Bay State grapples with dueling film agencies

BOSTON — Nearly three years since the shuttering of the Massachusetts Film Office, production is booming in the Bay State, and two rival nonprofit agencies are jockeying to claim the role of “go to” office for film production.

With a bustling economy and several pics locating here — including director Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” set to be shot in Massachusetts this spring and summer — it’s not surprising there are many eager to take credit.

What folks not up on Massachusetts state politics may find baffling is why there are now two competing nonprofits claiming they’re the hub of the resurgence. In interviews and leaks to the local press, both sides have intimated that it is the other office that is the pretender.

Out of the ashes

On one side is the Massachusetts Film Bureau, headed by executive director Robin Dawson. Dawson was the one who turned out the lights at the old Film Office in 2002. Her budget was eliminated after it was revealed she had cooperated in a still-ongoing Justice Dept. investigation of the local Teamsters union and its practices with the film industry.

After the state office closed, Dawson set up the Film Bureau, working to maintain contacts with the studios. She has the support of Boston-area hotels and restaurants as well as other businesses, such as American Airlines and Enterprise car rental. These concerns have provided some comped service for scouting in hopes of benefiting from expenditures during actual production.

The bureau also received modest support in the current state budget, getting a $5,000 grant but also winning recognition that “said agency shall be the primary service provider for film production in the commonwealth.”

That might seem to settle matters, but studios are increasingly hearing of the Massachusetts Sports and Entertainment Commission (MSEC). It, too, is a nonprofit agency, the difference being that it is run by a board of directors appointed by the governor, the state Senate president and the speaker of the state House of Representatives.

Sports crony

In 2004 Gov. Mitt Romney named Don Stirling president and CEO of what was then the Massachusetts Sports Commission. Romney and Stirling had previously worked together on the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. The person already there, Mark Drago, was retained as VP of sports as well as exec director for film and entertainment.

The newly reconstituted MSEC has a budget of $450,000, but with no breakdown for what portion is to be devoted to generating business from or servicing the film industry. Indeed, much of its work is devoted to gaining or supporting such events as the U.S. Track and Field Indoor National Championships or helping plan the New England Patriots victory parade. Drago’s office in downtown Boston is filled with sports, not film, memorabilia.

Yet Drago is also pursuing film projects — from big-ticket items down to commercials.

Trying to clear up the confusion, a spokesman for Romney said that it is the MSEC and not the Film Bureau that has his blessing.

Deputy press secretary Felix Browne said, “Gov. Romney strongly supports efforts to bring more film business to Massachusetts, and he looks to the Massachusetts Sports and Entertainment Commission to lead the recruitment and assistance process.”

Other interested parties appear to take sides yet leave their options open.

Senate Minority Leader Brian Lees is a strong partisan for Dawson and was recently honored as “legislator of the year” by the Film Bureau.

Whether dealing with the Film Bureau’s Dawson or the MSEC’s Drago, filmmakers will find both are likely able to pick up the phone and get things done, whether it’s scouting locations or navigating local red tape.

Still, it’s unlikely the situation will last much longer. Legislative leaders are becoming aware that having two such offices is confusing and counterproductive, and that a choice has to be made.

While Dawson arguably has better contacts and more history with Hollywood, Drago is the one with the most legislative backing, and that may prove decisive as the state hammers out its new budget, which must be enacted by July 1.

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