By Pacey Foster, Stephan Manning and David Terkla.
Hollywood and New York used to be the centers of movie-making in the U.S. This reality is changing as more and more states now attract ‘run-away’ productions from Hollywood. Massachusetts is one of them. After hosting well-known movies and TV shows in the 1990s, such as Good Will Hunting and Ally McBeal, Massachusetts experienced a drop in productions in the late 1990s and early 2000s. To counteract this trend, and to compete with other states that had begun to offer tax incentives to film and television productions, Massachusetts set up its own tax incentive program in 2006. This program has clearly contributed to an increase in the volume of productions and total employment in this sector. According to a study by HR & Associates, the tax credit in Massachusetts generated in 2011 2,220 full-time equivalent jobs and $375 million in state spending that year.* Movies shot in Boston and Massachusetts since 2006 include The Departed, Gone Baby Gone, The Zookeeper, The Town, and The Social Network. But can Massachusetts really grow into a new film production cluster? Can Massachusetts really become Hollywood East?
In our new Regional Studies article “The Rise of Hollywood East: Regional Film Offices as Intermediaries in Film and Television Production Clusters” we find that – counter to common belief – potential location advantages, such as tax incentives, unique local settings and talent pools, are not the only important factors in attracting film productions. In fact, when the tax incentive program started in Massachusetts in 2006, it barely had any effect. Back in 2002, for example, the state attracted more productions than in 2006. So what has really contributed to the attractiveness of Massachusetts for film-makers in recent years?
Our study suggests that the success of Massachusetts in attracting film projects particularly since 2007 has been due to the activities of its regional film office. Film offices engage in numerous activities like marketing locations to specific productions and helping them access local labor and material resources once they arrive. As states increasingly rely on incentive programs, film offices have become critical agents in connecting mobile creative networks to local resources, such as studios, production settings, and technical suppliers. But even before tax incentives were in place film offices already played a vital role. In Massachusetts, for example, film productions dropped significantly between 2002 and 2006, largely because during that time the film office was either closed or not fully operating.
Film offices thus become important ‘network intermediaries’ between producer-led project networks and local environments. In reality, producers and directors do not consider every possibility when selecting shooting locations, even if tax incentives are in place. If, however, they learn through film offices about favorable production sites, and if they get connected to local providers and talent pools, they might consider trying a new location. Regional film offices can hence turn blind spots into hotspots. This is what the Massachusetts film office did.
So can Massachusetts eventually become Hollywood East? Certainly, Hollywood remains the biggest film cluster in the United States and Massachusetts will not develop similar capabilities any time soon. But it seems clear that Massachusetts is on its way to becoming an important east coast film hub. As Hollywood producers look beyond Hollywood, getting their limited attention when project opportunities arise is key. Project by project, Massachusetts can establish itself as a satellite cluster, and the regional film office can play a vital role.
This of course raises interesting questions beyond the case of film production in Massachusetts. In an economy where dozens of cities and states compete for investments through tax breaks and other incentives, who can benefit in the long run? And how can new geographic clusters emerge in industries that are highly volatile and project-based? Our study suggests that attention needs to shift from both short-term policies and long-term institutional investments, to more dynamic organizational structures, e.g. intermediaries, agencies, and events, which can attract attention and resources at critical times, generate spill-over effects, and create opportunities for follow-up investments.
Effective regional policies therefore need to be multi-layered. Agencies, such as film offices, are certainly less likely to be effective without tax or other incentives, yet these incentives may not reach clients without effective intermediation. Also, effective policies need to manage a continuous tension between competition and collaboration with other regions. Clearly, Massachusetts to some extent ‘takes away’ productions from Hollywood, but it would never be able to attract projects without the Hollywood film industry. Network intermediaries are critical agents in managing this tension, and in establishing links between clusters. It might well be that we need to give up the idea of ‘regional clusters‘ altogether, and instead think of more decentralized, dynamic sets of multiple location hubs connecting industry activities and resources through networks and intermediary agencies.
* (Note on Impact Studies:) Regional impact studies need to be treated with caution. It is very difficult to measure actual regional benefits in the film industry because of its project-based nature and the fact that much of the employment in this contract-based industry is not readily tracked by standard Bureau of Labor Statistics employment data. However, various studies agree that Massachusetts has benefited significantly from film and TV production in recent years. Policymakers must then weigh the costs of these programs in terms of foregone tax revenues against these much harder to measure benefits.
(1) Poster of The Town (2010) with Boston images (Picture taken from www.filmofilia.com)
(2) Opening scene of The Social Network (2009), set in ‘The Thirsty Scholar’ pub in Somerville (Picture taken from www.hollywire.com)