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Updated: April 15, 2024

HollyWoo production, halted: The industry built around Central Mass. moviemaking reached new heights in the early 2020s, before 2023 pressed pause

A man speaks to the camera while standing over a scrapbook, as another man looks on from behind Photo | Edd Cote Westerman General Manager Dan Diaz (right) examines a binder of photos from the various productions that the company has been a part of.
A man points at something above him as he stands among a large amount of office chairs and other furniture Photo | Edd Cote Alex Mader, an employee at the Westerman Props warehouse in Worcester and a SAG and IATSE union member who works on films, stands among the many pieces of set dressing stored in Westerman's warehouse. The business has expanded to the point where they now ship set dressings and props to productions across the East Coast.
A man hold two pies Photo | Edd Cote Alex Mader, an employee at the Westerman Props warehouse in Worcester, holds two fake pies, just one example of some of the bizarre props and set dressing one might see at Westerman's Props.
A woman stands among a large group of upside-down chairs Photo | Edd Cote Saoirse McGinn, an employee at Westerman's, stands among a large group of chairs that are used as set dressing.
A man points at two very large candy canes Photo | Edd Cote Westerman employee Alex Mader shows off two giant candy canes used in film productions. Recent Christmas-themed movies filmed in Worcester include the 2022 musical comedy "Spirited" starring Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds and the 2020 romantic movie "Christmas on Ice", which was produced by the Lifetime Network.
A large amount of signatures on the door of a freight elevator. Photo | Edd Cote Westerman's Prop Warehouse isn't open to unsolicited visitors, but those who are able to visit the building on official business are offered the chance to sign a door to the building's freight elevator.
A man straightens a painting Photo | Edd Cote Westerman Props employee Alex Mader examines a painting in the company's expansive prop warehouse in Worcester.

Worcester residents are no strangers to the occasional peculiar site when out and about.

But since 2018, the city has seen two men being thrown through a third-story window of a hotel, a woman on a motorbike perched on top of a police van speeding through downtown, and a crowd at Mechanics Hall suddenly breaking into song and dance.

Thankfully, this bizarre behavior has an explanation: These activities were the respective results of the films “Honest Thief”, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”, and “Spirited” being shot in the area, a few of the dozens of productions filmed in Central Massachusetts since 2006, when the state created a tax law favorable to moviemaking.

Once a production desert, Central Massachusetts has seen a large increase in Hollywood-related activity in the past 15 years, helping foster the creation of a cottage industry providing props, labor, and locations for moviemaking.

But that came before the 2023 actors’ and writers’ strikes essentially shut down Hollywood productions all over the world, including in Central Massachusetts. In the two years before the strikes, 16 movies were shot in Worcester, but last year only saw one.

“The strikes are now over, and I think we all felt that it was going to come back with twice the force. That has not been the case,” said Edgar Luna, the City of Worcester’s business development manager. “It’s not just Massachusetts; it’s happening everywhere. I hope we will continue to move forward.”

Yet, another potential Hollywood strike looms on the horizon.

Lights, camera … action?

Luna, the City’s point person for production, has witnessed a bit of a rollercoaster ride since 2020. The COVID pandemic shut down Hollywood for months, but productions resumed with a bang, desperate to produce content for the millions of American who were suddenly spending more time at home and wanting to be entertained.

Image | Courtesy of Edgar Luna
Edgar Luna, Worcester business development manager, on the red carpet for the 2023 Location Managers Guild Awards in Santa Monica, California. The Worcester Film Commission was nominated for "Outstanding Film Commission" for its work in support of the production of "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever".

Then, the strikes came.

The Writers Guild of America headed to the picket line in May 2023, with actors in SAG-AFTRA joining them in July, the first time in 63 years both unions were striking simultaneously. The situation wouldn’t resolve until November, creating a loss of $5 billion across the country, according to Camoin Associates, a New York economic development consulting firm.

With the strikes looking more and more unavoidable, studios began pulling back on production even before actors and writers headed to the picket line. The beginning of 2022 saw record levels of production volume around the world, according to a January 2024 study released by ProdPro Analytics, a New York-based firm analyzing the film and TV space, but the first quarter of 2023 in the run-up to the strike saw the amount of committed production dollars decline 13% from the prior year.

This disruption happened just as Worcester was seeing more movie action than ever before, as 11 major productions filmed in Worcester during 2021, as many as the previous 10 years combined, according to data from a 2023 Worcester Film Commission Report. That number would drop to five in 2022 and just one production in 2023.

“The strike brought everything to a halt,” said Luna. “There was nothing we could do.”

ProdPro nationwide stats show 27% of crew members had to find alternative work during the strike, and 54% of vendors serving the industry conducted layoffs or furloughs.

Two deep to seven deep

Before COVID and the strikes, Massachusetts saw a large increase in available crew members.

“When we first got involved [in 2012], the understanding in the industry was Massachusetts was what they call two deep in crew, which is shorthand that the state was capable of doing two major film projects at the same time,” said Gary Crossen, general manager of New England Studios, a Devens-based production soundstage. “Now they generally view Massachusetts as seven deep, because the number of people in the industry has increased exponentially.”

Nearly 100 major films and television shows have shot scenes in Central Massachusetts since 2006, according to the Massachusetts Film Office’s website.

“I understand [filmmaker’s] interest in going to the Central Mass. and the Worcester area because you have definitely built an infrastructure,” said Meg Montagnino-Jarret, director of the Massachusetts Film Office, the state agency promoting the state to the industry.

That infrastructure includes companies like Sir Loin Catering in Northborough or Above The Line Production Rentals, a business founded in 2012 providing transportation services and truck rentals on almost every shoot in the area.

“Mass. has always been great for films, but with the tax incentive in place, that was a driver of more long-term attention to the area,” said Lizzie Fullerton, production manager at Above The Line, which has locations in North Reading and Tyngsborough.

First introduced in 2006, legislators made the state’s Film Incentive Tax Credit permanent in 2021, cementing a system where any production spending more than $50,000 in the state is eligible for a 25% production credit, a 25% payroll credit, and a sales tax exemption.

Worcester and Wakanda

Beyond tax credits, Central Massachusetts’ variety of settings, seasons, and landscapes make it an attractive place to film.

Worcester has played the role of bigger cities like Boston and New York. More rural places in the region have been used to recreate faraway lands; “The Sea of Trees,” a 2015 Matthew McConaughey drama set in the forests of Japan, utilized a site near Purgatory Chasm in Sutton.

A chart showing the number of film productions in Worcester since 1984
The amount of film and television productions filming in Worcester skyrocketed in 2021, but has since leveled off due to disruptions caused by strikes in the industry.

“Worcester is so attractive, so many great films have been shot here, like ‘American Hustle’. I read that [director] David O. Russell called Worcester ‘a gold mine.’ Worcester can pass for anything.” said Caitlin McCarthy, a Worcester Technical High School teacher and screenwriter who has two feature screenplays set to be shot in Worcester and a planned TV series partially set in the city.

Elsewhere in Central Massachusetts, amidst the sea of biotech and manufacturing firms in Devens sits New England Studios.

Opened in 2013, this facility is the first purpose-built sound stage in New England.

The secure compound in a former military features a flexible 72,000-square-foot production space, larger than the famously massive 007 Stage at Pinewood Studios in the United Kingdom, which comes in at 59,000 square feet. All this space gives creators plenty of room to turn their visions into reality.

The studio has eight staff members, but the number of people in the building can swell to 300 when a project is being filmed there, said Crossen, the studio’s general manager.

New England Studios has been used for the production of commercials and even as a rehearsal space for musical acts who are preparing for shows in the area, throwing the business a lifeline during the slowdown since the strikes.

“Right now, things are relatively quiet other than some off-beat uses such as commercials and some other things,” said Crossen.

Despite the uncertainty of the last few years, Crossen is confident production levels will rebound to pre-strike levels in the near future.

“Massachusetts now has a very solid infrastructure picture and a very solid picture from the standpoint of available talent,” he said. “We’ll get back up to where we were prior to the strikes of last year. Massachusetts is only more capable now than it was a few years ago of doing multiple projects and doing them well.”

The wonders of Westerman

The boom of film and television productions in the area has created the need for a local source for the set dressings and props needed to create realistic settings for scenes.

Enter Westerman Props’ warehouse.

This Worcester-based business prefers not to publicize its exact location, as its massive collection of items tends to draw unwanted curious film buffs. When you step inside the massive warehouse, it’s hard to blame movie fans for wanting to grab a sneak peek of this awe-inspiring space. Rows of items ranging from standard office furniture to props like fake pies and cash stretch as far as the eye can see.

Westerman got its start as a restaurant supply company in 1959, something still making up a sizable chunk of its business. It was actually the company’s experience with restaurant equipment, which led to its first interactions with Hollywood bigwigs.

When filming “Shutter Island” around 2008, director Martin Scorsese and crew were in need of equipment to help facilitate a scene taking place in a kitchen. The filmmakers were eventually connected with Westerman General Manager Dan Diaz, who with the help of other employees he always remembers to credit, helped craft a 1950s era set.

“I remember when I was in high school, [Dan] was like ‘I’m going to build a prop room back here’ and I thought that was ridiculous,” said Nico Diaz, Dan’s son who has since started a career in set design. “Lo and behold, it’s three floors now. So I was wrong about that one.”

The moviemaking industry benefits the local economy in unseen ways, Dan Diaz said.

“For people who don’t see [productions] when they come into town, they spend a ton of money renting local places, going to eat locally,” Dan Diaz said. “The money they spend here is unbelievable. We’re always trying to use the local businesses in the area to make sure the films get what they want.”

Westerman’s restaurant supply services proved to be an oasis for film workers in the strike, offering the chance to find temporary work without committing to more long-term prospects resulting in crewmembers leaving the industry for good.

“Hopefully negotiations go well, and we don’t have more strikes,” said Alex Mader, an employee at the Westerman Props warehouse in Worcester and a SAG and IATSE union member who works on films.

“A lot of us have been doing other things. One of the guys who was here helping us works at a game store Thursday through Sunday, just to get some gas money. A lot of us are kind of struggling.”

Lingering slowdown

While the 2023 strikes are settled, the Teamsters and IATSE, two unions composed of crewmembers, are in negotiations for new contracts, which could lead to more work stoppages.

“It feels like a lot of production companies are holding off until the IATSE deal is done,” Mader said.

A couple of local IATSE branches have reached tentative agreements in negotiations with studios, Mader said. Beyond the usual sticking point of wages, crew members are looking to implement more rules to guarantee rest periods in an industry where 12+ hour days can be a norm.

In addition to disruptions caused by worker unrest, the dynamics of the streaming wars are changing, as investors are insisting the companies behind services like Hulu, Peacock, and Paramount+ focus less on subscriber growth and more on profitability, leading to fewer projects getting greenlit, according to ProdPro.

Once issues with union contracts are resolved, local industry insiders are hopeful productions will return to Central Massachusetts with the same veracity.

“When the Teamsters and IATSE contracts are squared away, we’re going to be having a different conversation,” said Montagnino-Jarrett.

A pie chart of poll results regarding the topic of moviemaking's impact on the Central Mass. economy
Most Central Massachusetts businesses who responded to WBJ's poll haven't personally benefited from the existence of film and movie production in the region. Still, 62% feel that moviemaking is good for the area's economy.

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