Historically, New Mexico is friendly territory for Westerns. But after “True Grit” pulled up stakes in 2010, “location fatigue” set in, as often occurs when too much disruptive filmmaking takes place in one area.
This happened right where executive producer Denis Stewart wanted to shoot “Cowboys & Aliens.” Fortunately, Stewart knew who to call, so he contacted then-film office director Lisa Strout, whose skills of persuasion and decades of film industry experience helped persuade local landowners to open up to yet another film crew.
“It wasn’t just that she was getting us what we wanted,” Stewart says. “She held us to a high standard of reclamation for our impact there. She was protecting the location so it could be used again.”
Stories like that abound in reference to Strout, who in June 2011 moved from New Mexico to Massachusetts in order to head the film office in the Bay State.
Strout, who today receives Variety’s Creative Production Award, made her mark as a film commissioner by deftly blending her 13-year location manager expertise with the bureaucratic exigencies of a government office. While at New Mexico, she helped the nascent office through the groundswell of attention following its first stab at rebates (a 15% incentive program went into effect shortly after she signed on in 2001), and was behind the implementation of programs that required out-of-state filmmakers and studios to invest in the state workforce.
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“She was smart about understanding the impact of those incentives,” says New Mexico-based line producer/production manager Brent Morris. “She knew it wasn’t just about giving money to Hollywood studios; she knew it broadened the tax base.”
“In the old days, everything was location-driven for film offices,” says Strout. “Now film offices and commissions have to understand tax, state, federal law — and need basic knowledge of the film system and financing.”
Promoted to New Mexico film office director three years after she was hired as marketing manager, Strout oversaw the state’s locations boom as major studio stepped up their efforts to avail themselves of incentives. Eventually, “No Country for Old Men,” the “Breaking Bad” series and “The Book of Eli” all filmed in New Mexico. She wrested “Terminator Salvation” out of Eastern European hands after rallying unions, politicians and the local film community.
“That was an important turning point,” she says. “It was the largest movie we ever had, and everyone got on board to do whatever had to be done.”
Strout recognizes that incentives are not the whole solution for states looking to maximize the attention they generate. She was one of the first such film office directors to introduce programs like the New Mexico Filmmakers Program, which requires filmmakers to train local workers and help them move up the food chain.
Still, she says, “Explaining how all this works to the benefit of the taxpayer can be a real challenge. It’s a difficult industry to drill down to the exact economic benefit, because so much money is spent that isn’t tracked.”
Over the years, Strout won over studio brass like Warner Bros. senior veep of physical production Ravi Mehta. “Some film commissioners will try to get you committed and pregnant, and just say ‘we can do this’ until you sign on,” Mehta says. “If Lisa says ‘we can pull it off,’ you know she’s sincere. We’ve shown her scripts and she’s been honest, telling us, ‘That’s going to be difficult to do here.’ ”
Forced to leave her post after New Mexico’s legislative turnover in 2010, it was a matter of months before Massachusetts, her home state, picked her up.
Since then, says Betsy Wall, exec director of the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism, Strout has “streamlined procedures for filmmakers” by updating the website and creating a location database and an industry database that gives them access to local workforce and businesses. She’s also had success with municipal officials in explaining the tricky realities of having a movie filmed in their towns.
“She has a tremendous amount of experience in a number of capacities,” says Wall. “She’s also got a very agreeing and easygoing way; she can call someone about a rumor and they know they can trust her with the answer.”
Massachusetts was clearly up and running as a film destination for years before Strout arrived, but she hit the ground running, noting she’s “inundated with inquiries” right now from studios wanting a piece of Massachusetts’ no-cap 25% rebate program (New Mexico now has a cap on its incentives). “Obviously you have to have a great tax program, great locations and depth of crew talent – and we have those things,” she says. “We work hard to let people know that Massachusetts is not just pilgrims.”
Over the years, Strout’s approach to helping filmmakers has gotten her something of a fan base. Tax incentives may be king but, as Mehta says, “I definitely have more interaction in sending her scripts now, saying ‘Can this be done (in Massachusetts)?’ I can think outside the box, because I know I’ll get honest feedback.”
It’s clearly a job Strout was meant to have. “I love problem-solving,” she says. “The nature of filmmaking is that it’s a series of obstacles. How you get through them to help filmmakers realize their vision in your jurisdiction, that’s the job. And it is never boring.”
Assistant production coordinator, “The Verdict”
Assistant for locations, “The Bostonians”
Producer’s assistant, “Room with a View”
Location manager, Los Angeles and New Mexico (“Speechless,” “Dante’s Peak,” “Thirteen Days”)
Hired as marketing manager, New Mexico Film Office; April: New Mexico film incentives go into effect with a 15% rebate
Promoted to deputy director, New Mexico Film Office; Started New Mexico Filmmakers Program; developed locations database for New Mexico
Promoted to director, New Mexico Film Office
Films shot in New Mexico include “North Country,” “Into the West”
New Mexico tax rebate increased to 25%
Films shot in New Mexico include “No Country for Old Men,” “3:10 to Yuma,” “Wild Hogs”; started Green Filmmaking Program
Films shot in New Mexico include “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” and “Crazy Heart”
Films shot in New Mexico include “Terminator Salvation” and “The Book of Eli”
Films shot in New Mexico include “Cowboys & Aliens” and “True Grit”; departs New Mexico Film Office in December, having overseen 150 film and TV projects during her tenure
Begins as director of Massachusetts Film Office; June through today: Oversees filming in Massachusetts s of “R.I.P.D,” the state’s largest film shoot to date; other projects include “Frank,” “Gilded Lilys,” “Labor Day”
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