By Hiroko Sato
DEVENS -- Todd Arnow is used to spending a lot of time in abandoned buildings.
As executive producer of Oliver Stone's 2012 crime thriller Savages, and unit production manager for The Perfect Storm, Arnow has seen construction crews build elaborate stage sets inside decrepit warehouses in Massachusetts and elsewhere in the country many times before. Once actors left, everything would come down and it would become an empty warehouse once again.
That's going to change, Arnow said, now that New England Studios has opened in Devens. The football stadium-sized movie studio offers everything that Hollywood does and more: cutting-edge noise-canceling walls and fiber-optic systems, 45-foot-high lighting grids, and other amenities to make films, documentaries and television shows, said Chris Byers, director of studio operations and marketing.
Its existence means production companies will be lining up to work in Massachusetts, Byers said.
The economic benefits are enormous, said Lisa Strout, director of the Massachusetts Film Office. Local businesses will provide sound equipment, catering, payroll services, limousine service and much more, she said. New jobs are bound to be created, added Strout.
"This is not a fly-by industry any more," Byers said. "It has a foothold now."
On Thursday, more than 100 film-industry movers and shakers, as well as business people, legislators and media, came together at the 15-acre complex to participate in a panel discussion and later tour the $60-million facility.
George Ramirez, executive vice president of Devens operations for MassDevelopment, served as the panel's moderator. Strout, Arnow, Byers and Steve Catalano, managing partner of Dolce Catering LLC of Devens, explained how the state's strategy to lure film companies with tax credits is transforming Massachusetts into a movie-making hub. Sixteen "major" productions -- six movies, 10 TV shows -- were made in the Bay State so far this year, said Strout. More companies are moving projects from other states, such as Pennsylvania and New York, to Massachusetts, Strout said.
The panelists agreed that N.E. Studios, which has four 18,000-square-foot sound stages, with furnished office spaces for film crews and actors, is going to be a game- changer for the state.
"It sets us on an equal footing" with other production hubs in Georgia, New Mexico, Canada and Europe competing for filming projects, said Arnow, who lives in Carlisle.
Arnow said a big movie production normally involves as many as 250 people working simultaneously, and their spending has trickle-down effects on the local economy.
Catalano recently launched a moving-catering business and is buying the former Hodges Theater site on Givry Street in Devens to build a commissary facility there to cater to N.E. Studios. He said he is a "living example" of businesses that are becoming part of the new economic ecosystem being built around movie projects.
As an example of the economic impact, Catalano said his company spent $80,000 on groceries and $20,000 on propane for feeding the 120-person filming crew for HBO's upcoming miniseries, Olive Kitteridge.
The panelists also praised the region's talent pool, including those at Fitchburg State University, which offers a bachelor's degree in science with a concentration on film and video.
Becki Dennis, a Bedford actress who founded Talent Tools, a marketing company for entertainment professionals, said the movie tax credit is helping to grow the state's acting community. Now that more production companies are aware of the talent available here, they will audition actors here instead of flying them in from Hollywood, she said.
State Sen. Jennifer Flanagan, D-Leominster, praised the work of industry professionals during the Thursday event. She called N.E. Studios and other regional resources as the "hidden jewel in Central Massachusetts." State Rep. Stephen Dinatale, D-Fitchburg, also thanked the panelists while urging them to make "noise" to help keep the state's movie tax credit, which he said is "under a lot of scrutiny right now." He said it's important to present some figures to prove the economic benefit of the tax credit.
Toshiko Iwasaki, CEO of Marbling Fine Arts New England Co. of Newton, which makes miniatures and visual-effect objects for films, said she hopes to bring Japanese production projects to Massachusetts to take advantage of the film tax credit. Given the high production costs in Japan, it makes sense to bring the production base here, she said.
Katie Valovcin, a freelance production assistant from Winthrop, said Massachusetts is known among producers as a place for picturesque landscapes, including coastlines. The availability of N.E. Studios will now seal the deal for them, Valovcin said.
"It's coming to the pivotal point where we can really prove that the commonwealth is benefiting" from the film industry, Valovcin said.