Not all great movies are filmed in Hollywood. “The Verdict,” “Mystic River,” “Jaws,” “The Paper Chase,” “Spotlight” — these are just a few that would have lacked crucial authenticity had they not been filmed on location in Massachusetts. The Bay State, however, is one of many that compete for the boost filming brings to local economies, and like others, it provides an incentive — the film tax credit.
On paper, it’s a great idea. A production comes to town and employs technicians in craft industries like lighting, sound, makeup, costuming and set design. It rents hotel rooms for the actors, hires caterers, rents cars, patronizes local restaurants and then vanishes into thin air without having added students to the schools or increased the burden on municipal services. So, theoretically, the tax credit more than pays for itself.
It does sound like a sweet deal — unless you live in one of the towns or regions of Massachusetts that gets overlooked. While the tax credit applies statewide, according to CommonWealth Magazine, nearly three-fourths of films shooting in Massachusetts do so in greater Boston, while 43 percent of the state’s municipalities have seen no motion picture activity in the last 11 years.
Part of the problem, according to the magazine, is that film unions require higher wage scales be paid when their members have to travel more than 30 miles from the center of production. This often means Boston, because it’s large enough to have an infrastructure of film support services standing at the ready.
Despite its remoteness, Berkshire County has hosted a number of films, including well-known ones like “Alice’s Restaurant,” “Pretty Poison,” “Cider House Rules” and “The Human Stain,” but all these predate the Massachusetts Film Tax Credit as we know it today.
The Berkshire Film and Media Collaborative, headed by Diane Pearlman, works locally to create production jobs and encourage outside filmmakers to use the county for location shots.
Ms. Pearlman is excited about the upcoming “Mumbet,” the poignant story of Elizabeth Freeman, the Colonial-era slave from Sheffield who successfully sued to gain her freedom, effectively ending slavery in Massachusetts. It’s based on a book by two Berkshires writers, and Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer has signed on as a producer.
Ms. Pearlman is a strong advocate of the tax credit, but Massachusetts might well look to its neighbor to the west as inspiration for tweaking its system. When New York State discovered that the lion’s share of its credit went to New York City film shootings, it tacked on an extra 10-percent break for choosing locations in certain upstate counties. The incentive proved so successful the state expanded the number of counties the bonus covered.
Were Massachusetts to offer the same stepped tax credit arrangement, it could go a long way toward attracting major filming to the area. This, of course, would make the credit more costly, and its expense was the reason Governor Charlie Baker tried to get it scrapped in 2017 before backing down due to blowback from the state film industry and its supporters. Those backers are wary of tinkering for fear the Legislature might abandon it altogether — but as long as we have it, in the interest of fairness, its benefits ought to be spread more evenly throughout the state.