shirley leung

Small businesses lose out to big movie productions

John Travolta and costar Abigail Spencer filmed a scene from “The Forger” on the Commonwealth Mall earlier this year.
Jay Connor for The Boston Globe
John Travolta and costar Abigail Spencer filmed a scene for “The Forger” on the Commonwealth Mall earlier this year.

When John Travolta makes a movie here, we know the state loses money, but should Winnie Liang?

Since 2006, Massachusetts has spent $327 million giving out tax credits to lure Hollywood and others to shoot on location. On paper, it’s a big money drain. For every $1 in tax credits handed out, the state recoups just 13 cents in revenue.

Supporters of the policy will tell you that if so-called intangibles are factored in, this is a blockbuster: Incentives create thousands of jobs, fill hotels and restaurants with A-listers and their entourages, and boost tourism, even if it’s just along the same few gritty blocks of Southie.


But small-business owners like Liang are also paying the price for big movie productions, something you don’t often hear about in the debate that swirls around these subsidies.

Get Talking Points in your inbox:
An afternoon recap of the day’s most important business news, delivered weekdays.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Last month, Travolta and his crew landed on Kingston Street in Downtown Crossing for a couple of days to shoot a scene for “The Forger.” Filming for the heist movie took place inside J.J. Foley’s pub, but there was also plenty of staging outside with trucks, equipment, and gawkers.

Liang’s massage and nail salon, RelaxSation, is two doors down, and she said the production out front made it difficult for customers to get into her store. Half of her business consists of walk-ins, and she estimates she lost about $800 a day.

The film also hurt another business on the street, Boston Hair Design.

Owner Wildie Ceccherini estimates she lost $600 a day. Her walk-ins couldn’t get in, and her regulars skipped their appointments. “All the commotion — they didn’t know what was going on,” she said.


Both Liang and Ceccherini said the film crew should have done a better job of giving them a heads up. To minimize losses, they could have shut down for the day, reduced hours for employees, or notified their customers.

Liang complained to crew members on site and asked if, at the very least, Travolta could stop by and take a picture with her employees. She got the impression that would happen.

“We waited until 9 p.m.,” she said.

No Travolta.

Liang called the state film office to complain about the poor notification. The office put her in touch with the film’s location manager. All Liang wanted was an apology. Instead, she said, she was “insulted.” After talking for about 15 minutes, she said, the location manager hung up on her.


“They treated me like I should be happy that I was close to a film star,” said Liang, 46, who opened her business a year ago.

Small-business owners are paying the price for big movie productions, something you don’t hear in the tax-incentive debate.

Jeff MacLean, the film’s location manager, who has been coordinating movie shoots for two decades, said merchants in Downtown Crossing were aware of the filming. There’s a protocol: an e-mail blast and a representative who stops by businesses to alert them. (Liang said nobody stopped by, and that she saw the e-mail only after the film crew had set up.)

MacLean said studios will compensate businesses on a case-by-case basis. This time, J.J. Foley’s was paid because the production team took over the place. He didn’t think his crew blocked access to the other businesses.

As for being rude to Liang, “I definitely did not hang up on her,” MacLean said. “I had another call to take.”

And what about the photo with Travolta? “He is there to work,” explained MacLean. The actor did shake a lot of hands and pose for photos with fans while in town. But, MacLean said, “he can’t do that in all cases.”

This year, 17 feature films and TV shows were shot in Massachusetts, making it the second-busiest year on record. As Beacon Hill reviews the film tax subsidy, it should come up with a better way — other than leaving it up to the studios — to compensate small businesses hurt by a movie shoot. How many others have, like Liang, been on the losing end with no recourse?

There are many things, unavoidable and inevitable, that can disrupt a business, from street repairs to snowstorms. But if the state is going to invite the bright lights of Hollywood, it should make sure nobody gets blindsided.

Stayin’ alive is tough enough for small businesses.

Shirley Leung can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @leung.