Bay state’s boom based in tax breaks

Scout & About: Massachusetts 2012

Film producers rarely sound like cheerleaders, but just ask them about working with Lisa Strout, director of the Massachusetts Film Office.

“I would award her a gold medal if I could,” enthuses “Grown Ups 2” exec producer Barry Bernardi. “The Way, Way Back” producer George Parra adds: “I was happy to see her come to Massachusetts. She’s good for any state.”

Having Strout back in Massachusetts feels fortuitous for all involved. Strout got her start in Boston in 1982, working on “The Verdict,” then left to pursue location work in California. She ultimately spent 10 years in the New Mexico film office, returning to Massachusetts just last year.

The state, meanwhile, has seen improvement in production numbers ever since the 25% tax credit (no annual or per-project cap, with sales exemptions for qualifying productions) was instituted in 2006. Nearly 40 films shot in the state in the ensuing years. Now with Strout on board, Massachusetts seems poised for a real renaissance.

It may have already begun: The Ryan Reynolds starrer “R.I.P.D.,” which shot in 2011, was the state’s biggest-ever production, employing 950 crew and 3,300 extras, with a total spend of $108 million. Last year’s total direct spend was $222 million.

But Strout recognizes that there’s still work to be done. In her first year on the job she implemented two key databases — one for crew, support services and vendors, and one for locations — that now make up the meat of the Film Office’s revamped website. Strout’s background is in locations, and her knowledge of the state is just one factor that makes her valuable to productions.

“This is a place that has a lot of texture,” she says. “Pretty much every town you go into has its own personality and character, and even the urban looks have a patina.”

For a long time, locations were pretty much all that the state had to offer, and there were no traditional stages set up for production. Public TV’s WGBH has had small facilities in Allston and Brighton over the years, but they were of little use to TV series or large film productions. Retrofit situations and warehouses aside, Massachusetts has been thirsty for soundstages for years.

“Having stages would afford the opportunity to mount a film production in the wintertime,” Bernardi says. “Having a physical plant would be a great thing.”

Fortunately, that’s likely to happen now that construction has begun on New England Studios. The large Devens-based complex is expected to be open for business by next summer. “There’s quite a lot of excitement about that,” Strout says.

The project, which broke ground in June, is being built in two phases, says Chris Byers, director of studio operations. The first build-out, at a cost of just under $40 million, includes four 18,000-foot stages with grip, electric, a mill and 30,000 sq. ft. of production support space — and will be able to handle two TV series, two to three mid-budget features or a large vfx-heavy feature. The second phase will add two 30,000 sq.-ft. stages to the facility and possibly a water tank, increasing its capacity still further.

New England Studios will add its heft to an already thriving production infrastructure that includes shingles such as equipment rental house Talamas Broadcast Equipment, which has been serving the business for more than 30 years, longstanding gear supplier Rule Boston Camera and local talent provider Boston Casting.

Reflecting the expansion of production in Massachusetts, the membership of IATSE Local 481 — the union repping film technicians and craftspeople in New England — has nearly tripled since 2006, the year the state tax incentive went into effect.

“It’s safe to assume (it) grew dramatically because the incentive generated a lot of work,” says Chris O’Donnell, the local’s business manager. Growth will continue because “we have a very experienced and talented crew base and great locations.”

In the longer term, Strout says she wants to use the state’s other natural resources — namely its schools and students — to help feed the burgeoning production industry, mirroring her efforts in New Mexico. “It’s a matter of how we bridge people’s experiences in school into professional relationships,” she says. “It’s all about networking.”

Ultimately, Strout says it takes a village to build a movie industry, and she’s happy to be the facilitator. “Being accommodating to this unique animal that is film is really important,” she says. “There’s always something new you’ve never dealt with before, and being available in all ways to productions — that’s super important.”

Anneta Konstantinides contributed to this report.

Scout & About: Massachusetts 2012
Bay state’s boom based in tax breaks | Snapshots from three recent shoots | How ‘Grown Ups 2’ built set from scratch | Hollywood in the Berkshires | State breaks help effects shops grow | Industry org promotes incentives, job creation | Mass production