Local Industry | Reports

Mass. Gut Job: What Now?

1 Sep , 2002  

Written by Chris Cooke | Posted by:

After being dealt several recent blows -- the dissolution of the Massachusetts Film Office; absorption of the Boston Film Bureau; and budget slash of the Massachusetts Cultural Council -- what's the future of the Massachusetts and Boston film industry?

When all the dust settled after the recent budget wars in the Massachusetts legislature, the film industry in the state found itself gasping for air. The Massachusetts Film Office, amid internal strife and external controversy, had its budget completely eliminated; and the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s funds were slashed by 62 percent, the largest cut in over a decade. What’s more, the state legislature wasn’t alone in gutting film programs. The City of Boston closed its Film Bureau, delegating its functions to the Office of Cultural Affairs. All of this surely puts a strain on the local film industry. With effectively all government support simultaneously eliminated, filmmakers suddenly find themselves on their own, with seemingly no one in the State House or City Hall willing to lend a hand. Is there any hope for the future of film in Boston?

The Film Office: Thinking Big

Certainly the most talked about closing is that of the Massachusetts Film Office. Entrusted with the duty of attracting filmmakers to Massachusetts, the office was shut down for good at the end of July, just as its director Robin Dawson scored a major success in bringing the Clint Eastwood picture "Mystic River" to Boston. By all accounts, the Film Office’s primary function was to bring in outside filmmakers. The office made itself readily available to answer questions and obtain information for filmmakers who wanted to film here and, if necessary, connected them with the appropriate departments in the state. As such, says filmmaking consultant and Local Sightings founder David Kleiler, "the state Film Office is an incredible resource." Without people he knows at the Film Office there to help filmmakers move their projects along, he has to refer them to other people or other resources — of which there aren’t that many. Tim Van Patten, founder of Central Booking, which assists in film production and acts as a liason between producers and crew, agrees: "They will definitely have problems getting the answers they need right away, because the people they’re going to be talking to now don’t have the answers."

While everyone seems to agree that closing the office is a big mistake, people in the local film community voice different opinions about the extent of the office’s overall effect on the film industry here. With its focus primarily on bringing in major productions from outside the state, the Film Office seemed, to many in the local industry, useful but limited. "I feel that the Mass Film Office has probably done some good things as far as bringing in large films to Boston," says Lenny Manzo of Film Services, Inc., a rental house and production company, "but they have done nothing for the independent filmmaker as far as I’m concerned. Any time I’ve gone over there for help, they’ve really been able to do nothing." Van Patten agrees that the office’s role has been overstated. "In Boston, the film market is made up of commercial production, corporate industrial production, independent film — and the Massachusetts Film Office isn’t very involved in those activities… Their main focus is major feature films, and as a region, we don’t see a lot of major feature films."

No one, however, doubts the effects a big production can bring to the area. "It’s just widely understood that the investment that is required on the part of the state to operate an office such as this… is returned many times over in revenue that is brought into the state," says Bob Hirsch, founder of High Output, a local provider of lighting equipment, location power, and other production services. "When a production — a feature film or a television series — comes to a state they spend money in every conceivable category: they shop in clothing stores, they go to restaurants, they buy building supplies, they employ individuals of every type, and in many cases, the presence of a production has lasting impact for the community that buys into it, it increases tourism, and so forth. It’s really just a no-brainer."

With the office’s budget a mere $500,000, the return on investment seems immense. "Coming out of the tourism budget, the umpteen-billion dollar tourism budget, it’s chump change," argues Richard Moos. "And it can equate to millions of dollars. You get three features a year, you could see 100 million dollars worth of revenue." Even the recent economic struggles are no excuse for cutting back: big films bring in big cash, and the windfalls can help a state’s economy in challenging times. And whenever a film gets made here, tourism reaps long-term benefit. "It’s like getting free advertising which would cost you millions of dollars otherwise," says Kleiler.

And big pictures do more than just help the local economy in general — they help the film community directly. When Robin Dawson was at the helm of the Film Office, "there was a commitment to having to use local resources for up to 20 percent of the crew," says David Kleiler. "So that people who want to make independent films, which of course don’t make any money to begin with, can at least get day jobs working on the crews for Hollywood productions."

Moos is another believer. "I’m always amazed at how the trickle-down theory is really evident in the film community in part because it’s so small. The industry in New England is pretty small… so every time there’s a big movie that comes here, I always see some kind of effect, there’s always some fallout, or kickback." The presence of a big picture, says Manzo, "definitely helps your electricians, your grips, your other technicians who work on the film." Indeed, there is justifiable concern that the local film industry may be sent into a downward spiral once the big pictures stop coming. "By the big films not coming, the work pool is definitely affected by that — absolutely," says Manzo. Adds Kleiler, "I think a lot of people are going to be discouraged about trying to get productions started here… More and more filmmakers are going to move to L.A. or New York as a result."

Still, some say there are other, more effective ways to lure big film business into the state. "If state government wants to help the local film industry all they have to do is create a tax break in the same way that Canada did," says Robert Patton-Spruill, founder of FilmShack, a production, consulting, and equipment supply company. "It would increase the actual revenue of the state tenfold in the film industry… Give producers a tax incentive to be here, and everything else will work itself out."

Others argue that big films will come here, with or without the Film Office. "Honestly, work comes to New England because they need to come to New England, for whatever reason." says Tim Van Patten. "If they want to and need to come here, it’ll be more difficult for them to get the information they need, but ultimately they’ll still come here… It’s just going to be frustrating for them, but I don’t think [the lack of a Film Office] is going to be the deciding factor." Van Patten praises the efforts of the Film Office, but insists the local industry can continue without one. "Here’s the reality, and it has nothing to do with the Massachusetts Film Office: We are coming out of some of the worst times ever experienced in this region in the film and video industry, and it has entirely to do with the economy. It has nothing to do with having or not having a film office. And the irony is, we’re on the brink of a busy period which literally happened — and I think it’s just coincidental — right after the film office closed. So I don’t think one has much to do with the other at all."

Van Patten is not alone in feeling that the nation’s economic woes have as much or more influence on the local industry than any state or local office. "The very first thing to get cut in any environment where the economy is shaky is entertainment — advertising and entertainment," says Richard Moos. "So when the economy tanked, the bread-and-butter of the local production industry — corporate and commercial media — dried up. I can’t tell you how many associates I‘ve talked to out there who haven’t done anything in a year and a half. Whatever little piddly thing they can do that comes along, but everyone’s hanging on by their fingernails."

"Commercial companies have been going out of business here in Boston, there’s only a few left, and they seem to be slow. It’s a very slow time. I think the best thing about this time is that I don’t think it can get worse," says Lenny Manzo.

Certainly, though, the budget cuts add insult to injury. The industry has been left high and dry when it mosts needs the help. "There are enough factors out there that are beyond our control… that negatively impact the success of the production community here," says Bob Hirsch. "It’s hard to believe that our state would actually actively go out and create another one. It just sends a message to the entertainment community that their interests are not shared by the state of Massachusetts, and that’s just a terrible mistake." Hirsch’s High Output, is in the process of building a 93,000 square-foot, state-of-the-art production facility. The expansion, although prompted by necessity, remains an "act of faith" in the local industry, and "to have our interests so disregarded by our state government at the same time that we’re making such an enormous investment in the state production infrastructure is dismaying to say the least."

It’s ironic that Massachusetts, which by all rights should be one of the nation’s artistic and cultural centers, has such a bad reputation in the film industry. "The state of Massachusetts has really never embraced filmmaking," says Lenny Manzo. "New York, they put out the red carpets for filmmakers, they like films made about Manhattan and New York, they help them out, and they try to work with them. And that’s never really been the case here. Big movies, they do cooperate a bit, but the smaller movies, it’s been trouble."

A major prohibiting factor is cost. It’s more expensive to make films here. So the big outside producers stay away. "The Clint Eastwood film is an anomaly now," says Manzo. "The last film we had here was a Disney film and that was only here for three weeks. And there’s no middle-ground movies coming here — 1 million, 2 million. They’re either going to Maine or Rhode Island… They’re only here if they need Massachusetts explicitly, and they can’t find this backdrop anywhere else." Many head for New York, California, Texas, or Illinois. Others head north to the ultra-inexpensive film haven of Canada.

Much of the state’s poor reputation has to do with the controversies surrounding Teamsters Local 25, the union that provides transportation for the film and television industry. The union has been under federal investigation on a number of charges and has the reputation of driving up costs. Union member John Murray has been convicted of racketeering and extortion, and Teamsters officials have been sued for corruption and intimidation tactics. "Massachusetts has a terrible reputation in the industry — we’ve been fighting that for decades, for at least 15, maybe 20 years — and it came to a head recently with the Teamsters situation… a couple years ago," says Moos. During the production of "Housesitter," "stuff got broken, stuff went missing." The situation was so bad that even the disappearance of a camera truck, probably not connected to the local Teamsters at all, became a Teamster issue in the eyes of Hollywood.

"A lot of people don’t want to have to come into the state and have to deal with the Teamsters," says Kleiler. "And independent producers who get too high on the radar screen don’t want to have their tires slashed and things like that and have their windows broken, so people will go elsewhere to get their films made." Many locals insist the Teamsters have never given them trouble. "I’ve never had a problem with the Teamsters," claims Moos. "I’m a local guy, though, and I’m friendly with them, I’m much too small for them to care about me, but I’ve worked [with] them a number of shows, and they’re not a problem. There’s certainly a peculiar way that they do things. And that’s just part of the local color."

Much of what Dawson did over the past few years was try to reassure producers that the Teamsters would not cause them any problems. As long as Massachusetts’ reputation as a place where the Teamsters cause trouble persists — or even the perception locally that this reputation exists — the local industry will be hindered. And Dawson, say Moos, was "the only one anywhere — government, private, whatever — who had any effect on that reputation."

In the face of the economic difficulties and the scandals surrounding the Teamsters, it’s a wonder the Film Office was able to accomplish anything at all. Rumors abound of internal strife and a certain level of dysfunctionality; Dawson’s relationship with Governor Jane Swift seems to have been quite strained. In this light, it is worth noting that the Office of Travel and Tourism, through which the Film Office was funded, only had its budget downsized by about $250,000, a reduction of 2.44 percent. This, argues Hirsch, "is not a decrease of the magnitude that would force the closure of an entire state agency. It’s a decrease that you spread out over everybody’s budget and it becomes rather insignificant. So the agendas of those within the state government that sought the closure and succeeded in closing the film office have nothing to do with money."

Others think the closing has everything to do with money — money that could be more wisely spent elsewhere: "If the choice for me is a nifty office where Hollywood producers can call and maybe get some assistance shooting in Massachusetts or school lunches," posits Patton-Spruill, "I’m picking school lunches, and that’s pretty much how I feel about that… It’s hard times for everybody, but reality is I’d rather see these kids fed — or whether it’s books or computers or whatever it is — there’s much more important and pressing things that state government should be doing."

Moos understands Patton-Spruill’s skepticism about the government’s involvement in the film industry, but can’t sympathize. "To a certain degree he’s right… The Film Office, what they did, really, was more akin to a nice PR campaign, practically speaking. But it’s all we had. That was it… And now it’s gone."

The Boston Film Bureau: Sorely Missed

If there’s anything the film community can agree on, it’s that the Boston Film Bureau was a wonderful convenience, one that will be dearly missed. The bureau, among other services, helped secure permits, researched locations, and helped make arrangements for traffic control. If the Film Office was the PR firm, wining and dining the big-wigs to bring productions in, the Film Bureau was the grunt-worker who helped make everything click once the productions got here. "The Film Bureau was probably the most functional film/government industry that we had, in terms of facilitating locations, permits, etc," says Moos. "Actually, the Film Bureau used to hold your hand. I’ve gotten I can’t tell you how many locations, how many details through… the film Bureau. And it was a great resource. It was a fantastic resource." Lenny Manzo, normally a bit of a skeptic about the government’s film departments, praised the Bureau and it’s former director Khalil Olmstead.

The loss of the Bureau "just makes it more difficult to do the job and re-layers it with new bureaucracy again," says Patton-Spruill. Adds Moos, "Now everyone is left to their own devices. And it’s hard to say what that’s going to mean. People still know they have to get permits, and they’re going to have to figure out how to go about and do that, but there’s nobody inside City Hall that is friendly to the producer, friendly to the filmmaker." Tim Van Patten notes, "Already I’ve dealt with frustrated producers who are trying to get basic questions answered, especially in the city, trying to get a permit."

The Massachusetts Cultural Council: Taken for Granted

Many in the film industry see the Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC) as an entity about kids and art, with no impact on the film community. But this view omits an all important factor in the making of independent film: money. In the past, filmmakers have always worked hard to apply for as many grants as they can — many of them supplied directly or indirectly by the state and local government. The MCC is the force behind much of this grant money, and its budget has been by more than half. At first recommended for level funding, then slated for a 24 percent decrease, the Massachusetts Cultural Council was instead handed a radical 62 percent budget cut.

The Cultural Council’s largest granting program supports organizations. Past recipients include the Center for Independent Documentary, the Boston Film/Video Foundation (BF/VF), and a number of others throughout the state. These grants, says MCC Communications Director John Michael Kennedy "give organizations… unrestricted funds to do with whatever they think is most necessary for their organization — they can pay rent, they can pay salaries, they can have the copy machine maintained. It’s the kind of funding that’s really important for organizations and extremely difficult to replace when it’s lost."

In addition, the Cultural Council awards grants to individual artists in different disciplines, on a rotating basis. Last year, they gave out 62 grants in total. Fellowship Grant recipients get $12,500, and Finalist Award recipients get $1000. Film is one of the disciplines slated for grants this year — if they even have the grants at all.

When the cut was expected to be smaller, "we had a scenario where we wouldn’t have to have done too much damage trying to figure out how best to keep all the programs intact, but at 62 percent you absolutely cannot do that," says Kennedy. Unfortunately, with such cut, many of the council’s programs will have to be drastically reduced and perhaps even eliminated. "Anyone who gets funding from us or is expecting to get funding from us is probably — is definitely — in for a major cut in their grant." Grants for media organizations were just evaluated in a panel process this past summer, but "whatever they were recommended for by the panels, it’s going to be significantly reduced when they get actually get their money in September." The artists grants "will probably be cut significantly as well," says Kennedy.

"Needless to say, this is extremely bad news for the independent film community in New England, particularly Massachusetts, and some people are going to take a double- maybe even a triple-whammy hit because the different areas of funding that they potentially had the ability to get money from are all being cut at some level," says Kennedy. "The state funding that we disperse to a lot of different places, it really has a lot of different fingers and helps people in a lot of different ways. You’re not just cutting an arts council budget when you make a 62 percent cut, you’re cutting economic development, you’re cutting the legs out from under individual artists, like filmmakers."

So where do the local filmmakers go from here? "They’re going to have to work even harder than ever to find other sources," says Kennedy. "It’s not going to be from the state this year, and private foundation sources of money are difficult to find, particularly ones that fund arts and culture and the actual art-making process, like filmmaking. They’re going to have to be much more resourceful and resilient after this."

The Independent Filmmaker: Where Does All This Leave Us?

"To be honest, as a filmmaker, I’m really kind of frightened," says Ellie Lee, whose films include the Oscar-nominated short "Repetition Compulsion." "I’m going to try to keep making independent films and trying to get independent financing, but aside from that, I’ve always relied on freelance work and other work on the side to pay the bills, and for the first time in a long time I’m actually quite worried about where that’s going to come from."

Richard Moos voices similar frustration: "There’s no advocate on the government side, there’s no advocate on the private side, so everybody’s left to their own devices… You’re on your own, kid… It’s a free-for-all."

The economy has been rough, throwing the local film industry for a loop, "and now the government is saying, ‘Well, you know, we’re not going to do anything to help you.’ Where we go from here could be that it dries up entirely," adds Moos. "And that’s the reason the filmmakers go to New York and L.A., this is why they don’t stay in Boston. ‘Cause it’s not here. It’s not happening."

Tim Van Patten has a more positive take: "I know I’m one of the few — everyone thinks it’s a huge tragedy — but stuff will happen with or without the film office… If they can’t find information from them, they’ll find it from somebody else… There was a time before there was a Boston Film Bureau, and stuff got done." Independent filmmakers, says Van Patten, will still be able to find their own way.

Lenny Manzo also downplays the effect of the cutbacks and closings, without glossing over the struggle required to put out a film: "The aspiring filmmaker is actually exactly in the same boat as he always has been. These are people who have ideas and vision, and maybe they have money or maybe they don’t, so if they don’t have money, they’re a step further back than the aspiring filmmaker with money, and they have to figure out how to get that money. And then they figure out how to get the money, or if they have the money, they make their film. And then they still are faced with the daunting prospect of trying to get it released." There are so many hurdles already for aspiring independent filmmakers, that the effect of the changes seems relatively minor. "I think you’re really out there alone anyway, trying to make a movie, and I don’t think it’s much different anywhere else, actually. It’s daunting to try to get your film made and then sell it."

Organize, Get Political

It may be true that filmmakers are out there, as Manzo says, are alone. "In the film community at large, there’s been no leadership to try to affect legislation in the statehouse," says Kleiler. "There hasn’t been a leadership organization for the people who work independently in the state in a long time. Nobody’s really risen to the task." The state film office, mired in the politics that created it, could never fill that role, says Kleiler, nor could the Boston Film/Video Foundation.

But this seems to be changing. Kennedy urges members of the film industry to join MAASH (Massachusetts Advocates for the Arts, Sciences, and Humanities), an advocacy group to encourage legislatures to support cultural resources. Others see a unity forming in the face of adversity. "There has been a spontaneous coming together, coalescence of the various elements of the production community in the state," says Bob Hirsch, "and we need to expand and develop that, and stay organized, and keep the pressure on the state government to reopen a film office."

Come November…

There’s an overwhelming sense among those in the industry that the bad news can’t keep coming, that the government will soon see the error of its ways. "My hunch," says Kleiler, "is that something like the film office (it won’t be called that any more)… will probably come back again within the next six months in some form or other."

"Come November there will be a new Governor in the statehouse," notes Hirsch. "We’re hoping that with the departure of at least some of the elements that brought this about that the obvious fact that our state should operate a film office will carry the day and it will be re-established. So we just have to work to see that through and in the meantime we just have to try to take up some of the slack."

"I actually cannot believe that it will stay closed," admits Van Patten. "I feel deep down that once all the politics are put aside, and the dust settles, they’ll be a film office again. I just refuse to believe that there won’t."

The Future of Local Film

"We are on the brink of what looks like is going to be a kick-ass Fall," states Tim Van Patten, enthusiastic after enduring an admittedly rough stretch. "Work is still coming — I’m busier now than I’ve been in years." Robert Patton-Spruill espouses a positive, laissez-faire outlook: "Boston is a vibrant community," he insists. "It will survive, and it will re-tool itself in a natural sort of way to all these cuts and people will be forced to bond together and act like more of a community in a direct manner rather than having these layers created by bureaucrats and governments that are ultimately inefficient anyway — so it’s going to be better in the long run. Everyone should just relax. It’s okay."

David Kleiler takes a more measured stance: "Things are going to go on. It’s going to be a little more difficult, but it’s not hopeless." And just because "the state ought to make life a lot easier" doesn’t mean that without its help films won’t get made. "There are some aspects of what the Film Office has done that can be addressed by the private sector," reasons Bob Hirsch, "but there are many aspects of it that really do need funding and state support." Most likely, the government will rise to the task in the not-too-distant future. And in the meantime, says Hirsch, "we can do what we can, and we will. There’s a very dedicated group of people in the area that do production, and they’re ready to serve."