“Only New York has more artists per capita than the City of Somerville,” boasts the city on its website. But what happens when those creatives start leaving for less expensive pastures?
The Boston movie brand is so embedded in the American filmgoer’s psyche that when New Hampshire-raised Seth Meyers parodied the stereotypes earlier this year in his fake trailer Boston Accent, there was no need to reference any specific film. The viral clip had it all: the dropped R’s, blue-collar poetry about loyalty and neighborhood pride, gratuitous violence. Though the current crop of high-profile, Hollywood-produced, Boston-set films have steered away from the gritty niche genre pictures of old to those with a higher pedigree and wider appeal—Spotlight, Ghostbusters, Central Intelligence—the area’s cinematic reputation remains in the hands of artistic and financial forces from another coast.
So dominant is this perception of Boston-based movies that it took bad news for the world of local filmmaking to find a place in the city’s media—polymathic partners Michael J. Epstein and Sophia Cacciola had made the decision to leave their longtime Somerville home for Los Angeles. In a mid-February Facebook post that gained attention from such outlets as the Boston Globe and Vanyaland and even elicited a response from Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, Epstein, who serves on the Somerville Arts Council and founded the Somerville Makers and Artists Group, described in detail the circumstances that culminated in the duo’s decision to relocate. The post garnered hundreds of comments from fellow artists who shared messages of empathy and solidarity, demonstrating that this is a sentiment, and a worry, shared by many. More and more, local filmmakers have a choice: stay in this creative community and risk getting priced out of the neighborhoods they helped make cool in the first place, or leave for an “industry” city, like LA, where there is less of a chasm between making art and paying the bills.
YOU CAN’T PUT A PRICE TAG ON COMMUNITY.
“Making a film is an incredibly stupid thing to do,” says Brendan Boogie, musician and screenwriter of The Mayor of Rock and Roll. “The only stupider thing is to not make the film because you’re letting something like money or time get in the way of you doing something you want to do.”
For many local filmmakers, the only easy aspect of production is the decision to do it. Still, no matter the obstacles and frustrations, no one we spoke with has regretted their work once it was completed—even if they might have done a particular aspect of a project differently.
Problems tend to arise when the long-term realities of creative life cause successive projects to be more and more difficult. Often, these are issues shared by artists of all stripes—rising rents in formerly artist-friendly neighborhoods or a lack of studio and exhibition space. Others are specific to film, like the state’s perceived preference for glamorous productions from LA. These big-budget films tend to benefit from the Massachusetts film tax break, but no equivalent consideration is given to people who already live, work and create in this state. (More on that later.)
Tax policies, infrastructure and cost of living aside, area filmmakers—even those who have headed West or are considering the move—love this city. They love the people of Somerville, of Boston, of Cambridge—love to have local establishments as partners on a project. Actress, visual artist and live performer Porcelain Dalya recently made her directorial debut with the short film One, which appeared at last year’s Boston Underground Film Festival (BUFF). “I was doing a music video once,” remembers Dalya, who is currently in preproduction on her second film. “We were in a park in Cambridge. The park ranger was like, ‘Just so you know, you really should have a permit. I’ll let it slide for today, but if you come back, get a permit.’ Whereas if we were in New York or L.A., they’d be like, ‘Nope, fuck you, get out, you’re done.’”
“The thing that I like about Boston is how ridiculously loyal people are,” Dalya continues. “It’s really hard to make friends in the city. It’s challenging. Yet the people you do make friends with are friends. They’re loyal. And I think that stands for the scene.”
Mike Pecci agrees, citing the receptiveness of both individual residents and businesses to independent productions. Pecci works in commercial photography and video, makes documentary films and has shot music videos for acts such as Czarface and Killswitch Engage. His newest passion project, the psychological thriller 12 Kilometers, premiered at the Boston International Film Festival in April. Once, Pecci recounts, while he was filming a television pilot on a rooftop in New York City, a man from the next building would wait to hear, “Action!” and begin screaming. He’d stop yelling when the crew stopped shooting. As it turned out, the man wanted money from the crew before leaving them to film in peace. His tactic—while annoying—is not altogether illegal. Luckily, it’s unheard of in Greater Boston.
With the NY/LA experience under his belt, Pecci made the decision to remain in town. He says that despite its sometimes contentious relationship with artists, this area is preferable to the alternative. “I would say the access that people are willing to give you is the best part,” he says. “[There’s] this wonderful blend of blue collar and students and academia, and so it has this really wonderful mix of people. And so when you’re creating and you’re writing, or if you’re putting on something, you can go sit at the bar and have a conversation with those same three people at the same bar.”
Somerville’s arts culture has proven crucial to artists like Jim McDonough, who says he would never have submitted his short Manicorn to BUFF—where it won Best of Fest Short—had he not networked with other artists at a gathering of the Boston Indie Mafia, which meets at the Center for Arts at the Armory. “I’d never been to a festival until last year,” he explains. But at the Armory, McDonough says, he met an encouraging group of people who gave him the confidence he needed to submit his work to festivals like BUFF. “And that part of the community—you just can’t put a price tag, you can’t put a number to it.”
“EVERYONE’S BEING PUSHED OUT.”
You can, however, put a price tag on the making of a film, and often, that figure is frustratingly high. Financial support is available through grants, a system from which narrative filmmakers could theoretically benefit. But often, the mission of these grants doesn’t coincide with the artistic vision or production timeline of a project.
Izzy Lee has self-funded all of her work, primarily in horror. Her award-winning short Innsmouth has garnered rave reviews from across the U.S. and recently debuted locally at BUFF. “My work tends to be pretty risqué, and I can’t ever imagine public funding wanting to be a part of that, so to speak,” she says.
Dalya has applied for grants in the past through her home city of Medford, but there’s a clause in the fine print that says the work of recipients must benefit the citizens of Medford. It’s unlikely, she says, that a short horror film will be seen as a project for the public good. Pecci finds himself in a similar place. “Going through the process of writing for grants is a skill within itself,” he says. “Someone like me who does a lot of genre stuff, like, ‘Hey, give me a grant to do a horror movie,’ it really doesn’t work out that way. It’s never worked out that way for me.”
Michael J. Epstein, who also serves on the Somerville Arts Council, feels more artists who work in film should make that effort, both to improve their chances of receiving funding and to make the case that more attention should be paid to film. Grants awarded by the Somerville Arts Council are proportional based on the number of applicants in a particular medium. “The more [film] applicants there are, the bigger chunk [film projects] get,” he explains. “Visual arts, music—film tends to be the least popular category.”
Filmmakers have found workarounds for many of the hurdles they face—crowdfunding through Kickstarter or Indiegogo instead of seeking studio support or investment, working for cheap (or free) for other artists so that they will return the favor, finding audiences through festivals and independent streaming platforms instead of trying to court distributors. But there is no workaround for infrastructure, spaces for artists to work and live out of at a price that is reasonable for what they produce and provide for the city.
“What’s the cliche?” Epstein asks. “‘You can give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.’ In a way, grants are like the fish for the day, but a person who gets a grant—even if they were given enough money to survive for a year—they have nothing to survive on the next year.” As a result, Epstein and others are pushing to create a culture where artists aren’t fighting over “the scraps” of council funding. He envisions a future where the infrastructure and the culture make it so that it’s viable for creatives to stay in the city.
Lee agrees that the region is in dire need of both more living spaces for artists and studio spaces where artists can do their work. It’s not just a problem for big cities like Boston; “Even now in Somerville,” Lee says, “everyone’s being pushed out.”
“Historically,” she continues, “low-income neighborhoods that artists have made flourish become where people flock to, and then eventually, [those artists] get pushed out a decade or two later. And that’s happening with Dorchester now, too.”
Boogie shares this worry. “What I’ve noticed is that a neighborhood gets cool because artists and cool people open cool places,” he says. “Not just artists, but cool restaurants, cool people doing something unique. Then it gets popular … they get priced out, and it becomes homogenized. And it just happens over and over and over again.”
The much-touted and debated tax incentive for films with budgets of $50,000 or more is already a contentious issue in government and media alike, and likewise with those who find themselves struggling for recognition with budgets a fraction of that size. The incentive, as explained on the website for the Massachusetts Film Office, offers a “25 percent production credit, a 25 percent payroll credit and a sales tax exemption.”
Everyone is in favor of some form of tax break, but few find that the existing break offers advantages for those who already live here, and even fewer are the recipients of any trickle-down benefits. Pecci, who has worked on projects large enough to benefit from the incentive, has found that there are indirect, if imperfect, benefits. He notes that the credit does not include items such as the fee a filmmaker pays him-or herself, which can push the actual budget up to about $60,000 or $80,000. “Does the tax credit really help? If I get into feature film territory, which I’m aiming towards right now, yeah, maybe then it’s really going to start to help,” Pecci says. “But as far as development goes, in helping nurture companies to develop and produce in this city, there isn’t really a lot of attention to that.” The incentive helps keep rental houses, like Red Sky Studios in Allston, in operation—which Pecci says is great when it comes to supporting film crews and the industry. “But,” he adds, “it doesn’t necessarily support me.” (The Massachusetts Film Office did not return a call to Scout Somerville for comment.)
“I have a huge problem with the tax break,” says Epstein. “I think it should exist, I don’t think it should go away. But I have a huge problem with the fact that the tax break doesn’t force enough of the labor hired under these projects to be locally sourced … It’d be great if the tax breaks encouraged projects on a small scale. I think they’re not.”
“Or even encouraging local breaks,” Cacciola chimes in. “It’s good to have any film industry happening here, and just the idea of things being filmed here encourages more to happen.” Dalya agrees, noting that that “the arts should be taxed differently, because we have a different outcome than other industries.”
“They attracted GE with tax incentives, so why not encourage a dance company or a theater troupe to headquarter here?” asks Epstein. “Any art, really. If you’re giving breaks to tech companies, why not give breaks to creative companies? If that’s important to your city. If it’s not, don’t do it. I like to think that Boston and Somerville both think that arts are important.”