Hollywood Blockbusters Film in Boston
By Rebecca Knight
The Boston nickname “The Hub of the Universe” has long been said with a touch of sarcasm in New England, given the city’s much-maligned provinciality. At the same time, however, we know the truth: that it’s not much of a stretch, particularly when the galaxies referred to are higher education and biotech. But Boston also has a history of creative genius, having been—and remaining—home to so many writers and thinkers. And now, that creativity is linking us with Hollywood, a relationship that deepens with each new movie filmed here.
Since the production tax incentive program became law in Massachusetts in 2007, 582 projects—from commercials and documentaries to television series and movies—have applied for the credit, says Bill Earon, who is widely proclaimed the “money guy” of the local film industry for luring studios to shoot here. Fifty-seven of those projects have been feature films, including Academy Award winners The Social Network and The Fighter, as well as box office hits like Grown Ups. As a result, a number of production companies have cropped up, as have the companies that serve them, such as lighting and camera equipment firms and trailer rental outfits. Since 2005, film and TV companies have spent close to $1 billion here, say government officials.
The key to Boston’s success in the entertainment industry is its writers, says actress and producer Christy Scott Cashman, one of the original investors in The Kids Are All Right, the indie film starring Annette Bening and Julianne Moore that was nominated for four Oscars, including best picture. “You don’t have anything unless you have a good story,” Cashman says. “New England is home to writers from John Irving and Stephen King to Sue Miller and Tom Perrotta. To me, this amplifies the fact that Boston is the place where story starts.
“We have as many great writers here as there are blonde bimbos in LA,” she adds with a laugh. “LA is so saturated with people who want to be in the business and who are trying to be in the business. [But] very few people are actually doing something.”
Here in Boston, people are doing something. Take Chris Byers, for example. It is a warm, sunny afternoon in Devens, and Byers, sporting a white hard hat and a puffy winter coat, stands atop a mountain of dirt. He’s admiring what he and his New England Studios team (which includes staff, investors, and project overseers) are undertaking: a $40 million project to transform an unassuming former military base into what Byers hopes will become a filming destination for the Northeast.
As bulldozers rumble nearby, he points to massive slabs of concrete, more than 60 feet high, which will eventually become the walls of New England Studios: four soundstages fit for Tinseltown blockbusters, plus administrative offices, production office space, hair and makeup departments, as well as outbuildings for set construction and electrical storage. He gestures across the street to where he plans to build a film school.
“I love that it’s happening, but in a way it’s still surreal,” he says. Born and bred in Lowell, Byers spent nearly three decades in LA working in many capacities, from stuntman to executive producer. The result is a personality that is part cocksure confidence and part salt-of-the-earth sincerity. New England Studios, which is being funded privately by a group of local investors, has been Byers’s goal for the past six years. It is slated to open this summer. “My job is to get the film industry going in Massachusetts,” he says, and he aims to go beyond merely locating movies here. “This industry could create a lot of work for a lot of people…. I know we have the potential to be a dynamo; we just haven’t realized it yet.”
The next step is to encourage directors not to pack up and leave after shooting their films or TV shows but to do postproduction (editing, special effects, and so on) in purpose-built facilities here. Byers’s studio—and other projects like it in the state, including a plan to develop a film studio in Westborough—could change that. (An earlier plan to develop a studio complex in Plymouth is mired in scandal and financing difficulties; it has been postponed indefinitely.)
“In order for the big studios to come here on a consistent basis, they need a soundstage,” says Bill Earon. His company, Coastal Capital Advisors LLC, has helped fund more than 300 projects in the state since 2007. The first largescale independent movie that Earon was involved with here was Edge of Darkness, a cop thriller starring Mel Gibson, which was shot in the Boston area and Western Massachusetts. “A lot of big-budget movies would have considered coming here, but up until now we’ve not had the right infrastructure,” he says. “The [Devens studio] is going to help create a permanent home for new TV series and feature films in Massachusetts.”
Earon’s first order of business: help land a permanent television series. While many TV shows have been set in Boston—Cheers, St. Elsewhere, and the various legal dramedies of David E. Kelley—very few have been filmed in the city. (Spenser: For Hire, a 1980s detective series, is perhaps the most famous.) A TV show would provide steady employment for actors and crew members, which is critical to developing a sustainable industry, he says. “Right now it’s all about job creation.”
Massachusetts is one of a handful of states with a competitive film tax incentive package, and it is, according to Earon, a highly desirable location for directors. “When I’m with a studio or large production company and they’re talking about where to shoot their movie, there are other states with good incentive plans in place and good crew talent, but there are certain states where the director says no. But no one ever says no to Boston. They really like coming here.”
One reason for this is Massachusetts’s cinematic versatility. The state’s various landscapes and terrain make it a contender for movies set on the coast or in the mountains, in the bustling city or in a quaint fishing village. In recent years, Massachusetts has been a stand-in for Paris (The Pink Panther 2), New York City (The Women), and Las Vegas’s McCarran International Airport (21). “This state has an authenticity to it that is a breath of fresh air from the manufactured aura of Los Angeles,” says Lisa Strout, director of the Massachusetts Film Office. “There’s a texture here and a rich character.”
Many Massachusetts natives making a living in the entertainment business elsewhere have already started to come home, Strout adds. After all, many actors from the region have returned to the state over and over to shoot here: Mark Wahlberg, Steve Carell, and of course Ben Affleck. But even nonnatives like Adam Sandler keep coming back. “In a certain way over the past decade, and markedly over the last few years, Hollywood has decentralized,” Strout says. “But now it’s the perfect time for someone to come back and work in their home state doing something that they love.”
Christy Scott Cashman agrees. “Boston is a much bigger player than it used to be,” says Cashman, whose gold-streaked hair and olive complexion give her the wholesome good looks of an A-list film star. “There are so many filmmakers in LA who went to Emerson College or BU. They want to come back here and raise their families.” Besides, she says, thanks to technological advancements and the increasingly far-flung nature of the entertainment business, being a Boston-based filmmaker is no longer a liability. “I can be in LA in five hours flat, and the train to New York is in my backyard,” she says. “I can be in the world, but not of the world, in Boston, and that’s probably what I like most about it.”
While the Ohio native admits that Boston wasn’t necessarily her first choice of locales when she set up Saint Aire, her film and TV production company—she is married to Jay Cashman of Big Dig fame—she has come to appreciate the city as a creative haven, especially as she works on her current project, Charity Wars. It’s a Boston-based docu-series she created that exposes the underbelly of the charity world. “If I have a project of my own that’s not location-specific, this is where I want to be,” she says. “I love shooting here.”
Dorothy Aufiero, who produced The Fighter, among other titles, is another Boston-based film producer. Aufiero is now producing The Finest Hours, a Walt Disney Company film about a Coast Guard rescue off Chatham. “There is a wealth of talent here, and there are a wealth of stories,” she says. “I don’t specifically look for Boston-based stuff, but a lot of [New England– based] properties come to me.”
Actors, too, are finding steady work, according to Angela Peri, owner and founder of Boston Casting, who was the local principal and extras casting director for Ted and Here Comes the Boom. “It used to be that New York would bring in all of its own people and I would have to cast the person in the movie who said things like, ‘Can I get another cup of coffee?’ Or ‘Is this today’s paper?’ The little things,” she says. “They’re not bringing in their own people anymore.”
J. Todd Harris, an LA-based producer who has shot several movies here, including Crooked Arrows, Black Irish, and The Legend of Lucy Keyes, calls Massachusetts a “production-friendly” state. He predicts that the presence of a big, fully equipped studio will draw more filmmakers here. Plus, the soundstage will remove what is probably the biggest impediment to filming in Massachusetts: the weather. “It is not the most commodious place in the world from November to March,” says Harris, putting it delicately. But a soundstage would make it easier for directors and producers to work around the snow and cold.
Yet New England Studios and projects like it are still a grand experiment. The movie business is footloose and fickle, and it is often unforgiving. Vancouver and Toronto are two cities that have successfully developed into bona fide movie towns, though many more have failed. While the Massachusetts Film Office says the state has enough experienced crew members and actors to staff several shoots at the same time and that the local film unions and guilds have been growing with the increase in production, success won’t happen overnight. “It’s always very difficult to turn an area into a film and television center,” says Paul Schneider, chairman of the department of film and television at Boston University’s College of Communication.
Steve Samuels is a Boston-based real estate mogul who moonlights in the movie business. His company, FilmNation Entertainment, specializes in the financing, production, and foreign sales of independent films. Last year FilmNation produced four films, including Chernobyl Diaries and The Raven. Samuels says the tax credit is critical to maintaining the state’s status in the movie industry. “It’s all about cost; it’s all about soft money,” he explains. “There’s always a conflict between the creative and the financials. You’re trying to squeeze the most you can out of every dollar. If this state is no longer competitive and tax credits go away, the film [companies] will look elsewhere.”
The state’s hope that “If you build it, they will come” seems already on its way to fruition, driving newcomers like Anton Nel. An affable South African film consultant who recently moved from LA to Hopkinton, he is taking a decidedly risk-averse approach to developing a soundstage and production studio in Westborough. His proposed project, on the site of an old state hospital, with verdant slopes descending to a lake, also includes an upscale hotel, an outdoor amphitheater, a conference facility, and office space.
“I obviously want to be very positive, but there’s always the fear of the incentives going away,” says Nel, who played rugby professionally when he was younger. Still, he says he is “very gung ho” about the future of the film industry in Boston. “This is not my first rodeo. I understand what Hollywood needs. I can profile that location and leverage my relationships in LA, and we’ll deliver business.”
Back in Devens, Byers is even more bullish. New England Studios hasn’t inked deals yet with production companies to rent space there (although several major studios have placed holds on its stages), but he isn’t worried. “I’ve got every head of the studio right here on speed dial,” he says, tapping his iPhone. “They know us; they’re ready for us.”
Photography By eric levin