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Lights, camera, tourism in Shelburne Falls

With a boom in movies being shot in Massachusetts, the state mulls teaming with filmmakers to draw tourists to set locations

Shelburne Falls became Carlinville, Ind., for “The Judge,” starring Robert Downey Jr. Fred DeVecca/The Shelburne Falls

SHELBURNE FALLS — For the second time in a year, this picturesque Western Massachusetts village was recently taken over by Hollywood, with cameras rolling up and down the main drag and movie stars strolling into coffee shops between takes.

The latest production transformed Bridge Street into the fictional Indiana town of Carlinville for “The Judge,” starring Robert Downey Jr. as a lawyer who returns home for his mother’s funeral. And even though the name Shelburne Falls will not be featured in the movie, the exposure could be a boon for the village — as well as for the state’s budding movie industry.


Tourists and day-trippers showed up to catch a glimpse of the stars — and spent money at local restaurants, shops, and other businesses. To extend the economic benefits, the Massachusetts Film Office has proposed creating a tourism package for the village centered around the movie, in collaboration with Warner Bros., the movie’s production company.

The filming of “The Judge” drew tourists to Shelburne Falls, with the village’s annual RiverFest drawing more visitors than usual.Fred DeVecca

The state film office is considering similar promotions for other Massachusetts communities that have achieved fame as film locations. In a way, it is the ultimate product placement.

Filming a movie or TV show in the state is an “incredible marketing tool for exposure of the Commonwealth,” said Lisa Strout, director of the film office.

“We’re so lucky here to have such great-looking towns and landscape,” Strout said. “Such a variety, it’s just ready for a story to be told.”

The film business has boomed in Massachusetts since the state enacted a tax incentive in 2006 that reimburses production companies for up to 25 percent of the cost of filming. This summer, four movies filmed here are opening: “The Heat,” The Way Way Back,” “Grown Ups 2,” and “R.I.P.D.”

The tax credit is controversial, however, with studies by the state Department of Revenue raising questions about whether the cost of the credit exceeds the local economic benefits. But IATSE Local 481, the union that represents costume, set construction, and other film crew trades in New England, said filming on major film and TV productions has increased more than sevenfold since the incentive went into effect — and that has meant jobs for its members.


“I don’t have a lot of people going to work in other jurisdictions,” said Chris O’Donnell, business manager at Local 481.

At the Shelburne Falls shoot, about 80 percent of the crew was from Massachusetts, with as many as 150 people working at a time, O’Donnell said. To Mary Vilbon at the Greater Shelburne Falls Area Business Association, that’s 150 potential tourists.

“Our hope is that they see how beautiful the region is, they come back with family and friends,” she said.

The marketing project the state film office hopes to launch with “The Judge” could spread the word even further. The idea is to create a package showing the attractions of Shelburne Falls — the Bridge of Flowers, for instance, a blooming walkway on an old trolley bridge spanning the Deerfield River — as well behind-the-scenes footage of the movie shoot.

These packages would be posted on the state tourism site, which plans to launch a film tourism page in the fall, highlighting Massachusetts film locations.

“International tourists are very interested in that sort of thing,” Strout said.

Americans, too, it turns out. The Cape Cod water park Water Wizz is featured prominently in the trailer for the upcoming Steve Carell movie “The Way Way Back,” opening July 5, and the park has already had a call from someone who was surprised to find it was a real place, and planned to come visit.


Some Shelburne Falls business owners were not thrilled about the filming, citing a loss of business when the street was closed, but many were reimbursed by Warner Bros.FRED DEVECCA

In Shelburne Falls, the filming alone was enough to bring tourists to town. RiverFest, held each year in early June, was more crowded than usual because people wanted to see the movie sets, Vilbon said, although some of them, confused by all the Carlinville signs on buildings and light poles, weren’t sure they were in the right place.

Amy Young, a social worker from Lowell, had never been to Shelburne Falls before making three trips in less than two weeks to try to see Downey, her favorite actor. One day, she stood in the rain for six hours and was rewarded with a wave when Downey drove by. In the meantime, she explored the town, eating ice cream, drinking tea, and buying flowers for her daughter, whose birthday dinner she missed while waiting for Downey sightings.

“It’s adorable,” she said of the village. “I think it would be a great day trip.”

Some Shelburne Falls business owners were not thrilled about the filming, citing a loss of business when the street was closed and parking spots were occupied by cars with Indiana plates. But many received a few hundred dollars from Warner Bros. to make up for the disruption, and some made a little extra by selling bales of straw and funeral flower arrangements to the set decorator.


Betsy Laus, the manager of Mocha Maya’s coffee shop, is not complaining, though. Business has been so brisk, she said, she has hired four new people for the summer to handle the crush.

Tourists just do not visit the area as much as they used to, Laus said, and the coffee shop almost closed over the winter. But with two movie shoots in a year, including Jason Reitman’s “Labor Day,” filmed last summer, and the state poised to ramp up its film tourism efforts, things are looking up.

“It couldn’t have come at a better time,” Laus said of Hollywood’s love affair with Shelburne Falls. “This was just what we needed to get people to know where we were.”

Katie Johnston can be reached at kjohnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.