By Hiroko Sato
DEVENS -- Mike Meyers hit a big green button on the control box attached to a soundstage's wall, and the 45-ton concrete slab began slowly sliding to the right.
Behind this massive "elephant door" -- which is big enough for anything large, even a tractor trailer, to go through -- is another 18,000-square-foot soundstage with the lighting grids ready to cast spotlights on Hollywood movie stars performing 45 feet below. Complete with all sorts of amenities, including a 40-gigabite fiber-optic system, the football-sized New England Studios is "like a spaceship," Meyers, director of real-estate development for the studios, boasted during a walk-through on Wednesday.
But what makes the $36 million studio truly special is its anticipated role as a catalyst for the growth of the regional movie industry, said Chris Byers, director of studio operations and marketing.
"I just cannot wait for (the New England Studios) to be the force in the Massachusetts filming industry," Byers said. "We are very excited about the potential opportunities that this brings."
After 15 months of construction, New England Studios on Hospital Road in Devens, opened for business this week. Slated as the region's first and only "Hollywood-class" movie studio, the three-story structure, with four 18,000-square-foot soundstages, sleek conference rooms and office space, as well as makeup rooms and other amenities, sits on a 15-acre campus atop a hill. Two annexes flanking the studios include the Light and Grip Department that carries everything lighting technicians would need, as well as spaces to sew costumes, and a commissary to feed film crews, among other amenities.
Creating such a facility that could serve as the anchor for the Bay State's filming industry has been a dream for Byers, a Lowell native who has worked in Hollywood for 28 years in various capacities ranging from doing stunts to movie production. The New England Studios project is a collaboration among Byers, Meyers, who grew up in Andover, and their friends who became investors for the undertaking.
Experts say movie productions are increasingly "decentralized" from Hollywood as studios go to places that make financial sense for filming.
Massachusetts' tax incentives have drawn many film projects to the state. But places where crews can hunker down, shoot and produce a feature-length movie are hard to come by.
With the certificate of occupancy only issued Monday, the complex has a few more details to touch up. Byers said the company is in "advanced conversations" with a few movie studios about the use of the facility and should have a good idea of who may be renting the spaces in about six weeks.
From the high-level noise-canceling studio walls to the lighting grid to the fiber-optic system, New England Studios is a first-class feature-film studio in every way, Byers and Meyers said. When setting up an office, production crews would often rent an empty space and furniture and install phone lines and Internet cables, Byers said.
"Here, you come in and you are ready," Byers said, looking over the spacious office space that come with a kitchen. "We are a one-stop shop."
Byers' and Meyers' goals include partnering with film-industry professionals who already work locally. The studios recently brought in lighting technicians from Hollywood to train their counterparts in Massachusetts on skills needed to work around the lighting grid. There are many professionals and talents in the Bay State, Byers said. But they lack a mechanism to publicize their existence to people outside the state. They must network more and use social media more to become more visible, Byers said.
"We are the missing link," Meyers said of the role that he hopes New England Studios will play in bringing such local professionals together.
The studios are also partnering with Catalano Companies, the Harvard-based company that runs some local Dunkin' Donuts shops and Dolce Wood Fired Italian Grille in Pepperell among other businesses, to act as caterers for hungry film crews that will rent the studios, Byers said.
In addition, Byers envisions working with local artists and high-school students to exhibit their work in the studio halls and coordinate art contests.
Keeping it all local to benefit the regional economy -- that's the studios' priority, Byers said.
In fact, Meyers said, it took 620 construction workers to build the studios and install 75 miles of Internet, electric and phone cables. And 110 of the 140 companies they used are local businesses.
The building also has many environmentally friendly features, including the use of recycled metals and other recycled building materials, energy-efficient HVAC and lighting systems and rain gardens designed to absorb runoff rainwater in the parking lot.
The complex has tall fences all around it for security and privacy. Both the studio building and the guard shack at the entrance of the complex feature the art-deco style designs and half-moon-shaped rooflines that mimic the look of a barrel vault. Meyers said these are iconic Hollywood designs represent what the studios stand for: Artistic traditions of the Hollywood combined with the 21st-century technologies.
"So, the doors are open. It's showtime!" Meyers said.
For more information about New England Studios or to discuss art-exhibit opportunities, contact the company at 978-455-6966.