like Worcester are always attractive to film companies seeking suitable film locations,” the Massachusetts Film Office said in a statement. “Additionally, Worcester’s architecture lends itself to double for other cities, especially when depicting an earlier era.”

Luna said it’s safe to say that Worcester is going to see more film projects in 2021.

“I get phone calls from different scouts asking for this and asking for that,” he said. “I hear rumors of all the projects but, until I get an official request or confirmation that such a movie is coming to the city, then, I can’t really disclose any information or pretend that it’s a definite when it’s not.”

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