A Major Production
Collaborative Seeks to Grow the Film, Media Industry in Western Mass.
“Maybe it doesn’t look like the Sahara Desert, but it can look like most of the rest of the world,” she told BusinessWest, adding that this is one of many reasons why the Bay State is becoming increasingly popular with filmmakers at all levels.
Massachusetts, or at least the Franklin County community of Shelburne, looks enough like rural Indiana — the setting for the story behind The Judge — to become the chosen location for the shooting of most scenes in that recently released film starring Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall, said Pearlman, executive director of a nonprofit called the Berkshire Film and Media Collaborative.
Bringing more high-profile pictures like The Judge, not to mention the many types of economic opportunities they represent, to Western Mass. is a part of the agency’s reason for being, said Pearlman, adding quickly that this challenging assignment falls much more to the Massachusetts Film Office (more on that later).
The Berkshire Film and Media Collaborative, whose name is somewhat of a misnomer because its work encompasses the four counties of Western Mass., is instead tasked with shaping film and media production into a greater economic force in this region, one that she believes might keep more young people from leaving this area code.
“Our focus over the past year and a half has been more on job training, education, and addressing the need to attract and retain young people here,” she explained. “And we really believe that film and media is an industry that can do that in Western Massachusetts.”
The collaborative’s core objective is to facilitate film, television, and media projects by providing assistance to production outfits with everything from location scouting to permitting, to finding local crew and equipment. At the same time, the agency works to help individuals attain and hone the skills needed to work in the industry.
Pearlman said the BFMC, formed in 2009, is committed to:
• Nurturing its community of film and media professionals through educational courses, lectures, and seminars;
• Creating job opportunities in the film and media sector through adult workforce-development courses;
• Networking area professionals and introducing them to local businesses in need of film and media services; and
• Marketing the region’s film and media professionals and undiscovered locations to national and international film and television markets.Most of these facets of the agency’s mission came together in late October at the inaugural Western Mass. Film & Media Exchange, staged at the Baystate Health Conference Center in Holyoke.
In addition to keynote speaker Douglas Trumbull, a filmmaker and special-effects pioneer whose film credits include everything from Close Encounters of the Third Kind to Blade Runner, the event featured a number of workshops and lectures, as well as a networking social.
Among those in attendance was Michail Charalampidis, a recent Hampshire College graduate who wasn’t quite ready to return to his homeland of Greece after commencement and chose instead to pursue opportunities within the film industry in Western Mass. — or wherever else he could find them.
He’s landed a few minor positions with some productions, and is currently working with Trumbull at his studio in the Berkshires. More importantly, thanks to Trumbull, Pearlman, and others, he’s meeting people, learning about the business, and making all-important connections.
“Diane put me in touch with the visual-effects producer of Game of Thrones, and I could be working for them starting in January; maybe not, but I’m touch with him,” said Charalampidis. “I’m also in touch with the visual-effects producer of Interstellar, who’s starting a new movie in January, and they put me in touch with people working on the new Avengers, so I could go work for them.
“All of these are up in the air,” he went on, “but I’ve become part of this chain where you get involved in conversations. People say, ‘do you want to work on The Avengers?’ and I say, ‘of course.’ Diane and her people have really helped me connect.”
That one word probably best sums up the mission of the collaborative, said Pearlman, adding that, in many ways, Charalampidis’s story personifies the ongoing work of the BFMC.
“Film is a word-of-mouth industry,” she explained, adding that the collaborative’s overarching goal is to generate word-of-mouth referrals for individuals, companies, communities — and the region as a whole.
For this issue, BusinessWest looks at how the agency goes about doing just that.
It was called ‘Get a Grip.’
That was the name attached to a program dedicated to helping individuals eventually attach their name to that often-recognized but mostly misunderstood position listed within the credits at the end of a movie — the ‘grip,’ maybe even the ‘key grip.’
“These are essentially the stage hands on a film set — if you needed to put a cameras on a dolly where you built track and push the cameraman, a grip would do that; they operate camera cranes, they do everything but the lights,” said Pearlman, adding that 25 people took the class, staged last March.
And additional courses are in the planning stages, she went on, adding that the next one may focus on another profession within the industry — gaffer, an electrician — or cinematography.
Such programs constitute one of the many ways the BFMC carries out that aforementioned mission, said Pearlman, adding that training new talent is just part of the equation.
Indeed, the region already boasts a number of talented individuals, including some who have won Academy Awards, she noted, adding that the collaborative wants to bring more work to them and help their businesses succeed and grow.
And it does this by attracting more projects, making constituencies, including the business community, more aware of that existing talent, and providing education to small-business owners in this broad sector, such as the workshops at the Film & Media Exchange.
“Many of the panels we did were about how to better run your business, because filmmakers are artists, and we want them to be able to ask the questions, know how to set up their businesses, and know how to market their businesses,” she explained. “We also invited local companies, because they need video. Whether it’s for a conference or for the web, more and more businesses need video, and they don’t know where to go. A lot of times, they’ll call their brother in L.A. or their cousin in New York and say, ‘how do I get this video done?’ They don’t know that they have all the talent they need right here.”
The BFMC’s work began in 2009, said Pearlman, and, as the name suggests, the initial focus was on the Berkshires, which, during the ’90s, was home to a number of special-effects houses, including Lenox-based Mass.Illusions, which she served as executive producer and general manager, supervising a workforce of more than 200.
That Mass.Illusions facility was eventually closed in 1998, when the parent company shifted production work to California, she went on, adding that other shops in that area have closed as well, in part because large production houses are not needed as much as they were years ago.
“You can work on Game of Thrones from your house,” she explained, adding that there a number of sole proprietors and small outfits based in the 413 area code.And not all of them are in the Berkshires, she went on, adding that the collaborative’s work became more regional in nature— and the words ‘of Western Massachusetts’ were added to the title — years ago.
Today, the collaborative works with a host of partners, including the Economic Development Council of Western Mass., Berkshire Creative, and colleges across the region to grow the film and media sector in the Pioneeer Valley and, in the process, create opportunities for individuals, businesses, and communities like Shelburne.
“We want to keep the dollars in Western Mass.,” said Pearlman, who brings more than 25 years of experience in media creation and production, including work as an independent entertainment producer, studio executive, and business owner.
She came to the Berkshires to work with Trumbull at his studio. Later, at Mass.Illusions, she was involved with a host of films, including The Matrix and What Dreams May Come (both of which won Academy Awards for best visual effects), Starship Troopers, Evita, Eraser, Die Hard with a Vengeance, Judge Dredd, and others. Her résumé also includes everything from work producing television commercials and feature-film title sequences to a stint as production manager for the creation of a web-based health initiative for Canyon Ranch in Lenox, to work as a partner, producer, and lead writer in KinderMuse Entertainment, a developer of children’s and family entertainment.
She is currently producing two independent films, a screen adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel Summer, written and directed by feature-film art director and production designer Carl Sprague, as well as a film based on a short story by Carson McCullers that is being written and directed by actress Karen Allen.
But the collaborative now demands a good amount of her time, she told BusinessWest, adding that she and others stayed in the Berkshires because of the region’s high quality of life. She believes there are many in that category, and their numbers could swell — if there are solid career opportunities.
Setting the Scene
Pearlman said Massachusetts currently has many things going for it when it comes to being the setting for major motion pictures.
For starters, there’s an attractive 25% tax credit, initiated in 2005, available to those outfits that reach certain production-spending thresholds. There have also been some intriguing Bay State-based stories that Hollywood has decided to tell, including those involving South Boston gangster James (Whitey) Bulger (Black Mass was shot this past summer) and Lowell boxer Mickey Ward (The Fighter was released in 2010), among others.
Meanwhile, some Bay State natives and notable transplants, including Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, and Mark Wahlberg, like shooting here, and have brought many major productions to the Boston area.
And then, there’s the Mass. Film Office and its executive director, Lisa Strout, whom Pearlman credits with making the business of shooting films here a fairly smooth and easy process.
However, with a few exceptions, such as The Judge and Labor Day, parts of which were also filmed in Shelburne, the wealth hasn’t been spread equally across the state.
“By 2008, $350 million had been spent in the state, and a bunch of us looked at each other and said, ‘why is it all going to Boston?’” said Pearlman. “We have some great locations and talent … they should be coming here.”
If they did, a number of businesses would benefit, she said, listing everything from hotels to hardware stores; caterers to rental car agencies.
But while bringing more major films, like The Judge, is certainly among the BFMC’s goals, Pearlman said the collaborative wants to attract production work of all kinds, including smaller independent films, special-effects projects, television commercials, fashion shoots, training and promotional videos for businesses, and more.
Achieving that goal is a multi-faceted process, she said, one that includes everything from raising awareness of the talent and locations for shooting in the region to assembling and promoting a talented workforce. The desired effect from such efforts is to bring work to this region rather than have it go elsewhere because people are not aware of the talent and resources available.
“The big films are great, but there are many other aspects to the film and media industry,” said Pearlman. “We want to focus on all of them.”
Meanwhile, Charalampidis, while keeping his options open, is nonetheless setting his sights high.
As he mentioned earlier, he doesn’t know what he’ll be doing next month or even next week — a byproduct of working in the field, one further complicated by the fact that he’s in this country on a work visa, one with an expiration date that could be extended, but only if the right opportunity, or opportunities, present themselves.
“I’m getting to the point where I’m going where there’s good and interesting work,” he said, adding that this could be in the Pioneer Valley, New York, Los Angeles, or elsewhere. “I’m past being at the bottom of a very small production, and now I’m going after interesting projects, ones that are educational — and big.”
What he does know is that the collaborative has put him in a better position to possibly seize such opportunities.
“The collaborative can help students get out there faster and move through the low jobs more quickly and then start working for bigger projects that will help them move their career forward faster,” he explained. “You need to come out of college with a lot of skills that colleges just don’t teach you, and the collaborative has certainly helped me in that regard.”
When asked what it is about Shelburne that is attracting the attention of Hollywood, Pearlman said quickly and succinctly, “it’s a great little town.”
There are many more like it across the region, she said, adding that one of the collaborative’s goals is to acquaint people in the industry with them. To that end, photos of various potential filming sites — everything from parks to farms; churches to college buildings — have been placed on the BFMC’s website.
Overall, though, the collaborative is focused on the big picture — growing this sector, creating jobs, keeping young people in the region, and spurring economic development.
That’s quite a production, but Pearlman and others believe they have a hit in the making. n
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]