Hollywood on the Charles

By Carlo Rotella | Boston Magazine |

THERE’S A PRICELESS MOMENT in Gone Baby Gone when a little boy on a bike cuts in front of a car and, when the driver tells him to move, yells back, “Go fuck ya mothah.” It’s pure Boston-style unpleasantness — bad traffic skills, bad manners, nastiness to strangers, refusing to pronounce the r in “mother” — and it’s exactly like a shot of a yak herder or a snake charmer in a movie set in Mongolia or India: a moment that’s there for the pleasure of tasting an exotic locality that moviegoers can be counted on to recognize.

Such Boston-area movie moments have become frequent and even conventional in recent years. Gone Baby Gone is full of them (“Make me a fuckin’ mahtini, you fat fuckin’ retahd”). Then there’s Ben Affleck’s dress-up fantasy as a series of regular-guy icons (EMT, cop, MBTA bus driver, neighborhood hockey god) in The Town, and Fenway Park’s Death Star–like cameo in Moneyball. And you can no doubt picture the showstoppers to come in the inevitable Whitey Bulger biopic. We’re so used to such moments by now, so used to Hollywood on the Charles, that it requires an intellectual effort to step back and appreciate how strange it is that this city has become a magnet for movie stars and auteurs.

Let’s not forget that Boston was for much of the 20th century strictly the sticks, a parochial dump in decline. In the 21st century, not only do homegrown notables like Affleck, Matt Damon, and Mark Wahlberg make Boston movies, but celebrated mythmakers from elsewhere — Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, Mel Gibson — also feel the urge to get in on the action.

[sidebar]If the film production boom feels by now familiar, the reasons for it are still worth examining. Boston has a long history as a cultural capital, but so does Philadelphia. Our city offers a ripe postindustrial array of scenery ranging from hard-used streets to stately campuses, but so do Baltimore and Cleveland. And yet it’s Boston that keeps showing up, time and again, on the silver screen, a batty old Norma Desmond of a city ready for one close-up after another. Why does Hollywood keep coming here, of all places — and will it continue to come?

THE SHORT ANSWER: Follow the money. Movies and TV productions shot in Massachusetts receive tax credits equal to 25 cents on every dollar of new spending they bring to the state. Budget-conscious movie studios — and they’re all budget-conscious — will go wherever they can turn out an acceptable product as cheaply as possible. Some movies were made around here before the state’s film tax-credit program reached mature strength in 2007, but the sustained boom in production has not happened just because Boston’s so damn fascinating and photogenic. As soon as it’s more efficient to go somewhere else, the boom will end. A simple public discussion in early 2010 of possibly limiting the tax credit (critics argued that there were more cost-effective ways to attract more-reliable jobs) was enough to drive away productions for the rest of that year, and business picked up again only when the studios felt sure that the policy wouldn’t change anytime soon.

But the short answer won’t suffice, not all by itself. For one thing, Louisiana, Connecticut, New Mexico, and other states have film tax credits, and some have offered more generous rates — like Michigan’s 42 percent credit. That Massachusetts has been consistently successful in the competition to draw and retain Hollywood’s interest means that we need a longer answer.


Illustration by Jesse Lenz. Photographs by Miramax Films/Courtesy of Neal Peters Collection (Casey Affleck); Warner Bros./Courtesy of Neal Peters Collection (Mark Wahlberg); Getty Images (Matt Damon, Boston skyline); Michele Laurita/Corbis Outline (Ben Affleck)

  • Sean

    The truth of the matter is that the film industry was stunted and is now on the rebound after Deval and a few other short sighted cronies decided to “explore” rolling back the tax credit and/or capp

  • Robert

    Carlo Rotella is ill-informed and biased in his discussion of Massachusetts’ film tax credit. The Mass Department of Revenue has shown in its state-of-the-art studies that the film incentive has cost the Commonwealth hundreds of thousands of dollars just to create one full-time equivalent job. Moreover, Mr Rotella gets his facts wrong. New Mexico has capped its film tax credit and has never been more generous than Massachusetts’. Michigan’s credit is no longer 42 percent. It repealed its credit in favor of a much smaller direct grant. Finally, Rotella contradicts himself. If film producers allegedly deserted the state because of talk of curbing the credit, how can other factors attract the film industry? How can there be a “longer” answer? Massachusetts’ film “boom” has required a huge public subsidy, putting taxpayers on the hook. With respect to the film tax credit, Rotella is long on pro-film ideology and short on facts and careful policy analysis.