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Ryan Reynolds’ ‘Free Guy’ got $20.1m from Mass. taxpayers, part of nearly $100m of film tax subsidies in 2019, the most in a decade

Ryan Reynolds, in a scene from "Free Guy."Alan Markfield/20th Century Studios via AP/File

After surviving repeated attempts to curb it, the state’s film tax credit program appears poised to grow bigger than ever, issuing nearly $100 million in subsidies in one year and helping strengthen the state’s foothold in the film and television industry.

Newly revised data from the state show that in 2019, the state issued $97.2 million in tax credits to 180 film and television projects, both the highest amounts recorded since the state began releasing so-called tax credit transparency reports a decade ago.

That includes giving a $20.1 million in taxpayer-funded subsidies to “Free Guy,” a 2021 Ryan Reynolds-led action comedy about a bank teller who discovers he’s actually a character in an online game. The credit, which hadn’t been previously reported by the state, was the fifth-highest amount given to any film in Massachusetts to date, according to revised data the state Department of Revenue released last week.

Mark Wahlberg (right) and Winston Duke in a scene from "Spenser Confidential," which received state tax credits.Daniel McFadden/Associated Press

There are often pending film tax credit applications when the state releases its annual transparency report, meaning the totals for each year — such as those for 2019, which the state previously reported at $77 million — often change. On Thursday, the state also released data showing it issued another $47.5 million in film tax credits in 2020, though that number could also grow.


Most of the credits issued so far from 2020 went to two projects: The Mark Wahlberg-led film “Spenser Confidential,” which received $17.2 million, and the second season of “Castle Rock,” the Hulu series based on the stories of Stephen King, which got nearly $16.1 million. The drama “CODA,” which was filmed in Gloucester, among other communities, and won Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards, received $2.2 million.

Emilia Jones stars in "CODA," which was filmed on Massachusetts' North Shore.Courtesy of Apple

The new data come less than a year after the Legislature voted to reshape the film tax credit program, including to make it permanent. The decision, advocates say, injected stability into the growing industry within Massachusetts and made the state — already among those spending the most on film tax credits nationwide — a more attractive destination for films and scripted series.


The Massachusetts Film Office identified at least 33 projects that were filmed in Massachusetts in 2021, including the sequel to 2018′s “Black Panther” and an adaptation of “Salem’s Lot.” That’s compared to 17 in pandemic-hampered 2020, and 28 the previous year, according to data the office maintains on its website.

“We’ve suddenly hit the accelerator on projects coming to Massachusetts,” said Ryan Cook, a location manager, who said he and his wife often discussed possibly moving before purchasing their first home here last year. “We would not have done that if it wasn’t for the tax incentive becoming permanent. . . . We’re going to see more work coming in. Frankly, I’m having a hard time finding staff to fill the positions.”

The decision to extend the program in perpetuity wasn’t without controversy. Governor Charlie Baker, who repeatedly sought to kill or scale back the credit, has argued it is an inefficient use of taxpayer money. A state commission agreed in 2021, finding that the film tax credit program costs the state $100,000 per job created and concluding it was “not the best use of the state’s money.”


Since 2011, the Massachusetts has issued $618.7 million in subsidies through the program to more than 1,300 projects, including films, commercials, and television shows, according to a Globe analysis of state data.

But supporters claim the program has spurred the creation of hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs for local tradespeople while supporting businesses in ways not captured in state data. The program also has had an ardent supporter in House Speaker Ronald Mariano, a Quincy Democrat who watched a studio spring up in his own city, one of a growing number of soundstages that have been, or are being, built in the state.

“The economic benefits that this program brings to Massachusetts are immense, creating local jobs, additional economic opportunities, and award-winning films right here in the Commonwealth,” Mariano said in a statement Friday.

House Speaker Ron Mariano's district includes a studio in Quincy.Sam Doran/Pool

While the new state data include some credits issued in 2020, it appears to largely cover films and series that were filmed before the onset of the pandemic. Other projects that received taxpayer money include the film “I Care A Lot,” for which actor Rosamund Pike won a Golden Globe and that got more than $2.4 million in tax credits, and the TV series “The Wrong Mans,” which received $1.3 million but whose pilot wasn’t picked up by Showtime.

The tax credit to “Castle Rock” in 2020 is the highest incentive issued to a scripted series, topping the previous record of $13.8 million — which went to the same series for its first season. The show was the first episodic series to be filmed in Massachusetts in nearly three decades when production began in 2017 at New England Studios in Devens.


Gary Crossen, the studio’s general manager, said he and others have since considered adding to the compound of four soundstages but have yet to make any decision.

“We can’t be any busier than we are,” Crossen said. “You can see industry-wide in this state, there are more features and more streaming series being shot here. I would expect some modest increases [in tax credits issued] in the upcoming years.”

Launched in 2006, the state’s film tax program includes a 25 percent payroll credit for any project that spends more than $50,000 within Massachusetts. Under other changes that legislators passed last year, productions that spend more than 75 percent of their total budget in Massachusetts, or film more than 75 percent of the time in the state, are also eligible for a production credit and a sales tax exemption. The state previously had set a threshold of 50 percent.

There’s no annual cap on the credit, and it’s transferable, allowing a production company to sell it to insurance companies, corporations, or even individuals.

From left, Leslie Jones, Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, and Kate McKinnon appeared in a scene from the film, "Ghostbusters."Hopper Stone

The 2016 version of “Ghostbusters,” which received $26.7 million in film tax credits, owns the record for the largest subsidy issued through the program while another Reynolds project, 2013′s “R.I.P.D.,” got $26.6 million.


Projects involving Wahlberg, a Dorchester native, have also regularly been among the largest recipients of taxpayer-funded help. Of the projects that received the 10 highest tax credits in state history, he’s been involved in three: “Spenser Confidential,” the 2017 film “Daddy’s Home 2,” which received $17.9 million, and “Patriots Day,” the 2016 film about the Boston Marathon bombings, which collected $15.7 million.

Actor Mark Wahlberg, in the role of a Boston Police officer, prepared to film a scene for the movie "Patriots Day", about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, near the finish line in 2016.REUTERS

Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.