Just a few short years ago New England probably wouldn’t have appeared on most people’s lists of top filming destinations. But thanks to some very aggressive tax incentives, coupled with experienced crews, good infrastructure and the region’s natural beauty and diversity, the states of Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut have become highly competitive, attracting a wide range of production.
“Rhode Island was the first New England state to offer tax breaks,” notes Steven Feinberg, executive director of the Rhode Island Film & Television Office. “I’m from here originally and I moved back from L.A. in 2004 and wrote the legislation which came out in 2005, and we offer a 25-percent transferable income tax credit and salaries are included, as long as you spend money on the ground here. You have to shoot 51 percent of the film in the state and have a minimum of $300,000 spend, and we have an annual cap of $15 million.”
The result? Over the last few years Rhode Island has brought in over $250 million of production. “We had Showtime’s “Brotherhood” series for three full seasons, Disney’s Underdog and Dan in Real Life, Fox’s 27 Dresses, Tell-Tale produced by Ridley and Tony Scott and starring Josh Lucas and Brian Cox, and Evening from Focus Features, with Meryl Streep, Vanessa Redgrave and Glenn Close,” says Feinberg. “We also had a couple of TV pilots that just wrapped, both for ABC. One was called “House Rules” and the other’s titled “Empire State.” And it looks like we’ll be hosting some work for “Eastwick,” a new TV show based on the hit film The Witches of Eastwick.
“Basically, part of our appeal is that we’re the smallest state with the greatest backlot,” adds Feinberg. “So that means you save a lot of money and time traveling, and we can offer a lot of very diverse locations in very close proximity. While other states treat you like a number, here we treat you like a neighbor, and we can easily cut through any red tape as most of our people in positions of power are all in one building in Providence, at our State House.”
According to Nick Paleologos, executive director of the Massachusetts Film Office, at press time there was possible pending new legislation “about whether there will be a limitation on salaries that qualify for the credits, but that won’t affect the state’s incentives.” Currently, the state’s 25-percent tax break is refundable at 90 cents or transferable, meaning you can sell it. “Most people are choosing to sell it as it’s far faster than filing tax returns and waiting for them to come back at 90 cents,” notes Dama Claire, production executive at The Incentives Office.
Thanks to its aggressive tax breaks and film-friendly approach, Massachusetts has certainly been attracting big movies. “It’s been unbelievably busy,” says Paleologos, “and we just had two number-one movies shot here, The Proposal and Mall Cop. And Bruce Willis just shot Surrogates here, and Adam Sandler’s company is shooting both Grown Ups and The Zookeeper back-to-back.” Other recent high-profile productions include Edge of Darkness (starring Mel Gibson), Bride Wars and the new Leo DiCaprio film Shutter Island, directed by Martin Scorsese for Paramount Pictures. “Last year was a record year for us, with 13 major films here –– the most ever –– and close to $400 million of direct spending on production in the state,” adds Paleologos. Indies have also been big players. Overall, Massachusetts has seen a lot more filming in recent years due to the combination of a very strong buying base and crew depth. “[There’s also] great cities like Boston that can double for New York, and the uncertainty of New York and some of the other incentives,” Claire points out. To handle the demand, the state will soon unveil two big studios: Plymouth Rock and Weymouth.
Director Jon Avnet, who’s directed, written and produced nearly 60 features, TV movies and Broadway plays over the last 25 years, including Risky Business, Fried Green Tomatoes and Up Close & Personal, has recently shot “Bunker Hill,” a pilot for TNT in Boston. “It’s set in Boston and we shot there because of the great tax breaks, otherwise we’d have shot in Toronto or New York,” reports Avnet. He also has high praise for the local film commission. “[They] were very helpful and did a great job cutting through red tape and clearing locations for us. That can save you a lot of time and money,” he adds. “We also needed to prove to the studio, Warner [Brothers], that not only could we shoot there economically, but that we’d get the cooperation that we’d need to do a whole TV series there. And that was the case, so I’d definitely shoot there again anytime.”
Connecticut’s Digital Media & Motion Picture Tax Credit offers a transferable tax credit equal to 30 percent of qualified digital media and film pre-production, production and post expenses incurred in the state, and a $15 million cap above the line. This has translated into a lot of business, including Confessions of a Shopaholic and The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, directed by Rebecca Miller. “The state’s strong and getting stronger,” says Dama Claire.
George Norfleet, film division director of the Connecticut Commission on Culture & Tourism, notes, “While the legislation has only been in place since July 2006, we have seen a veritable explosion of economic activity going from pre-legislation spending levels of sub $1 million dollars to what is now projected to be over $600 million in spending.” He also reports that there has been an increase in jobs and infrastructure as a result of Connecticut’s commitment to the tax credit. One big coup is that the state is now home to famed Blue Sky Studios, which created the blockbuster animated Ice Age franchise for Fox, and which left New York for better incentives, bringing 360 jobs and a $30 million-plus payroll with it. “It was a great move for the company,” says Michael Thurmeier, supervising animator on Robots and Ice Age: The Meltdown, and co-director with Carlos Saldanha on Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs. “This last film was a huge amount of work, but we were able to tie it all in with our big move from New York to Connecticut. We used the move to upgrade all the machines and get all our equipment into a more efficient machine room and so on, and the state has been very helpful and supportive.”
Connecticut isn’t just benefiting from movie deals. NBC Universal, whose website operations are already located in the state, is also currently building out the Rich Forum in Stamford to house production operations for three talk shows, including “Jerry Springer,” “Maury Povich” and “Steve Wilkos.” And the state just landed its first TV game show, NBC’s “Deal or No Deal” –– the hit production starring Howie Mandel is moving to Sonalysts Studios in Waterford because of the tax credits. Norfleet also reports that CT Studios, LLC, a new 61-acre, $65-million multistage studio complex, is currently being developed in South Windsor and slated for completion in 2010.
Unlike its New England neighbors, New Hampshire doesn’t offer any tax breaks or incentives. “We tend to have a different mind set,” says Matthew Newton, director of the New Hampshire Film & Television Office, “and we feel now’s not the time for a tax credit, though we’re still looking into it. The filmmakers here are typically more independent-minded than traditional Hollywood filmmakers, and when they decide to shoot here there’s usually a strong reason –– they’ve grown up here or have a strong connection, and a lot move back here for the creative atmosphere.” Newton also stresses that with no sales tax, it generally cheaper to shoot in New Hampshire. “The film office can help with a lot of fee-free locations and so on. So for smaller, $2-million-budget films down to really micro-budget ones, there’s a real advantage to shooting here,” he explains.
Newton reports that over the past few years, most inquiries have centered on tax credits. “But that’s started to change, and we have three projects in development right now that are looking at our rural North country settings,” he says. “And one company, either/or films, shot here two years ago and subsequently moved here and are now prepping their next film here. They understood New Hampshire. They got it, and we see a trend in those types of people and companies coming here.” Newton notes that because of the state’s proximity to busy, larger production centers, such as Boston, local crews are also being kept pretty busy. “It’s a very tightly knit region so everyone gets involved, and that’s good for our crew base,” he says. “And the state has a lot to offer, from mountains to seacoast to farmland, all within an hour’s drive because we’re a small state.”
Buzz McLaughlin, executive producer at either/or films, reports that the company is about to launch their second feature project Someplace Like America. “Like our first, Sensation of Sight starring David Strathairn, we're shooting in New Hampshire because the state is incredibly filmmaker-friendly and they bend over backwards to make projects like ours happen in a first-class way,” he says. “Many states have tax incentives, but the best kept secret in the indie biz is that in New Hampshire there's only one degree of separation between the state government, private citizens and businesses of all shapes and sizes, and everyone teams up to help your project get made.”
Filmmaker Bill Millios of Back Lot Films, Inc. says that putting together a shoot in New Hampshire may be easier than in many other states. “You don't need a shooting permit and there aren’t that many films being produced in this area at the same time,” he explains. “If you find a property owner that is willing, you can be very successful in securing many ideal locations for your script at very reasonable costs. We shot at more than 20 in-state locations for both of our features, Old Man Dogs [in] 1997 and Dangerous Crosswinds [in] 2005, and [we] plan to continue this with our next two features, Death & Glory and The Murder of the Lake.”
Connecticut Commission on Culture & Tourism
Blue Sky Studios
The Incentives Office
Massachusetts Film Bureau
New Hampshire Film & Television Office
Plymouth Rock Studios
Rhode Island Film & Television Office