Stealing the Show
Rosemary Herbert, the publicist for Down East, got a call a few weeks back from some Hollywood types who were filming The Mist, an adaptation of a Stephen King horror novella, down in Shreveport, Louisiana. The script is classic King: a suspenseful and gory clash between a supernatural mist and a bunch of Mainers who find themselves trapped in a supermarket in the western Maine town of Bridgton. The producers wanted a few copies of Down East so that a female shopper could fan herself with one, as apparently the mist dines during particularly warm summer days.
Herbert was delighted - this is the kind of product placement businesses usually pay money for. But the request also raises a question: Why is a film set in Maine being filmed someplace else, when the real thing is right here?
"They did not ever consider filming in Maine," declares Tracey Zemitis, a publicist for The Mist. "It just comes down to the financials, and it would be too expensive to shoot there." Most of the film is shot on a soundstage anyway, Zemitis points out, and with state tax incentives that will refund a quarter of the film's budget to producer Dimension Films, Louisiana was a no-brainer for The Mist's location scouts.
This isn't the first time that moviemakers have bypassed the Pine Tree State. While Maine has lured a few blockbusters here over the years, more generous tax incentives and larger marketing budgets have allowed other U.S. states, as well as countries such as Canada, Australia, and even the Czech Republic to out-bid Maine. Last year's remake of Charlotte's Web, for instance, featured a new emphasis on the story's Maine setting, yet was shot exclusively in Australia.
New incentives passed last year by the Maine legislature were designed to help attract more movies, but the program still includes some of the most modest provisions in New England. The success of other states and countries at attracting filmmakers proves that if Maine wants to grow its film industry to compete with the likes of Louisiana and Canada, it will need to consider even more aggressive measures.
The glory days of Maine filmmaking may well have been during the silent film era, when moviemakers showed little hesitation in hopping on a steamship from Boston to come film in Maine. The golden age ended when the industry moved from New York City to Los Angeles in the 1920s; just seven projects were completed in Maine between the end of World War II and 1987. (Some of those films were particularly noteworthy, however, including the 1950s classics Carousel and Peyton Place.) The ultimate snub occurred with the 1981 filming of On Golden Pond.
"Beautiful film, written for the Belgrade Lakes region, and shot in New Hampshire," laments Greg Gadberry, assistant director of the Maine Film Office, the branch of the Department of Economic and Community Development responsible for making the state film friendly. During the past twenty years his office, working alongside the all-volunteer Maine Film Commission, has attracted fifty-eight feature films, television features, documentaries, commercials, and even catalog shoots. It did so through what were at the time innovative incentives: rebates on lodging taxes paid during filming, utility tax rebates, and sales tax exemptions, as well as free access to many of Maine's state parks.
Unfortunately, Maine's modest success was quickly undercut by new competitors. During the 1990s, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand began offering rebates and incentives that could account for up to a third of a film's costs. Gadberry says Maine industry officials watched as moviemakers flew right over their heads to Nova Scotia, where a film industry sprang up almost overnight. Moviemaking there, he notes, is helping replace dying industries in the same way it could in Maine. "They're using media production as a way to replace or augment traditional industries, and they've looked at it the same way our economic folks have, by asking, 'How do we bring in great paying jobs that people like, that will keep our kids here?' Media production is high on the agenda of these countries."
Maine was also outfoxed at home, with other states leveraging incentives of their own. "New Mexico, for instance, used their lucrative oil and gas industries to provide some of the most lucrative incentives in the country," Gadberry explains. "They went from having almost no film production to being totally overwhelmed in one year." States with generous incentives today include Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Connecticut, though California and New York still produce the lion's share of blockbusters - 365 and 281, respectively, in 2005, according to an estimate by the Motion Picture Association of America.
The new hotbed of moviemaking, however, is undoubtedly Louisiana. With some of the most generous incentives in the country - the state refunds 25 percent of a film's budget to producers in cash - it has lured twenty-five film productions in each of the past four years (Maine, by comparison, has averaged just two or three a year). Alex J. Schott, executive director of the Louisiana Governor's Office of Film & Television Development, says that his state hosted about $500 million in production in 2005, compared to Maine's $8.7 million that year. "Locations really don't matter anymore; it's strictly about what you can save any company," Schott says. "What film companies are looking for is a generic, anytown USA that can be duplicated on film through their creative controls. [In Louisiana] we kind of provide that blank canvas."
Not every film producer, of course, wants a blank canvas. Todd Field, who filmed 2001's critically acclaimed In the Bedroom around Camden and Rockport, says he hoped to bring a crew back home to Maine to make his follow-up feature. "I wanted to shoot Little Children here very much," Field says. "Unfortunately, all the actors in the film, but one, lived in New York. It was such a large cast that their state of residency became a key component in choosing the setting."
Field says Maine played a central role in both the writing and filming of In the Bedroom: "When I was working on the script, we were living in Owls Head, and everything - the characters, story, locations, and even the rhythm of the piece - was informed by that fact." Field maintains that the Maine crew he assembled for the movie was every bit as qualified, and even more creative - a Rockland boat-storage building, for instance, became a soundstage - than any he could find on the West Coast.
Movies like In the Bedroom are precisely the type that Maine courts, says Gadberry. "While we've had some big films, we're really aiming our incentives at smaller films and television, where the budgets aren't as big, but the competition isn't as fierce, either," he says. "The big movies don't care, frankly, if it's Maine because they can get away with it not being Maine, but there are others who really want to work in a place that's authentic. Authenticity may not mean a lot to accountants, but it does mean a lot to a lot of producers and directors."
The most recent example of how the need for authenticity can benefit local businesses was in the 2003 filming of the HBO adaptation of Empire Falls, Richard Russo's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. In addition to the $13.5 million the crew spent on production in Waterville and Skowhegan, the trickle-down effect of lodging, meals, and other expenses paid by cast members added up to nearly $34 million for the local economies. In central Maine alone Gadberry says he heard reports that the movie accounted for eight thousand hotel room nights. While HBO looked closely at Connecticut and eastern Canada for filming, producers chose Maine largely because Russo showed them the exact locations that had inspired him. "Richard Russo walked down the street with these guys and said, 'This is what I was writing about,' " Gadberry explains. Stephen King has also been a tremendous champion of the Maine film industry, with many of his earliest films having been made here.
Gadberry admits that Maine could be doing far more to attract film productions. After the Maine Film Office's personnel and operational expenses are met, just thirty thousand dollars of its two hundred thousand dollar budget is available for marketing and communications. "Our budget is pretty much the bottom of the barrel," Gadberry remarks. Even the new Maine Attraction Film Incentive Package - 12 percent of wages paid to Mainers are refunded to filmmakers, and 10 percent of wages paid to out-of-staters - is the most conservative among the six New England states.
But state film officials have always been reluctant to ask for too much. "The idea was to try to find the balance between a good financial reward to visiting and indigenous projects, but also bearing in mind that Maine, like a lot of rural states, has a lot of financial difficulties," Gadberry explains.
Failing to increase incentives will quickly drop Maine from moviemakers' radar screens, says Louisiana's Alex J. Schott. "The bottom line is the industry is going to go where it can save the most," he says. "So as long as you continue to evolve and offer a competitive environment for filmmakers, then they will have every reason from a cost-effective standpoint to come. With other states coming online with their own incentives, you have to make sure you focus on what's going to make you the most attractive."
But that doesn't mean wiping away Maine's identity for Louisiana's blank slate. "I'm asked on a daily basis about Maine, and sometimes by people who are from here and want to get back," remarks director Todd Field. "A few weeks ago [my wife] Serena and I were at the Golden Globes and Patrick Dempsey came up and introduced himself. His opening line was, 'You know I'm from Maine, right?' He had a big smile on his face and said this with a huge amount of pride." Gadberry, too, says Maine's reputation for quality and integrity has always been its best competitive advantage. "A combination of our great locations, our great work ethic, and our lower costs in many cases still got us projects, even in competition with Canada," he remarks.
Meanwhile, down in Louisiana, there is at least one Maine touch that producers admit they are unable to import onto their soundstage. "There won't be any Maine accents," promises The Mist's Tracey Zemitis. "I'm fairly certain that Stephen King advised director Frank Darabont to not have the actors attempt it."