Investors Say Devens Film Studio Will Rival Hollywood
August 31, 2012 : The Harvard Press, by Matthew Cook
The Bay State has been turning up on the big screen with increasing regularity in recent years, thanks largely to state tax breaks offered since 2007, but while crews have a bevy of locations to choose from, from urban areas, to coastal fishing towns, to forests, they haven’t yet had a place to call home base. A site on Devens, within Harvard’s historic town borders, could become that home base.
A group of Massachusetts-based investors, led by Lowell-native Chris Byers, has financed and begun construction of a project called New England Studios off Jackson Road in Devens. Where what was about 15 acres of woodland up until June is now a vast field of dirt, as construction crews prepare to erect the thick concrete 57-foot high walls that will surround four 18,000 square-foot sound stages the investors say will rival those in Hollywood.
“These stages will be some of the best in the world,” Byers told the Press. “The whole point behind the expansion in this project was to get them not good, not average, but the best.”
Byers, who recently returned to Lowell from Los Angeles, is a film industry veteran. His IMDb.com page lists behind-the-scenes work on 37 feature films and TV series. He said his idea to build a full-service studio in Massachusetts first began to form about six years ago, when he was in the state scouting for a film location.
“We were interested in shooting in Massachusetts for two reasons,” Byers said. “One is, aesthetically, it met a lot of our needs. It meets a lot of needs for a lot of companies. And then there was the tax credit.”
But, Byers, said, while there were several crews scouting and shooting in the state, “I started talking to a lot of the local companies and a lot of local technicians, and the one thing that kept coming up was they didn’t have any stages, they didn’t have any stages.”
The studios Byers and his group are planning for Devens will be outfitted for feature films, television series, and commercials. According to the plan, huge “elephant doors” will connect the four stages, allowing for productions on a massive scale. A catwalk level will begin at 45 feet above the ground, and the roof will be at 61 feet.
The design, by the California firm of Bastien and Associates, along with the Lowell-based Gavin and Sullivan firm, is up to the minute, Byers said.
“I think we’ve addressed a lot of things that I’ve found to be inadequate on other stages, through years of working on stages,” he said. “It will be easier to work in the catwalks. The rigging, which is critical, is going to have all the accessibility it needs…It’s just the expansions of knowledge over the years in the industry. There are definitely different needs now than there were 50 years ago.”
Cutting-edge stages won’t be the only offering at New England Studios, Byers said. Among other services, he said, production companies will be able to rent office space on the campus, grip (rigging) and electrical equipment, and trucks, generators and other equipment for off-site shooting.
“What we’re trying to do is encompass as much as we can and fill as many needs as they have, so they really have a one-stop shop,” Byers aid. “They don’t have to go anywhere else.”
It’s on those off-site shoots that the Devens location really comes in handy, according to Byers’s vision.
“The thing that Devens gives you is, you might be 40 minutes from Boston, but you’re also right next to Worcester. You’re also right next to Lowell,” he said. “In my opinion, it actually expands out the possibility, especially if you’re shooting a television series.”
What the former army base also gives the developers is access to infrastructure – “huge amounts of power already brought up to the property,” Byers said – on a sizeable chunk of accessible land. Those are two of the reasons the group chose the Devens site over Lowell, where it first intended to build, according to Byers.
“The footprint we needed, we realized, we need a lot of acreage, and [Lowell] just didn’t have parcels that suited what we needed,” Byers said.
Seven miles of dirt
Michael Meyers, managing director of MJM Development and director of real estate development for New England Studios, took the Press on a tour of Lot 13 in Devens. The site sits off of Jackson Road, near the exit to Route 2, in a wooded area that hosted military barracks until they were torn down in the 1990s. When all four phases of the project are complete, Meyers said, the main entrance will be off of Jackson Road, but for now, they are building the project from the back of the lot, starting with the studio stages.
Right now, wooden posts indicate the corners of the 480 foot-long studio building, but in September, once they receive a building permit (the site plan has already been approved by the Devens Enterprise Commission), Meyers said, the developers plan to move quickly to erect its walls. The walls will be laid out on the ground as huge concrete panels, and then hoisted into place with a crane, he explained.
Meyers boasted about the immense amount of soil the work crew has removed since June to level the property.
“If you put dirt a foot deep along Route 9 for seven miles, from Natick to Framingham, that’s how much dirt you have,” he said.
Meyers, a lifelong Massachusetts resident who lives in Andover, has developed over 6 million square feet of commercial property in his 26-year career, but this is his first entry into the film industry. To familiarize themselves with the business and the structure of a film studio, Meyers said, he and his team have been “out to L.A. at least a dozen times.”
The investment group, of which he is a member, Meyers said, comprises “a group of guys, all from Massachusetts, some of them going back as far as high school.”
Byers declined to identify all the investors, but, he said, “They have been doing business here in Massachusetts all their lives.”
“Their goal, on top of the success of the project, is developing business here in Massachusetts,” he said. “They are very passionate about the state. So, it’s a great example of the state’s wealth trying to create jobs and business in the state, and that’s truly what these guys are all about.”
Whoever they are, the investors have managed to come up with enough funding for stage 1 of the project – “somewhere in the upper 30s [millions of dollars],” Byers said – without help from the state.
“Right from the beginning, we told them we didn’t want any state funding, nothing,” Byers said. “To me, and the investors, government and private business just shouldn’t be together.”
MassDevelopment, the quasi-state agency that manages Devens, has said it sold the 15-acre plot to the studio project for $575,000. It is also offering some land-tax breaks, based on the studio’s hitting certain job-creation numbers. This tax increment financing plan will reduce the estimated taxes due over 20 years by slightly over 20 percent, according to MassDevelopment.
The tax breaks are nice, said Byers, but, “by no means does it mean much to the projectâ€¦it’s a very small, insignificant portion.”
“It helps, though,” he said. “It adds a little risk reduction.”
Byers estimates that the studio, which is aiming to open its doors next summer, will employ about 30 people permanently, and productions passing through could bring with them, or hire locally, up to 200 people each. Especially if the studio lands a television series, Byers said, that could mean a long-term workforce in Devens.
“The nice thing about a series, if you get like a ‘CSI,’ you’re there for 10 years,” he said. “Could you imagine if we had two top-notch series shooting there? You’re talking about probably close to 400 employees. At about $3 to $4 million an episodes, 22 to 25 per year, that’s a lot of money. You figure about 40 percent of that goes into the local economy.”
And the likelihood of landing a big series? Byers won’t reveal the details of talks he said he’s had with production companies.
“I can’t get too deep into it, but I’ve visited all the majors, given them layouts,” he said. “Every one of them has a huge interestâ€¦Most of the majors are already shooting here, desperate for stage space, just desperate for it. We’re just really filling a need here.”
© Copyright 2012 The Harvard Press.