Ambitious studio projects could make Massachusetts a center for the film industry
This spring, Mark Ridder is coordinating golf outings at Waverly Oaks, the country club he co-owns in Plymouth. But by late next year, the clubhouse will have been transformed into a commissary, and Ridder may be playing a new role trying to lure directors, not duffers, to the $450 million Plymouth Rock Studios complex planned for the site.
Amazingly, Plymouth Rock is just one of four projects that could create 25 or more sound stages in Massachusetts over the next two years, designed for TV, movie, video game, and commercial production. (The state currently has none.) It seems surreal enough to make for a good movie trailer, intoned in the typical basso-profundo voice-over: In a time of economic recession and frozen credit, four brave groups of businesspeople are somehow bucking the odds and moving forward with plans for new studios.
Whether there's a happy ending to this story remains to be seen. In order to start construction this summer, Plymouth Rock is counting on being the first recipient of a $50 million chunk of funding from the state's new I-Cubed program, which is intended to support infrastructure projects that will create new jobs.
And if both of the bigger projects, Plymouth Rock and ISG Studios in Weymouth, are built, it remains to be seen whether there will be enough activity to keep them busy.
Movie-making in Massachusetts was jump-started by a tax credit former Governor Mitt Romney signed into law in 2005. It gives production companies a 25 percent tax credit on any spending they do in the state. This month, Kevin Costner and Ben Affleck have been shooting "The Company Men" in Boston, and scouts have reportedly been seeking locations for the sequel to "Paul Blart: Mall Cop." (Much of the original was filmed at the Burlington Mall.) In 2008, 13 movies spent a total of $359 million in the state.
But the major constraint to luring more movie dollars to Massachusetts is the lack of sound stages: large indoor spaces where sets can be built. (Sound stages also usually have office space nearby for the production team and postproduction facilities for editing, special effects, and other finishing work.)
Today, film crews that need indoor space often wind up using hockey rinks, raw warehouses, and vacant office buildings.
"One of the things that holds us back in New England is the weather," says Nick Paleologos, executive director of the Massachusetts Film Office. "To the extent that we're able to provide the industry with state-of-the-art facilities that can be used year-round, the level of production here would ramp up another notch."
Plymouth Rock is the most ambitious of the projects: 14 sound stages spread over 240 acres that could employ 1,500 people to build and up to 2,000 people once it is in operation. Chief executive David Kirkpatrick describes it as "the first really 21st century digital studio." Last year, he committed to donate $25 million to the MIT Media Lab to create a new Center for Future Storytelling. The Media Lab will have a satellite outpost at Plymouth Rock Studios where a half-dozen researchers will explore things like next-generation cameras and digital sets.
Kirkpatrick, a former president of Paramount Pictures, says much of that Media Lab research funding will come from marketing sponsorships he has sold in connection with the studio, though he cannot yet name the sponsors. He's also a bit opaque about the source of the studio's construction funding.
Cambridge-based C Change Investments is committed to making "a substantial investment in the tens of millions of dollars" in Plymouth Rock, according to general counsel David D. Brown. But that firm, formed last November, has not yet finished raising an investment pool of its own. Kirkpatrick says he is counting on $50 million in infrastructure funding from the state's I-Cubed program, along with several hundred million from various pension funds, which he expects to finalize in late June.
The purchase of the Waverly Oaks Golf Club - Kirkpatrick says the price is $16.5 million - also has not yet closed. (Ridder, the co-owner, says he and much of his staff have been offered positions with Plymouth Rock.)
Kirkpatrick says construction will start in October. By that time, ISG Boston Studios could also be taking shape in Weymouth, on the site of the former South Weymouth Naval Air Station. The executives behind ISG Boston have run the historic Sunset-Gower Studios in Hollywood, and were involved with the creation of the TV series "Rome" and "Nash Bridges." The first phase of the ISG project will include six sound stages on 30 acres.
Allan Kassirer, one of the ISG partners, said that the group was still working on the design and permitting, but that the financing for the first phase of construction was nailed down. It will come from developer LNR Property Corp., which is turning the former Navy base into a planned community called SouthField.
LNR vice president Kevin Chase says that the funding - $100 million in total for phase one and phase two - will come from LNR's own equity fund and lines of credit.
Two entrepreneurs are planning smaller facilities in South Boston.
Billy Mead is in the late phase of getting permits for a 2,500-square-foot sound stage on Dorchester Avenue. Mead, who already owns a movie equipment rental company and several production firms, hopes to add a slightly bigger 4,000-square-foot stage later this year.
"We call it Plymouth Pebble, as opposed to Plymouth Rock," he quips.
He expects the stages will be ideal for making how-to DVDs and shooting commercials and music videos.
And real estate developer Tim Pappas hopes to build two 20,000-square-foot sound stages on land he already owns on Summer Street, just past the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. (Pappas didn't return phone calls seeking comment.)
Paleologos, the cheerleader-in-chief for the movie industry in Massachusetts, says he doesn't necessarily expect all of the projects to be built.
"But the fact that they're still pressing ahead in this kind of negative environment only underscores our point that this will be a thriving, growing industry of the future - and that we have a better than average shot of becoming the Northeast's hub of film, TV, and digital media production," he says.
It's a laudable goal. To reach it, we'll need more than new studios and a tax credit, since other states dangle even richer incentives.
What I see as the best way to differentiate Massachusetts over the long term is staking out a strong position at the convergence of film, video games, and digital media.
Scott Kirsner can be reached at email@example.com.
Because of a reporting error, the Innovation Economy column in Sunday's Money & Careers section had the incorrect year for when 13 movies spent a total of $359 million in Massachusetts. The year was 2008.