Maine’s Movie Marquee

Posted March 05, 2009, at 6:22 p.m.

The American film industry came of age during the dark days of the 1930s. People were out of work and struggling to put food on the table, but often were able to scrape up a nickel or two, go to the local movie theater and escape into the glamorous world onscreen.

The film industry is not what it once was, with competition from cable TV and Internet-based entertainment. Still, most mainline studio films have budgets of at least $100 million. That means if productions are using nonstudio locations, they’re dropping a lot of cash in places other than Hollywood.

Maine could catch more of that money, observers say, if the state invested more in the Maine Film Office and Maine Film Commission and offered production companies tax breaks for using the Pine Tree State for location shooting. The HBO production of Richard Russo’s “Empire Falls” spent an estimated $13.6 million in the Skowhegan and Waterville area in 2003. But no major film has used Maine as a location since then.

Two film entrepreneurs, director Mick Garris and producer Mark Sennet, are considering shooting a film adaptation of Stephen King’s “Bag of Bones” in Maine. The state has tax incentives for film projects, including a 12 percent tax credit on wages paid to Maine residents, but not on the same scale as other states.

The men are hoping Maine will make their choice easier by offering more financial incentives. Loan guarantees are among the assistance they seek.

Cameron Bonsey, a Maine film advocate, notes in a recent blog post that in 2006 the state created new incentives for filming in the state, but that they “proved to be too small to make a difference and have had no impact in bringing additional productions to Maine.”

Mr. Bonsey also reported that Maine-based film unions have been “kept very busy for the last two years working in Massachusetts.”

Tax breaks should be handed out judiciously, but the film industry seems like a worthy recipient of more than it is getting now. Productions fill hotel rooms, hire carpenters, electricians and painters, use caterers, rent cars and hire extras to appear on film.

David Farmer, Gov. Baldacci’s spokesman, said the request provides an opportunity for the state to consider changing its stance on film production incentives. Rather than the hypothetical, the “Bag of Bones” production presents real examples of what is needed and what can be offered, he said.

In addition to spending, films also boost community quality of life. When “In The Bedroom,” “Man Without A Face” and “Thinner” were filmed for several months each in the Camden and Belfast areas, the movie people created a buzz around the towns that was just plain fun to be around.

And the films often function like advertisements for the Maine tourism industry.

Bigger incentives for a specialized business carry some risk, but in the case of the film industry, they can bring a flurry of spending activity in a short period, with an equally short demand on services. It may be time to rewrite Maine’s movie marquee.

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