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The Mass. film industry’s cheerleader

After a successful run in New Mexico, Lisa Strout has a new focus: bringing film and TV projects to Massachusetts

BILL GREENE/GLOBE STAFF

Lisa Strout says her job as the state’s new film commissioner is to be “a cheerleader, not a used car salesman” in touting Massachusetts to filmmakers.

The list of movies and television projects on the dry erase board in Lisa Strout’s office would make any local pop culture fan giddy.

It’s a secret list with a few familiar titles, some of which could draw big stars. It’s a list that Strout — who became the state’s film commissioner in June — is committed to growing.

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The titles represent the movies and television shows that might film in Massachusetts. Her job is to get them here — and then to make sure production goes smoothly. She was in Los Angeles in November selling studio executives on the perks of filming in the Bay State.

“You do need a cheerleader, not a used car salesman,’’ said Strout, 56, joking about her persuasion techniques.

Strout assured her LA industry connections that the advantages of working in Massachusetts go beyond the tax credits that the state offers filmmakers. She told them that the state is also diversely beautiful and equipped to accommodate any project, whether it’s a big-budget action movie like “R.I.P.D.,’’ the Ryan Reynolds project that’s been filming around the city for the past few months, or a television drama that makes use of the shoreline and winding roads.

“We want to make a special effort to get television here,’’ Strout said. “We talked about the different kinds of story lines that fit in Massachusetts. It’s a romantic place. It has authenticity.’’

Strout was chosen to helm the Massachusetts Film Office in May. She took over for Nick Paleologos, who was removed from his post after Governor Deval Patrick reorganized what had been a quasi-public agency so that it fell under the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism. (Paleologos subsequently filed suit against the state, claiming that the officials who removed him did not have the right to do so. His case is still active in Suffolk Superior Court.)

To draw movie production to Massachusetts, the state offers filmmakers tax credits that reimburse them up to 25 percent of their local production expenses. Proponents of the credits argue that they create jobs, boost tourism, and help the local economy. Critics say the jobs are temporary and few, and that the tax credits are too costly. The state Department of Revenue recently estimated that the tax credits cost more than $142,000 per job created.

Strout — who is from Lexington, graduated from Berklee College of Music, and got her start working in commercials — had been running the film office in a similarly minded film-friendly state, New Mexico, for seven years until the end of 2010. Before that, she worked as a location manager and scout in New York, Los Angeles, and Boston, and managed the New York offices of literary film company Merchant Ivory, working on movies such as “A Room With a View.’’

During Strout’s tenure in New Mexico, the state hosted more than 150 projects, including popular titles such as “Cowboys and Aliens,’’ “No Country for Old Men,’’ and “The Avengers,’’ which will be released next year, and the TV series “Breaking Bad.’’

John Dukakis, a senior vice president at the advertising agency Hill Holliday, who spent years in the entertainment industry in Los Angeles and now serves on an advisory committee that helped with the film commissioner search, said that list of titles was one reason the state hired Strout. He said the group was impressed that Strout was able to lure so many projects to New Mexico despite that state’s proximity to Hollywood.

“She did a terrific job there, and she’s doing a terrific job here,’’ Dukakis said, adding that the committee was also pleased that Strout had local roots. “She wanted to come back to Boston. She’s someone who had a connection here and she loved it here.’’

Although Massachusetts has managed to host many movies since the tax credit took effect in 2005 — including “Knight & Day,’’ “The Social Network,’’ “Grown Ups,’’ “The Town,’’ “Gone Baby Gone,’’ and the yet-to-be-released Mark Wahlberg movie “Ted’’ — Strout said she believes there’s room for growth. Strout explained that she’s focused on bringing a TV show to town because it would create year-round work and tourism.

She acknowledges that producers shy away from year-round filming in New England because of the winters, but she tells them that snow and bare trees add authenticity, and that Massachusetts has enough indoor space to accommodate projects that need to be safe from the elements.

That’s another one of Strout’s goals: making sure the film industry knows the details about what the state offers. Since she started the job, she’s been hosting seminars for officials from cities and towns to recruit them to help her make a database of scenery all over the state. Strout wants producers to be able to go online and type something like “barn’’ or “warehouse’’ and then see all of the barns and warehouses that are available for a production.

At a recent packed seminar for municipalities in the state transportation building at Park Plaza, Strout talked to town leaders about how filming affects communities. She was honest about the negatives — that municipalities hosting movies have had traffic issues and the occasional photographer hopping over fences to get good shots of an actor — but she countered the drawbacks with statistics about how movies and television shows affect tourism. One of the sites where “Alice in Wonderland’’ was filmed in the United Kingdom, and the many spots where “Twilight’’ was filmed in Vancouver, British Columbia, have documented an increase in tourists, sometimes by the thousands, since the movies were released.

“Every teen wanted to go to the place where that handsome vampire was,’’ Strout told the officials, showing them graphs of the spike in visitors at these sites since the films were released. The numbers got some “oohs’’ and “ahhs’’ from the group.

Strout has also reached out to unions. Teamsters Local 25 president Sean O’Brien, whose union represents 11,000 members, about 2.5 percent of whom have jobs related to the film industry, said he appreciated that Strout approached him even before she got the job. O’Brien said Strout spoke of maintaining the workforce and bringing more projects to his members.

“I’ve never seen anybody more committed to building the infrastructure in Massachusetts,’’ she said. “She sees the whole picture.’’

J. Todd Harris, a co-producer of the lacrosse movie “Crooked Arrows,’’ which filmed north of Boston this summer and fall, said that a film commissioner’s understanding of unions and local film companies can determine where a project is shot. He and his fellow filmmakers had trouble deciding whether to make “Crooked Arrows,’’ which stars former “Superman’’ Brandon Routh, in upstate New York or Massachusetts.

Buffalo “rolled out the red carpet,’’ Harris said, but Massachusetts was ready and organized. “I need grips, gaffers, electricians, truck drivers. I need guild film technicians.’’

Strout said she is remaining focused on all of those details to get as many projects on that dry erase board list to Massachusetts as possible.

“The interesting thing is that so many people went to school here,’’ Strout said of the LA film folks she met with in November. “There was this inherent heartstring attached to Massachusetts.’’

Meredith Goldstein can be reached at mgoldstein@globe.com.
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