Making a Scene

By Nancy Gaines | Boston Magazine |

It was as close to a slam dunk as you get in the movie business. The producers of The Departed, the Martin Scorsese film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Cambridge homeboy Matt Damon, were scouting locations and, since the script is set in Boston and spins a Whitey Bulger-esque tale of corruption, betrayal, and revenge, Scorsese wanted to shoot it here. That meant much of his budget would be finding its way into the local economy.

Cue Meg Montagnino-Jarrett, a local production coordinator, who picks up the action with a call she got in January from Scorsese's people. “They asked me,” Montagnino-Jarrett says, “'Who are we dealing with?'”

It was a good question. On one side was the state's official point man for the film industry, Mark Drago, vice president of the quasi-public Massachusetts Sports and Entertainment Commission, a one-time advance man for governors Bill Weld and Paul Cellucci. On the other was the state's unofficial point woman for the film industry, Robin Dawson, who heads the Massachusetts Film Bureau, an independent agency set up two and a half years ago to attract Hollywood movies and money. For eight years before that, Dawson ran the state film office, where she was credited with bringing in more than $1 billion worth of movie business during a run that sounds like something out of a Hollywood drama itself: Her life was threatened and she was unceremoniously dumped from her job.

Showing two faces and speaking with two voices is not the best way to attract high-stakes film shoots. How this sorry state of affairs came to be is, well, a sordid Whitey Bulger-esque tale of corruption, betrayal, and revenge.

“We're losing opportunities because we're sending such a confusing message,” says Pat Moscaritolo, president of the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau. “You have to make it easy for the client. One-stop shopping. We can't, as a state, make clear who's in charge, if, as a state, we don't know.”

At the Golden Globe awards in January, Dawson moved deftly among the glitterati, “connecting,” she says, with Robin Williams and Mark Wahlberg. “She worked her butt off,” says actor and Massachusetts native Neal McDonough. “I saw her with Clint Eastwood, and she said she talked to Scorsese, who told her he was going to shoot in Boston.”

Dawson's own story makes great party chatter. She rose through the ranks from a special projects coordinator to director of the Massachusetts Film Office in just three years. The twin of Rebecca Marks, an executive with NBC Universal, Dawson was undaunted by La-La Land.

Yet on the night she was hobnobbing at the Golden Globes, the state film office she had run had been shut down for two and a half years. A subordinate had accused her of failing to substantiate $8,700 in expenses she says were approved, which she rang up hosting witnesses in a federal investigation into whether local Teamsters were, among other things, strong-arming Hollywood studios that wanted to film here. (The U.S. Attorney's Office, which has not commented about it before, confirms that Dawson was helping with the case.)

Dawson already had plenty of enemies in high places, including Senate President Tom Birmingham, who championed union causes. The political long knives were out. She awoke one morning in 2002 to find her entire agency cut from the state budget. “I was in utter shock,” says Dawson, with the flair for the dramatic that inspires loyal friends and tough critics. “The federal investigation was ongoing. I'd gotten death threats. And I got a call from the press saying the film office wasn't in the budget. They even dismantled the computers.”

A year later, Dawson learned that the politically well-connected Drago was taking over the film-czar role. His Sports and Entertainment Commission was given $450,000 by the legislature. Last summer, former U.S. Olympic marketing executive Don Stirling was brought in to head up the office while Drago was given the tasks of lobbying and helping film production crews pull permits.

Dawson and her supporters, meanwhile, had set up the private, independent Massachusetts Film Bureau, which has the same purpose the film office did and the Entertainment Commission does. It operates with a slap-in-the-face allocation from the legislature of $5,000, plus income from private donations and fund-raising events like an Oscar-night gala.

While Drago backers say he has a crucial asset for his role-he gets along with the unions — Dawson's supporters fire back with allegations that his connections rather than his qualifications got him his job. And it's true that when Governor Mitt Romney tried to nix his budget, Drago's friends in the legislature restored it. Drago has “a tremendous relationship with the governor, the Senate president, the Speaker of the House, and the unions,” says his boss, Stirling.

Actor Neal McDonough calls the whole situation “a mess. Robin was making sure people knew Massachusetts is a good place to shoot. Now the government wants back in on that, but without her.”

A full-blown Feature film can inject $20 million into a local economy, according to industry estimates. But Boston has a bad rap in Hollywood dating back 25 years to the making of William Friedkin's The Brink's Job. Canisters of developed film were stolen from the production office, reputedly by a member of the Teamsters union, which provides transportation and other services on movie sets.

The state film office was created after the Brink's debacle. But moviemaking remained lethargic until Blown Away perked things up in 1993. Then reports of strong-arm tactics by the Teamsters started up again, culminating in a 2003 federal racketeering case against Local 25 President George Cashman.

It was during this case that Dawson says she felt her life was in danger. (The U.S. Attorney's Office now confirms that she got death threats.) Details leaked in news reports smacked of made-for-TV-movie fare-how Teamster thugs allegedly planned in 2000 to murder a competing union member, for example, because she refused to remove her snack truck from the set of Danny DeVito's What's the Worst That Could Happen? Cashman was ultimately convicted of embezzlement and extortion.

By then, Massachusetts had become a “celluloid pariah,” as a state-commissioned report termed it, even as other states and Canada were rolling out the red carpet for filmmakers. Only now has a bill been introduced to finally create financial incentives for movies to be made here; the measure is sponsored by state Representative and Drago backer Thomas O'Brien. In the state Senate, Dawson supporter and Minority Leader Brian Lees has filed a similar bill.

But shakedowns and a lack of incentives aren't the only reasons local film people say moviemaking is difficult here. Another problem is the Dawson-Drago feud. As Boston-based producer Mark Hankey puts it, “It doesn't help to have three people calling one person from the studio and saying 'Talk to me.'”

Take Scorcese's The Departed. The location manager, Carla Raij, says her first call went to Dawson, who had already contacted the producer. Drago later got involved, as did Patte Papa of yet another agency, the city film commission. “We wanted to use City Hall Plaza,” Raij says. “Patte got us clearance for that. Mark Drago helped with the JFK Building.” She says Dawson “is involved in the courtship of a film company. Her experience and history count.” Still, one of the movie's executive producers, Mac Brown, says, “It's great if you have one point person. Boston has to work it out.”

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