It Ain’t Always Sunny in Boston: Films Lie About City

Get Thee to a Nunnelly

Everyday, regardless of Boston’s variable weather, thousands of graying tourists stumble through the gates of Harvard, flattening students, taking pictures of every irrelevant detail possible, and saying things like “Wow, this is just like a movie set.” Recently though, this has become a literal reality as large film productions roll into Boston and Cambridge. Ben Affleck has graced the grimy pit of the Harvard T station, John Hamm has been spotted outside burrito joints, and Katie Holmes has been mobbed while eating cupcakes with her daughter Suri. Perhaps it’s just my Boston-is-always-cold-and-dark pre-winter bias kicking in, but I find myself slightly skeptical about Boston’s increased exposure.

Traditionally when people think of Boston films, a few are quick to come to mind: “Love Story,” “Goodwill Hunting,” and more recently “The Departed.” In each of these movies, there is a clear reason why Boston is crucial to the plot—Harvard, MIT, police brutality. But consider these movies: “Bride Wars,” “Paul Bart: Mall Cop,” and“Pink Panther 2.” Believe it or not, each of these movies (and many other box office bombs like them) were also recently filmed in the greater Boston area. But why?

For the most part, the answer is sample—tax breaks! Up until about five years ago, there was no major financial incentive to bring studio movies to Massachusetts. That was until then-Governor Mitt Romney signed in a series of laws that gave significant tax breaks to large film productions.

A section on the policy found on the Massachusetts Film Office website reads: “Studios, producers and filmmakers–who either shoot at least half of their movie or spend at least half of their production budget in the Commonwealth–are eligible for a tax credit equal to 25 cents for every new dollar of spending they bring to Massachusetts.”

The idea behind this 25% break is to reel in film production and, in doing so,, stimulate the Massachusetts economy. The MFO claims that, in 2008 alone, the tax breaks led to $452 million in “direct spending,” and they have a star-studded picture on their homepage bearing the header, “Meet Massachusetts Newest Taxpayers.” They also add elsewhere on the site that Massachusetts’ movies have received a total of 60 Academy Award nominations.

The reasoning behind this plan is nothing new. Many states have similar breaks, and some, like Michigan’s, are actually higher. States want to stimulate the economy in their bigger cities while advertising to tourists and making their urban centers seem “cool.” But Boston is “cool” in no senses of the word; it’s cold most of the year, and it can be, at times, a fairly miserable place to live.

As movies like “Fever Pitch” would make you believe, Boston is the most cohesive, fun-loving, patriotic, American, and classy place on earth. They do have the Red Sox after all. In reality, Boston is one of the most intensely segregated cities in America, both racially and socio-economically, it has one of the harshest and longest winters of mainstream American cities, and its inhabitants are less friendly than New Yorkers and Philadelphians combined. National “road rage” surveys consistently rank Boston as one of the worst cities in the country. Enough said.

I appreciate movies adapted from Dennis Lehane’s novels, like “Mystic River” and “Gone Baby Gone,” for portraying Boston in all of its honest dreariness and stratification. But with big tax breaks and even bigger budgets on the line, it’s in Hollywood’s interest to airbrush away Boston’s flaws. If you consider though that right now, there is a Tom Cruise movie, two Ben Affleck movies, an Adam Sandler film, and a movie about Facebook starring Justin Timberlake all being filmed in Boston at the same time, it’s not hard to imagine how good Hollywood is going to try and make Boston look.

When we think of movies set in cities like New York, Paris, and Los Angeles, we can often see the city itself become a character in all of its greatness and eccentricities. A city like Boston, though, lacks the kind of cosmopolitan personality that factors so greatly into movies-set-in-cities. Perhaps greater exposure will help open up the city to beneficial change?

In terms of insincerity, the Massachusetts government has met Hollywood halfway. In an effort to drum up business, Massachusetts has sold itself to products it has no control over and, for better or for worse, could suffer from false advertising. At the same time, Hollywood seems to be selling out to a city that hasn’t yet earned the special treatment.

What’s more is that a recent Massachusetts Department of Revenue report stated that the tax break program is not nearly as economically simulative as once thought. In what looks to be quite unfair to Massachusetts taxpayers, the government is only receiving about 16 cents on the dollar for their investment in Hollywood. According to the report, over 80 percent of tax breaks on actor and crew salaries are paid to out-of-state workers.

In essence, the increased filming in Boston is a losing situation for all involved parties. Massachusetts isn’t getting the kind of revenue it wants, residents are forced to accommodate massive film crews, Hollywood is choosing economy over aesthetics, and audiences are courted by a city that might not really be interested. Lose-lose-lose-lose situation.

Death from brain tumors, death from gangs and police brutality, and the Red Sox winning the World Series—these are all typical endings to movies set in Boston. If they’re going to keep making movies here, at least they can start making them have happy endings.

—Staff writer Andrew F. Nunnelly can be reached at nunnelly@fas.harvard.edu.

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