The rise of the Massachusetts film industry has been one of the biggest stories of recent years. But while Boston’s star turn as “Hollywood East” has generated plenty of excitement, there are still some unanswered questions about the state’s new love affair with cinema.
When “Good Will Hunting” was released in 1997, it didn’t just turn Matt Damon and Ben Affleck into household names. It also showed that in the right cinematic hands — Boston itself can be a star.
A decade later, state lawmakers decided to leverage that allure. They offered a generous package of incentives to filmmakers who shoot in Massachusetts — including a sales-tax exemption and a 25 percent subsidy on payroll and production costs. To say Hollywood has been receptive would be an understatement.
But while Hollywood may see Massachusetts as a destination, that doesn't mean the state’s support is smart public policy. According to the Massachusetts Department of Revenue, the state spends an average of nearly $130,000 for every film-industry job filled by a Massachusetts resident.
"I personally think that’s much too high for any industry, for the commonwealth and the taxpayers to subsidize," said state Sen. Jamie Eldridge, who stops short of saying the film tax credit program should be eliminated. But he he does think it should be reformed.
"I’d like to see the tax credit be less generous," Eldridge said. "And I would like to see it be capped. I think far too much focus that tax credit when there’s a lot of other tax credits that would be a better use money — or just better investing in transportation or education. I’d like to know more about the direct benefit of all the services that are provided when films are made here."
Disclosure: WGBH has benefitted from the tax credit. But according to Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr, there are broader gains that shouldn’t be ignored.
"What a lot of people don’t understand is that the tax incentives don’t just benefit Hollywood filmmakers," Burr said. "It has energized a whole level of independent filmmakers, some coming out of our schools, some moving here, who are working on the Hollywood films and then going off and making films of their own."
Burr calls the burgeoning local film industry a success — a welcome change from the days when the weather and perceived union hostility kept moviemakers away. Still, Burr doesn’t think the status quo is perfect. He cites a striking narrowness in the way Boston gets portrayed.
"I think here’s a lopsided image of Boston being portrayed in mainstream film," he said. "And you can kind of forgive it because it’s the most dramatic. When people think of Boston movies, they think of Southie. They think of people popping caps in other people’s heads."
In fact, Burr says, there are plenty of other good Boston films waiting to be made. One topic in particular tops his wish list.
"The great Boston movie has yet to be made," he said. "And the great Boston movie will be about a subject that nobody in Boston wants to see made, and that’s busing. That is the most dramatic and truest to the very complicated personality of Boston: all the different clans, all the different classes, all butting heads against each other. And we look away from that story; we don’t want to see it told."
But many locals are just happy to see their neighborhoods appear on the big screen. Last week in Revere, a small crowd gawked as the southern stretch of Revere Beach was turned into Miami for the Whitey Bulger film “Black Mass.” Among them: Vincent Lauritano — whose pizza parlor was closed for five days.
"I think it’s good," Lauritano said. "It’ll bring money into the state. I mean, I am closed on the busiest time of the year in July. But I’m being compensated for that, so it’s good for me, I guess."
Which brings us back to Beacon Hill — where Eldridge says there’s a growing sense the film tax credit should be rethought. That said, he has a confession.
"When “Labor Day” was made in my home town of Acton, my mom walked down to the set to watch the film being made," he said.
Apparently, economic costs and benefits pale in comparison to the charms of Josh Brolin and Kate Winslet.
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