DEVENS -- Concrete trucks came and went at Lot 13 on Givry Street on Devens as construction continues on New England Studios. It's a project spearheaded by MJM Development.
After much planning, promotion and permitting, earth has been moved and the foundation is being laid for what's being billed as Massachusetts' first major production studio.
MJM's namesake and managing director, Michael J. Meyers, was joined by Chris Byers, the studio's operations and marketing director, as headliners for the Nashoba Valley Chamber of Commerce Breakfast Series, sponsored by Fidelity Bank. Every seat filled to hear the two talk about their vision for a 28-acre, world- class movie and television studio for hire.
Meyers said MJM closed on the land on June 22, broke ground on June 26, and began clearing trees June 27.
A swath of land -- 480 feet wide and 150 feet deep -- was cleared and graded. Forty workers are on-site daily, building frames for the massive poured footings for the $30 million "Phase 1," which includes four 18,000-square-foot sound stages, a 30,000-square-foot office building, and a 20,000-square-foot shop/mill area for the construction of sets.
Meyers projects 175 workers on site during peak periods. Phase 1 is to wrap next summer. The contractors are Hutter and Seppala.
Byers, born and raised in Lowell, said he moved to California to work in the film industry. On a trip back to Massachusetts to scout sites for a project, "I noticed how much filming was going on in the commonwealth. As my stay lengthened, I got into the guts of the film community."
A glaring omission was the lack of infrastructure in Massachusetts despite the "booming" business following the 2007 institution of the Massachusetts Film Tax Credit incentives.
Byers said he sensed that a South Boston studio project, touted at the time, didn't make sense. "It economically didn't seem feasible." The project failed to materialize.
"Why don't you build a stage?" Byers was asked by industry friends. That seed, and Byers' desire to return home to Massachusetts, fueled him through "footwork and due diligence." Byers networked with Lowell architect Jack Sullivan, who is signed onto the project today.
In scouting sites for a studio, Lowell seemed to fit the bill. Meyers came aboard the project. But while investigating a Lowell site, the team threw Byers a "curve ball," deciding they needed a larger lot to develop the facility they had in mind.
Byers, Meyers, Sullivan met with George Ramirez over coffee. Ramirez, a Lowell resident and former Lowell city councilor, is the executive vice president for Devens operations for MassDevelopment, the state agency charged with the buildout of the former Fort Devens Army base.
"It just became the perfect opportunity," said Byers. "A fit made in heaven."
"It was a lot of effort on everyone's part," said Byers. After work with MassDevelopment and the Devens Enterprise Commission on land-use issues, the project is proceeding. "That's the story, and we're very happy that we made the choice to come up here to Devens."
Where a production gets shot depends on pre-production choices by producers. Some projects are driven by the plot line. "If you have a western, you're not coming to Massachusetts. You're going to Santa Fe," said Byers.
Byers asserted "every production company I've talked to loves filming in Massachusetts." Many in the audience murmured "Why?"
"Have you ever been to California?" said Byers, answering the question with another question. "A lot of it is the people and the history that you're in the middle of while you're here. There's so much to shoot here, it's almost virgin territory. Massachusetts can double for so many areas."
Byers said he has letters of intent from two studios to reserve studio space. "That's somewhat unheard of. We're 10 months away from opening our doors. They usually come 6-12 weeks prior to shooting ... you're usually one of the last to make a deal."
While Georgia, New York, Louisiana and New Mexico have lots, a lingering issue for Massachusetts productions is the lack of movie-making infrastructure. Meyers said, "If successful as our business plan calls for and if demand warrants, we'd quickly start working on Phase 2," with four added sound stages in an abutting lot located closer to Jackson Road.
"That's sort of the big picture," said Meyers. In the future, a film school could locate on campus. The students would "feed the work base," said Byers. Byers projects 20-30 studio employees, with others arriving as needed for productions.
"We may see more pilots landing here, and that's what leads to a (television) series," said Byers. Byers said there are three pilots in pre-production in Massachusetts, with speculation that four others may "change direction" and head to the Bay State.
Like a movie trailer promising high thrills and adventures, Meyers told the Chamber audience that the studio will have a "tremendous impact on your businesses" and that the studio will be a "huge dynamo of economic activity."
The state attracted $58 million in tax in 2007 -- now more than $300 million to $400 million per year -- and more than $1.3 billion in since the tax credit was implemented. Whetting the crowd's appetite, Meyers said as the number of productions ramp up at New England Studios, the upshot "means more business for everybody in this room."
Byers said his team is trying to woo a special effects company to work off the lot. "That one thing is now driving the industry," said Byers. "It's becoming more evident every day that you shoot ... I'm not sure if you'll see 'MacGyver' explosions."
Someone suggested that the Fort Devens reserve training facility on South Post could fill that billing, eliciting a laugh from Byers.
Another audience member asked how they will be able to interface with production crews to fullfill their local business needs. Byers said the state managers will act as "a conduit to every one of you."
What happens if the state tax credit for movie and television productions evaporates, asked another audience member. In general terms and with many exceptions, movie studios can be reimbursed 25 percent of their costs for filming in Massachusetts.
"There's never been a tax credit that's just 'gone away,'" asserted Byers. "They're usually diminished over time." But the studio hopes to benefit from them -- as a magnet for producers -- to establish a local use and need for the Devens facility. "Studios are going to need what we have to offer whether we have a tax credit or not. Some have said -- with or without the credit -- we'd still use you."
There used to be 38 (television) channels. We have over 600 channels now," said Byers. "How do you think we'll fill these channels with content? I think there's enough work to go around everywhere."