Hollywood executive David Kirkpatrick has a vision: To make Massachusetts, the home of the Puritans that grew up to be the bluest of the blue states, into a hotbed of faith-based multimedia entertainment production.
Kirkpatrick, a former president of Paramount Pictures and a cofounder of the year-old Good News Holdings, whose mission is to produce "spiritainment" that will "please God," is in search of 100 acres in his native Massachusetts to build a $150 million-plus studio to produce films, television shows, and commercials, both religious and otherwise. His ambitious plans call for 14 sound stages, a "huge" back lot for filming and as many as 1,500 jobs. This is phase one, he says, which he wants to have "fully operational" by 2009.
"Our focus is on values-based entertainment across all platforms," Kirkpatrick, whose credits as a producer include "The Brady Bunch Movie" and "Big Night," said yesterday. "We are not Republicans, not Democrats. But people who want to make a difference in the culture."
State development officials, who code named their six-month pursuit of the California studio as "Project Julia," for actress Julia Roberts, see this as opportunity that could become a linchpin for expanding the Massachusetts film business.
"I have found Good News Holdings to be very sincere about their interest in Massachusetts and desire to have a successful movie produc tion business in Massachusetts," said Robert Culver, the president of MassDevelopment, a state agency that promotes economic growth.
The governor and legislative leaders, looking to reverse the recent decline in filmmaking in Massachusetts, are close to passing a bill that would expand tax incentives for movie companies. In particular, the bill would increase the tax credit limit and boost the payroll reimbursement rate from 20 percent to 25 percent. Kirkpatrick said the tax changes were key to making the state competitive with other states.
The state has seen a sharp drop in movie production over the last decade. According to a study last year by the Alliance for Independent Motion Media, the production industry employed more than 2,000 people in 2001, but that fell to 1,600 in 2004. The study blamed more aggressive tax incentives and lower costs elsewhere, particularly abroad.
Neither Kirkpatrick nor Culver would say where the company is looking to locate its studio. But another executive said Good News had looked at former Fort Devens in Ayer and a wooded tract off Route 25 near Plymouth. Kirkpatrick said he hoped to have a deal within months.
Good News Holding is a start-up company focusing on entertainment for the Christian community. While Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" was a huge surprise hit in 2004, the big studios have been largely unsuccessful in producing religious-themed movies. Studios have even created special divisions -- such as FoxFaith -- but have not had the same success. The only other recent box-office hit was "The Chronicles of Narnia" -- produced by Disney and Walden Media, and based on a popular fantasy novel with Christian themes.
Good News says it is aimed at "satisfying its audience hunger for a higher vision," and plans to reach Christian audiences across a broad platform that includes film, television, the Internet, mobile phones, and novels. One of its earliest products is called FaithMobile, which delivers Bible verses through text messages. "Lights Together" is an Internet community for churches that offers tools for organizing prayer groups and Christian dating.
It is also working on its first films, including one based on a novel by famed Gothic horror writer Anne Rice, who like Kirkpatrick is a born-again Christian. The movie, "Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt," about the early years of Jesus, is to begin shooting in Israel in October. The company is also developing a channel on DirecTV, with backing from former Attorney General John Ashcroft's investment firm and News Corp.
Besides Kirkpatrick, who is managing director for traditional media, the company's top management includes chairman George Barna, a pollster sometimes called "the Gallup of the Christian world," and chief executive Christopher Chisholm, a co-founder of E! Entertainment Television. The company, based in Sherman Oaks, Calif., has about 60 employees.
Mace Neufeld, who produced Paramount's "Patriot Games" while Kirkpatrick was running production at the studio, called Kirkpatrick "a highly respected executive in the movie business." Of Kirkpatrick's Massachusetts venture, he said: "He has the ability to pull it off."
Kirkpatrick, who is 55 and grew up in Sterling and Northborough, says Good News is still studying the merits of Massachusetts. Of the financing for the project, he says: "We have a significant amount of financing in place." The rest, he says, "will be determined following the feasibility work."
Good News would use the studio for its own productions and lease it largely to other, nonreligious production companies, Kirkpatrick said. The concept, he said, would be to make Massachusetts "the place of choice on the East Coast" for all kinds of production work from films, to television to commercials. Eventually he foresees retail stores, a hotel, and housing on the site.
Kirkpatrick downplays the religious nature of his company, saying "this is a hard-boiled business proposition."
Steve Bailey can be reached at email@example.com.