Argument: New England neighborhoods attract movies because they have character and don’t have McMansions

A columnist in Swampscott, Massachusetts argues New England neighborhoods have a sense of place, don’t have many McMansions, and therefore attract filmmakers:

If you’ve ever traveled outside New England, you begin to notice that most of the rest of the country looks a lot alike. Rapid development on a budget lends itself to a landscape of boxy stores in strip malls and cookie cutter homes. Some of these cookie cutter homes are “McMansions,” and very nice to live in, but even so their exteriors are unmemorable, duplicated a million times over.

New England—Swampscott—looks different.  Neighborhoods have personalities. The roads curve in unpredictable ways.  Houses don’t all look alike. I happen to like the intricate purple paint on a certain home on Paradise Road, but we all have our favorites…

Yet there is true value in this difference.  Part of the reason that Massachusetts has attracted so many movies is because of our location—place matters.  Grown-Ups 2 is here because Swampscott looks like a typical New England town, and New England is a good brand, a marketable brand.

And crucial to the New England brand is a community’s willingness to embrace its historic past, to pay attention to its older buildings, and to, in short, care about the way something looks. A quick drive through the Olmstead District will remind all of us how lucky we are that the Mudges had the foresight to hire someone so talented to lay it out, that the town pays to upkeep the greens, and that the homeowners in the area now take such pride in their property.

New England does indeed have its own style and character though plenty of other places in the United States have historic preservation districts that are intended to save older buildings.

There is an interesting implication here that McMansions developed in places with less character. This would be intriguing to track: did the term first arise in Sunbelt locations or in more historic communities that felt threatened by new, big, mass produced homes?

I also wonder how many movies actually do film in New England compared to other locations. According to the Massachusetts Film Office, five films are in production or have recently finished filming. Like many other places, Massachusetts offers incentives for filmmakers:

Massachusetts provides filmmakers with a highly competitive package of tax incentives: a 25% production credit, a 25% payroll credit, and a sales tax exemption.

Any project that spends more than $50,000 in Massachusetts qualifies for the payroll credit and sales tax exemption. Spending more than 50% of total budget or filming at least 50% of the principal photography days in Massachusetts makes the project eligible for the production credit.

The results of incentives for movie production

Michigan Avenue has been a battleground for several recent weekends as Transformers 3 filmed scenes. According to the Chicago Tribune, the producers were partly drawn by the financial incentives offered by the state of Illinois. Though the film will spend more than $20 million in six weeks in the local economy, the state will offer at least a $6 million tax credit.

Illinois is not the only state playing this game:

Illinois is among 45 jobs-hungry states tripping over each other to financially woo movies and television shows. About half, including Illinois, offer tax credits, which cut producers’ costs by tens of millions of dollars at the expense of state budgets.

The pool of rivals has doubled in the past four years, and the lures, for the most part, are getting fancier, with only a handful of states pulling back, either due to recessionary pressures or local scandals. A just-released study by the Milken Institute indicates that aggressive plays, by states as well as overseas locales, are cutting into California’s historical grip on the business.

The rest of the article contains arguments for and against such aggressive tax credits. Regardless, it seems that the tax credit game may become a race to the bottom where states eventually find there is little economic benefit to having filming in their backyard.

Even if the filming doesn’t bring in many jobs (as opposed to short-term work) or other lasting benefits, filming can certainly draw attention. The filming of Transformers 3 has attracted a lot of local media attention, perhaps raising the profile of Chicago and Michigan Avenue for viewers.