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Hollywood Comes to Devens

Aerial view of the recently completed New England Studios complex on Devens.
Courtesy of Chris Byers

By Ann Needle

Massachusetts has taken a big step closer to becoming the film-making mecca of the Eastern U.S. – and that means a potential boon for the area. New England Studios, with sound and film stage capacity and equipment to attract big names, world-class projects, and jobs to its surrounding towns , recently opened on the grounds of the former Fort Devens.

Built on 15 acres, at an estimated cost of $60 million, NE Studios “unofficially” opened in October to public viewing, according to Marketing Director Chris Byers. Four 18,000-sq. ft. sound stages anchor the full-service television and film facility. Other features include 24-hour gated security and video surveillance; drive-on stages; two 20′ x 20′, exterior “elephant doors’ for hauling in large equipment and sets; a complete fiber optic network throughout the complex; and a 30,000 sq. ft. office building.

Not only does NE Studios house all of the features demanded by California-based producers, but Byers maintained it surpasses many, making it one of the most comprehensive studios in the world. It also offers features not found in many of the established West Coast studios.

For instance, NE Studios’ ability to totally close off one of its studios from another for privacy may seem like a given. But, Byers noted, “It’s not like that in most studios.

Most of the California stages were developed 70, 80, 90 years ago.” Clients also can combine studios into several configurations, if needed.

Here Come the Jobs
It appears NE Studios likely will produce more than entertainment.

“If a television series comes in, they have 120 to 180 jobs available, depending on the type of show,” Byers said. He added that a TV show or film heavy on special effects could call for 400 to 600 jobs.

As an area brimming with high-tech professionals, Massachusetts should easily keep NE Studios supplied with the work force needed to maintain the state-of-the-art complex, said Byers. Also, he mentioned that the film and arts schools of nearby colleges such as Emerson College, Fitchburg State University, and Boston University “offer the possibility of keeping talented college graduates in the area.”

There also is the potential for new businesses and jobs to move in. He said, “Those ‘period pieces’ you see? We know there are several shops in the area that specialize in making old-style clothes.”

One of the most certain areas of job creation is restaurants. Byers reported that, with another 600,000 sq. ft. expansion planned, there already is an agreement to put a big-studio commissary in place. For those NE Studios employees and clients seeking top-drawer dining without venturing into Boston, Byers said the company is considering  bringing a five-star restaurant into the complex, where diners “can come and watch what’s going on.”

Byers said NE Studios originally was looking to build in Lowell, but could not find parcels available. “Devens had the availability of huge amounts of land, and the infrastructure was already there.” Located close to Boston, the Devens location also offered what he termed “highway access here that is second to none.”

NE Studios will have an upper hand in competing for projects with established production cities such as New York City and Montreal, Byers maintained. “New York is very expensive to shoot in, and Canada is out of the country,” he pointed out.

Another incentive NE Studios is banking on to bring in business is some substantial tax credits. These include 25% credits on production expenses and payroll, plus a sales tax exemption, to qualifying projects, according to the MA Film Office.

Though Byers reported that several potential clients are in negotiations with the company, he stressed he legally is prevented from naming them until any contracts are set. Currently, Byers expects to be able to announce some projects by January.

Whatever happens, Byers said he is firmly convinced NE Studios will transform the area, asserting, “This will be the catalyst for the conversion of the entire Devens complex.”