Imagine a new big screen version of the infamous Boston Strangler case, filmed in . . . Cleveland. Or an organized crime thriller based in America’s top fishing port, New Bedford, Mass., shot on location in . . . Halifax.
Both of these scenarios nearly happened. But thanks to passionate filmmakers and state tax credits, moviegoers will get to see a serial killer and more “CODA”-style fishermen in their natural habitat: Massachusetts.
Not since the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock have so many impactful visitors descended on the state. In addition to 20th Century’s “Boston Strangler” and Paramount+’s $28 million thriller “Finestkind,” two Marvel blockbusters (Disney’s “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” and Sony’s Spider-Man spinoff “Madame Web”), director-star Bradley Cooper’s Leonard Bernstein biopic “Maestro,” the Zendaya-toplined tennis drama “Challengers,” the Whitney Houston biopic “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” and more are being made there.
Massachusetts Production Coalition exec director David Hartman notes that the state attracts around 30 productions a year, totaling more than $3 billion in direct spending since the tax incentive program began in 2007. And from the time lawmakers voted to make it permanent last summer, with no cap on above-the-line talent — a feature that attracted the all-star “Don’t Look Up” to the state — much more business is likely coming under the helpful direction of Massachusetts Film Office director Lisa W. Strout.
“Things started to change for us in 2017, when we had the first episodic series shot in Massachusetts in over 20 years, Hulu’s ‘Castle Rock,’ and they came back for Season 2,” says Intl. Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts Local 481 business manager Chris O’Donnell. “Since then, we’ve had more than a half dozen series shoot in Massachusetts. That really has been an edge of growth, not only in our crew base, but also in terms of businesses and vendors and the industry expanding to fill that increased need.”
For the small screen, New Line’s horror comedy “The Parenting” with Brian Cox, Edie Falco and Lisa Kudrow and Season 2 of the Julia Child biopic series “Julia” are filming for HBO Max. AMC is also doing double duty: after wrapping Season 2 of the dramedy “Kevin Can F*** Himself” in May, a lot of the same crew will shoot Season 1 of the 1930s-era psychological thriller “Invitation to a Bonfire” in September.
“We’re living in a world with over a hundred incentives, and more competition for films and series than ever,” says Jay Roewe, senior VP of incentives & production planning for HBO and HBO Max. “So we usually see at least two to four different locations based on that, factoring in where the story is set, what the stage and crew situation is, the time of the year and so on. Because ‘Julia’ is set there, the state has one of the strongest incentives in the country and they’ve done away with the sunset, which is always an issue for a series to do multiple seasons, there wasn’t a lot of twisting of arms, either on the studio or filmmaker side.”
The result: in Season 1 of “Julia,” HBO Max spent around $52.4 million on 440 vendors and added 528 jobs out of 834 total hires, excluding extras. “We feel very good coming here now because of the quality of the crews and the infrastructure,” Roewe says. His only caveat? Like many shows, “Julia” films interiors in converted warehouse space just outside of Boston. “There’s just a need for more soundstages. Because of the way the incentive was structured, there’d been some hesitancy to look at a long-term vision, but those are the kind of things that we expect to see more of here in the future.” (That is also changing with New England Studios, Red Sky Studios in Allston and Marina Studios all expanding or planning to expand.)
For writer-director Brian Helgeland’s “Finestkind,” which will bow with a hybrid Paramount+/theatrical run, shooting in his New Bedford hometown was essential. “There was pressure to try to do it a different way, and we went up to Halifax, Nova Scotia, as a courtesy, but Brian made it clear — and I supported him a hundred percent — that unless the movie was shot in Massachusetts, he wasn’t interested in making it,” says producer Gary Foster of Krasnoff/Foster Entertainment.
But in order to make the budget work, they needed to learn more about the lay of the land.
“New Bedford is outside of ‘the zone.’ It’s considered a distant location, and travel time, hotels and living expenses all add up,” Foster says. “So we put our production office in Stoughton, with closer proximity to New Bedford, which meant the drive was shorter and we’re paying less extra time on the day. All the unions and the crews understood it, so that helped.
“The other thing we discovered is that location fees close to Boston are quite high. Down here, there’s not as much production, so fees are approximately 40%-50% less, and infrastructure costs aren’t as high. That’s how we got an extra week or so in New Bedford” on the 40-day shoot. “The local government, authorities and private citizens were so thrilled to have us, we were able to make better deals than if we were shooting near Boston. There are also fantastic crews here, so you’re bringing in fewer people from L.A. and New York to fill out your departments.”
It also pays to learn more about worker availability in advance. “Somebody was telling me the other day that Massachusetts has about three crews,” Foster says. “If you come here and two or three things are shooting, suddenly you have holes in departments. There were a couple other movies that were contemplating coming here, but we got here first and started making commitments first, so timing is everything.”
Colin Walsh, exec producer of AMC’s “Kevin” (where he just wrapped filming with around 300 people a week) and co-exec producer of “Bonfire,” has done local productions for nearly two decades. He has a slightly different view on staffing than what Foster was told. “Our biggest thing is having a very strong local crew base. With certain departments, there are probably three very solid options. With others, there’s more than three,” he says. “Being a freelance business, the timing is always different. The crews intermingle quite a bit, so people go back and forth and work with different people on different shows.”
And despite stories about “The Godfather” filming around real mobsters in 1970s New York, local wiseguys in Boston don’t give anyone much trouble. “It only happened to me once, on [the Whitey Bulger gangster biopic] ‘Black Mass,” and it wasn’t a big deal,” says longtime area location manager and producer Ryan B. Cook. “Someone who owned some property said, ‘Our family’s kind of connected to that storyline. We’re not interested in being involved in it.’ It was random, so we just moved down the street.”
But he was relieved to help bring another true crime story from the early 1960s back to life on “Boston Strangler.” “They were scouting Boston and Cleveland for the movie, and it would be criminal to have that shot in Cleveland,” Cook laughs. “It was unique and special to be working on a movie where you could scout the real locations and say, this is where this event really happened. There are only so many iconic Boston stories that have yet to be told.”