Stephen King’s short story The Mist describes a monster-veiling fog that envelops the small town of Bridgton, Maine, and traps a group of terrified townies in the local general store. Bridgton is a real place in Cumberland County’s Lakes Region; it has a population of about 5000. It’s a lovely town that draws sightseers and vacationers year-round, and which — so far — has avoided all deadly mist invasions.
A comparison of New England’s film-incentive programs, courtesy of the New England Public Policy Center at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. Each state caps rebates and credits on salaries over $1 million.
INCENTIVES Wage reimbursement (10 percent for out-of-staters; 12 percent for Maine employees) | Investment tax credit equal to the amount paid on profits by the production
ELIGIBILITY REQUIREMENTS At least $250,000 spent within 12 consecutive months
INCENTIVES 20 percent payroll tax credit for wages paid to residents | 25 percent production expense credit
ELIGIBILITY REQUIREMENTS At least $250,000 spent within 12 consecutive months | At least 50 percent of production expenses or filming days must be in-state
LIMITS $7 million per production
INCENTIVES 30 percent for production expenditures, including wages
ELIGIBILITY REQUIREMENTS At least $50,000 spent in 12 consecutive months, a portion of which must be spent in-state
INCENTIVES 25 percent of certified production costs
ELIGIBILITY REQUIREMENTS Production budget of at least $300,000 | 51 percent of production at primary state location
INCENTIVES Grant reimbursement for 10 percent of local spending
ELIGIBILITY REQUIREMENTS At least $1 million in local production expenses
LIMITS $1 million per fiscal year
So why, when it came time to film the movie version of The Mist (set in Maine, and written by one of Maine’s favorite sons), did the Weinstein-bro producers choose to shoot in Shreveport, Louisiana, a city of more than 200,000 that’s 1764 miles away from Bridgton?
Here’s the quick answer: Louisiana is known as “HollywoodSouth,” with more movies filmed within its borders than any other US state save California and New York. Within the past few years, Louisiana has stood in for Chicago, Atlanta, and Maine on celluloid; Shreveport hosts several sound stages and production studios, as well as a 750,000-gallon wave pool that can produce nine-foot waves.
But behind all those sound stages and the water tank are film incentives — money, in the form of tax credits or rebates, that a state will give a studio in return for its filming business. Incentives were made to lure in cash-hungry companies; the logic is that for however long a corporation or production crew calls one place its home base, that location will benefit from job creation, as well as an influx of money spent at local businesses. Louisiana has generous incentives that make the state an attractive place to shoot.
In case you couldn’t guess, Maine’s incentives, in a word, suck. And despite — or because of — the state’s dismal economic outlook, the scene is set for some improvements.
North Carolina stunt double
Good incentives can trump realism. After all, with sound stages and wave pools, film crews “can make the audience believe whatever they want in terms of where the story takes place,” the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Film and Television executive director, Alex Schott, told NPR last year.
“Will they rewrite a script because of incentives? Absolutely,” says Greg Gadberry, assistant director of Maine’s Film Office, which exists purely to draw media production into the state, and to develop an industry base here in Maine.
Anyway, it’s not that Maine’s a stickler for realism. The 1999 tearjerker Message in a Bottle, starring Kevin Costner, Robin Wright Penn, and Paul Newman, was filmed in Maine locations such as Bath, Boothbay Harbor, Popham Beach, and Portland — but the story takes place in North Carolina. In other words, when Maine benefits, the state is happy to double for other locales, or to be appreciated (in feature films, television shows, or commercials) for its natural beauty.
But too often, the state doesn’t get its chance to shine on screen; instead, other states, or Canada, make the cut because they offer 20-, 30-, even 40-percent tax rebates, compared to our 10-12 percent. These programs are slippery business: some major studios have employees whose sole charge is keeping track of and comparing states’ film incentives.
Before 47 states adopted some version of film incentives, film offices existed mostly in a marketing capacity — wooing producers with scenery, sets, and logistical assistance with permits and such. For years, the Maine Film Office, created in 1987, did just that. It’s currently a two-person division of the state’s Office of Tourism, under the Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD). It runs on a $189,012 budget, of which just $24,912 is used for operating costs (the other $164,100 goes for salaries and benefits). Director Lea Girardin and assistant director Gadberry comprise the staff, which is tasked with bringing media-production projects to the state, helping producers navigate bureaucracy, and fostering an in-state film- and video- production industry (in other words, ensuring that grips and cameramen and casting agents can find steady work in Maine).