Making Movies

The shark in “Jaws” terrorizes tourists at an Edgartown beach… Jack Nicholson resides at an Ipswich mansion in “The Witches of Eastwick”… Richard Dreyfuss frequents an Arlington rotary in “Once Around”… A North Shore island stands in for 17th-century Salem in “The Crucible.”

An official film tour of Massachusetts may not yet be ready for prime time. But with production crews setting up from Boston to the Berkshires, the state has been making a name for itself in the movie biz. And the Massachusetts Film Office, the state agency whose mission it is to lure the Hollywood honchos, says that means more than the chance to snag an autograph every few months. It means a fistful of dollars for the local economy.

Fortunately, with a record that includes duds like “Celtic Pride” and “Blown Away,” it doesn’t matter whether the movies are any good, says Daniel M. Kimmel, longtime Boston correspondent for Variety, the entertainment industry trade publication. “Sometimes I watch a movie as a critic and say ‘who approved this script?’ ” he said. “The concern for the film office is how big a budget it has.”

Film and video production spending in Massachusetts hit an all-time high of $248 million in 1995, when 13 major films were shot here, according to the most recent study. That’s 16 percent more spent on wages, equipment, hotel rooms, catering, duct tape and other expenses than in 1994. But the industry’s total economic impact was even higher, says the study, done for the film office by Northeastern University graduate students. Taking into account the ripple effect that follows the initial expenditures, the industry pumped $397 million into the state’s economy in 1995. These figures include spending for a growing number of independent productions.

So is the Hub destined to be the next Hollywood? Hardly. Massachusetts revenues pale in comparison to the $19 billion the industry injected into California in 1995, or the $2.5 billion impact on New York, according to USA Today research.

But it’s not bad for a state that had just a handful of major productions each year through 1992. Plus, the Northeastern study contends, movie-making reaps more rewards after the camera crews head home, when people decide to visit the sites they see on the silver screen.

O.K., so no one expects tourists to flock to Woburn after the release of “A Civil Action,” the John Travolta film based on Jonathan Harr’s book about the deadly toxic waste case against W.R. Grace and Beatrice Foods. But Film Office Director Robin Dawson says the movie, which Disney shot here this winter, may very well pique interest in Boston, where most scenes were set. “You cannot buy through any other medium the exposure that an international film brings to a region,” she says.

The 1994 filming of “Little Women” in Historic Deerfield, a reconstructed 18th-century village in Western Massachusetts, generated at least $50 million to $60 million in tourism spending, according to the Northeastern report. In fact, the state Office of Travel and Tourism used the movie to market Massachusetts in Japan. In 1995, the promotions produced an extra 19,200 Japanese visitors, who spent an average of $1,700 per person. The film is also credited with bringing more than 20,000 additional visitors – and $114,000 in admission fees – to Concord’s Orchard House, where author Louisa May Alcott was raised.

Many local merchants are enthusiastic, though few have figures to make their case. Michelle Meehan, executive director of the North of Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau, says tourists flooded Essex, Ipswich and Salem when “The Crucible” was shot on Hog Island in 1995. Some took day trips to catch a glimpse of Daniel Day Lewis or Winona Ryder, but others came to see historic sites featured in the film.

At least a few North Shore businesspeople expected more. The Trustees of Reservations, the private, nonprofit conservation group that owns and manages Hog Island, were thrilled with the fees they received from 20th Century Fox for use of the property. Wayne Mitton, the Northeast regional director, won’t disclose the amount, but says it was “significant” enough to build two new docks and start pontoon boat tours. But Mitton says he’s been underwhelmed with the results: About 1,000 to 2,000 people have taken tours in two years. “It’s helped, but it’s not bringing as many people as we thought it would,” Mitton says. “And as time goes by, there are less and less.”

Despite some debate over the industry’s true impact, there have been few complaints about the state’s involvement in the entertainment business. Then-Lt. Gov. Paul Cellucci probably got the worst of it with the ribbing over his $40,000 trade mission to Hollywood last spring. Cellucci, who has since admitted he’s a major movie buff, shmoozed with studio executives, then ate lobster with Sylvester Stallone and other celebrities at a beach party in Malibu. He released the economic impact study six days later.

“We’re definitely coming out ahead on the deal.”
Most officials seem to agree the film office is a worthwhile investment. Senate President Thomas Birmingham, D-Chelsea, isn’t gushing, but says “they’ve had some effectiveness attracting movies to the state, and that’s positive.” He points out that the budget is relatively small, $450,000 out of a total state budget of $18.4 billion. Dawson, who earns $57,000 a year and oversees a $35,000 travel budget, has a staff of five working out of a modest office in the Transportation Building unremarkable except for several dozen framed movie posters lining the walls. Kimmel, the Variety correspondent, says: “We’re definitely coming out ahead on the deal.”

And it’s no longer typical state taxpayers who foot the bill. The money comes from the Tourism Fund, which collects hotel and motel room tax receipts. The Senate Ways and Means Committee, which Birmingham chaired, decided two years ago to stop financing the office through the General Fund, which collects income tax receipts.

But do Dawson and her crew really deserve the credit for getting movies made in Massachusetts? Certainly the state rates with or without a film office for its natural beauty, history and architecture. Producers and directors say the number-one factor in deciding where to shoot a movie is where the film is set. But they acknowledge that’s not enough, especially with competing locations like Canada, which can duplicate New England scenery and help cut costs with its favorable exchange rate. Other film commissions — there are 250 around the world — offer attractive tax incentives or subsidize film budgets.

As location decisions are driven more and more by finances, Dawson says the Film Office has figured out how to make a difference. The agency offers films with budgets of at least $500,000 their choice of 100 state-owned properties — including state parks, hospitals, military forts, even a working dairy farm in Carlisle — for sets, storage or office space, all free of charge. Massachusetts beat out Nova Scotia for “The Crucible” by coming up with a package to save the studio $1 million, Dawson said. It included free use of Danvers State Hospital, spruced up by Massachusetts prisoners, as a base of operations, and the Massachusetts National Guard to ferry film equipment and livestock to the island on barges.

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The Film Office also helps directors decide where to shoot scenes, by breaking down the script and suggesting locations. Staff help smooth the way for local permits and police details, and keeps a catalog of potential crew members for hire. Dawson flies to Hollywood about four times a year to meet with studio heads and sing the state’s praises. She’s also been working with unions to help erase the bad name the state earned its high wages and stringent work rules in the 1970s. In the future, she may push for tax incentives to help the state compete. “We get very high marks,” says Dawson, who grew up in Gloucester and hopes to produce her own films someday. “We’re considered to be on of the top film commissions, which I’m very proud of.”

And what does Hollywood have to say? Bruce Hendricks, executive vice president in charge of production for Disney, says the film office has done a great job with logistics for “A Civil Action.” He said the company considered filming the Touchstone Pictures movie in New York or Toronto, but instead will spend $5 million to $7 million here. “They’ve been very helpful, and I’m glad they were there,” he said. “Whenever you have a good relationship with someone, you’re always calling them up when there’s an opportunity to do further business. We will consider Massachusetts again.”