February 18, 2013 | last updated February 18, 2013 8:30 am

Blockbuster Devens Studio Project Sweating State Proposal

PHOTO/Matt Pilon
A sign at the site of the planned New England Studios in Devens details the list of developers and contractors working toward its intended opening later this year.

On a recent winter day, a construction crew was hard at work in Devens putting a roof atop concrete walls that will soon be four 18,000-square-foot sound stages.

Investors in New England Studios LLC hope that when the stages open this summer, they will attract major studios to shoot movies and television shows, taking the Bay State's relationship with Hollywood to the next level.

Christopher Byers, head of studio operations at New England Studios, has been traveling back and forth to California in an effort to attract Hollywood studios to rent the Devens sites for their productions.

Byers, who spoke by phone recently while on one of those sales trips, said he has secured a number of potential commitments from studios. Contracts would be signed about three months prior to the projected late summer opening.

Lisa Strout, director of the Massachusetts Film Office, said the state's lack of stage facilities has cost it productions over the years.

The commitments from studios are "all tentative until they're in writing," Byers said. "We're feeling that pinch right now, which is a good thing."

Byers, who has worked in a range of film industry roles — from grip and lighting to being an executive producer — said studio executives he has spoken to in California speak highly of experiences filming in and around Boston.

"They can get the big-city action that they need in a smaller environment, which is Boston," he said. "In this business, it's a huge benefit."

Perhaps even more beneficial are the income and corporate excise tax credits Massachusetts offers to reel in film and television productions.

Production companies that incur at least $50,000 in production costs while filming in the Bay State are eligible for a 25-percent credit on their Massachusetts payroll, excluding salaries of $1 million or higher. In addition, those that spend more than half of their production costs on Massachusetts payroll and expenses can receive a credit worth 25 percent of the total production expense in the state.

The credits have meant better margins for many companies. The state has issued more than $276 million in credits to 556 individual productions between 2006 and 2010, according to the Massachusetts Department of Revenue (DOR).

But as New England Studios prepares to open, a recent proposal by Gov. Deval Patrick to cap the state's film tax credit program at $40 million per year leaves Byers a bit nervous.

He calls the cap "way, way too low."

Pending figures that detail 2011 production spending in Massachusetts are expected to show a sharp rebound after a major dip in 2010, the DOR said in its 2010 report on the tax credits, the most recent figures available.

Though the DOR has not released its 2011 report, it projected more than a year ago that the state would see a return of large-budget feature films in 2011, more than quadrupling production spending from $58.3 million in 2010 to $222 million.

Byers noted that a 25-percent tax credit on that level of spending would already exceed the proposed $40-million cap.

If the cap is enacted, the state could always change it in the future. But the proposal comes at a time when the future of film production appears to be on a growth track in Massachusetts.

In addition to the Devens studio, a Hopkinton resident, Anton Nel, has approached Westborough officials about purchasing and transforming the Westborough State Hospital into a combination of a film studio and a high-end hotel, with shops and other amenities.

Read more

Briefing: Mass. Film Tax Credit

Patrick Outlines 'Growth Budget' Built Upon Tax Increases

Studio Plan Takes Center Stage In Westborough

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