Massachusetts is full of anti-Semitic children, creeps, ugly women, and uninhibited prostitutes.
Or at least, that’s what the Commonwealth gave Seth MacFarlane $9 million to tell the world in his new hit movie, “Ted,” a comedy about a foul-mouthed teddy bear that was set in the South End and filmed at locations across the state.
Six years into the state’s film tax credit program, the Commonwealth has spent more than $300 million subsidizing dozens of films — many of which have returned the favor by portraying Massachusetts as a haven of meatheads, criminals, Ben Affleck, and worse. Presumably, viewers know it’s all fiction — nobody here really talks like Mel Gibson in “Edge of Darkness.” Still, if one of the credit’s purposes is to burnish the state’s image, the release of “Ted” is a good opportunity to ask whether the public is really getting its money’s worth.
You can enjoy MacFarlane’s raunchy style of comedy, laugh at the jokes about Quincy and Swampscott, and get a thrill from recognizing local landmarks like Fenway Park and the Zakim Bridge — and still conclude that the $9 million in state funds would have been better spent elsewhere. It’s hard to imagine a family watching the movie and deciding to vacation in Boston, or a business choosing to relocate here because they were impressed by the movie’s depiction of, say, the city’s produce options.
“Ted” accounted for roughly a quarter of the $37.9 million in film credits issued in 2011. A Department of Revenue study last year showed that, as an economic development program, the credits have been a dud, costing $142,000 for every Massachusetts job created. But there’s also a fuzzier argument: Boosters assert, almost as an article of faith, that simply showcasing the Commonwealth in movies like “Grown Ups,” “Paul Blart: Mall Cop,” and “Grown Ups 2” has got to be worth something.
In fact, it’s possible to put a rough price on the value of movie appearances: in Hollywood, that’s called product placement. Carmakers and electronics companies routinely reach deals with filmmakers to feature their products.
But according to Jay Newell, a professor at Iowa State University’s journalism school who studies product placement, those deals are often surprisingly small. Advertisers are so skeptical of their value that it’s frequently a barter arrangement, with no cash changing hands (“here’s some old Elantras to destroy in that chase scene, but don’t expect to be paid”). Advertisers can never predict whether a film will succeed, and also have to contend with the possibility of “negative product placement” — that is, appearing in a movie in a way that ends up damaging their brand.
That can happen to places, too: For every Iowa cornfield that strikes gold after appearing in “Field of Dreams,” there’s a Detroit, which probably could have lived without “Robocop” cementing its image of urban decay.
Given the uncertainty about the value of appearing in movies, private-sector companies that do enter into placement deals are often picky, sifting through stacks of scripts to find just the right one. Not Massachusetts; the state’s film credit is available to any production that films in the state. If it were more selective, would the state have picked “Ted,” a movie whose most enduring message about Massachusetts may be the teddy bear’s imitation of a Boston woman in the throes of passion?
“Ted” has been a box-office success, but Quincy residents can’t be happy. Nor can anyone named Heather, Channing, or Brianna. Then again, if the state continues plowing money into unflattering movies, even while struggling to pay for higher education, roads, and transit, it’ll be a more damning commentary on Massachusetts than anything in “Ted.”