Three years ago, restaurant owner Steve Catalano attended a talk about the budding film industry in Massachusetts and was inspired, along with his business partner, to start a catering company for film sets.
The duo launched Dolce Premier Catering out of Harvard, and have worked almost nonstop on commercials and television and movie productions for the past 2½ years. Six months ago, the partners decided to sell the restaurant to dedicate their time to the catering company. They have invested $500,000 into mobile kitchens they use to feed hundreds of people on sets, Catalano said.
But for the first time since their new venture, Catalano said, he is properly scared. Governor Charlie Baker's recent announcement that he would like to do away with the film tax incentive program by 2017 was a shock to him and hundreds of others who have carved out careers for themselves related to the film industry in Massachusetts.
"To pull the rug out now would be half-baked," Catalano said. For the state "to turn down an industry that's absolutely so consumption-based is crazy to me."
With some exceptions, the state's film tax credit, adopted in 2006, pays 25 percent of payroll taxes and production costs related to projects filmed in Massachusetts. While it is credited for a recent boom in locally filmed productions, years of state Department of Revenue reports indicate the tax credit costs the state too much money with little financial reward. Baker has proposed phasing it out to partly finance the doubling of the Earned Income Tax Credit that benefits low-income workers.
But the sentiment among those who work with local film production is that the Department of Revenue reports don't tell the whole story.
Chris O'Donnell, business manager of Woburn-based International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees Local 481, said union members have spent thousands of dollars buying supplies for productions from more than 2,000 local businesses over the past seven years. Membership in the union has tripled to 900 over the same time, he said.
"The proposal would really destroy thousands of jobs in the Commonwealth . . . that support the industry both directly and indirectly," O'Donnell said, adding that legislators should honor the tax exemption's original sunset date of Jan. 1, 2023, to give it a fair chance.
Among O'Donnell's vendors is Stephen Turner, of Turner Steel in West Bridgewater, who said movie productions have helped his business "quite a bit" over the past decade, particularly when the construction industry was at a standstill during the recession and during tough winters. Crews on the set of "The Finest Hours," a multimillion-dollar Disney production that filmed in Quincy and Duxbury until earlier this year, purchased about 100,000 pounds of steel from him, Turner said.
The tax credit was the reason Chris Byers and a group of local investors decided to build the $41 million New England Studios in Devens, the only one of its capacity in the state with four 18,000-square-foot sound stages, which went online a year ago. Byers agrees the tax credit needs a 10-year uninterrupted period of time in order to see growth. News of Baker's announcement has traveled fast within the film industry, said Byers, who is trying to secure a TV series for the studio by year's end.
"If I said it's not scary, I'd be lying," Byers said. "We're confident that we're going to see these numbers are good, the growth is good, and the businesses landing on the ground here are expanding — everything that the tax credits would want."
Daytime Emmy-winning television producer A.J. Boles of North Reading launched two ventures three years ago: Above the Line, which provides trailers used on set, and Flush, providing portable toilets. He said he doubled his inventory from a year ago and increased his number of employees from two to 10. So far he has invested $4 million into the businesses, which he says are now threatened.
"I don't think the governor obviously realizes how many people invested money to build this local movie industry, which was the purpose of this tax credit," he said.
Geoff Eads, a set lighting technician from Medford, said there is a misconception that the tax credit only offsets the salaries of millionaire movie stars. A day after Baker's announcement, Eads and his wife launched a website, SaveMAFilmJobs.com, to showcase the local faces and families that make up the Massachusetts film industry. People soon started posting their stories to the site, and using a hashtag on Twitter, #savemafilmjobs. Eads said last week the site was getting 500 to 1,000 hits a day, and he hopes it catches the attention of the governor and state lawmakers.
“The Baker thing is putting working families against working families, and I don’t think it’s fair,” Eads said. “We work with Hollywood people. They’re very nice people; they come here and spend a lot of money, which is great, but we’re not them. We have houses here, cars here, families.We’re Massachusetts people.”