NH Filmmakers: Ground is fertile for sprouting Granite State film industry 

Tim Messina presenting virtual production to Chris Stinson, Amy Greene and their team at Studio Lab. Photo by Lauren Lyons/Studio Lab

CONCORD, NH – Local film producers say the nascent film industry in New Hampshire is poised to attract big business, but an effort by the governor to eliminate the New Hampshire Film and Television Office’s $123,000 annual budget could make that more difficult. 

The way it works now, when a major motion picture or TV show wants to find a location to film a scene or the whole story, states compete for the privilege, with incentives like tax credits and assistance like prepared lists of potential locations, attracting sometimes millions of dollars in local spending. 

Increasingly, Massachusetts is winning this game, even pulling a lot of business from New York, according to New Hampshire film producer Chris Stinson, co-owner of Live Free or Die Films, with his partner Amy Greene.

Stinson said he’s filming a project in New York right now. Most of the crew he’s working with are planning on moving to Massachusetts, he said, because the Bay State’s film industry is now busy year-round.

He and Greene worked on the recent Rian Johnson film Knives Out, and was instrumental in convincing them to film in Massachusetts instead of London, where the crew were set up following the filming of Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

The production company spent $40 million to make the film, did all the filming in Massachusetts, over the course of seven weeks, and ended up grossing $400 million in the box office, Stinson said.

That’s a relatively low budget for a major motion picture. He said New Hampshire is leaving money on the table.

“Even a portion of $100 million is a lot of money,” Stinson said.

If he could have successfully pitched New Hampshire for that project, he would have, but he said he had a lot of help from partners in the Massachusetts film office that made all the difference. The existing New Hampshire film office is relatively small and under-resourced, he said.

That’s why Stinson said the office needs an upgrade, not elimination.

“This is kind of slipping the rug out from underneath us,” he said.

The state said the new process, proposed by Gov. Chris Sununu, will be more streamlined and efficient.

“While the workload of the Bureau of Film and Digital Media has declined for the past several years, the Governor’s budget proposal ensures that the Division of Travel and Tourism Development will retain sufficient resources to meet the needs of New Hampshire’s film industry,” said NH Business and Economic Affairs Commission Taylor Caswell, in an emailed statement. “Further, this consolidation of services ensures a more comprehensive approach, spearheaded by the Department of Business and Economic Affairs, to promote the development of New Hampshire’s travel and tourism industry.”

While filmmakers like Stinson see it as a setback, New Hampshire already has a lot going for it, Stinson said. What it needs is an effective way to get the word out, and a central access point for producers to work through.

Stinson and Greene, who also received six Oscar nominations for their work as line producers on Sound of Metal, which was also filmed in various Massachusetts communities, are part of a group of local filmmakers and industry pros who are talking about potential ways they can create a film scene in the Granite State that can rival, or at least siphon business from, our neighbor to the south.

Over the past year, Tim Messina, the owner of Events United and Studio Lab in Derry, has made significant investments in the burgeoning technology of virtual production — the kind of technology that combined massive LCD screens and virtual reality to create the convincing backdrops used in The Mandalorian on Disney+.

They’ve already used the technology to film a number of commercial advertisements and independent films, making it possible to forego expensive location shoots in favor of a high-tech soundstage.

Messina said that technology is still not very common, and could be a competitive edge for the state. 

And while Massachusetts offers a 25 percent tax credit, and states like Maine are increasing their’s, to attract more film business, New Hampshire has no such tax incentive. 

Stinson said the state still has a huge selling point by having no sales tax, but even a small tax incentive would go a long way toward winning bids. And it could be tied to money spent, to ensure the incentive is worthwhile.

On a virtual production set with Ian Messina and his cousin, Owen, filming a commercial for Velcro. Photo by Joel Pelletier/Studio Lab

“That would be crazy helpful,” Stinson said.

While filming, companies spend thousands on hotels, rental cars and catering. If they have to close a downtown location for filming, each impacted business gets paid a good sum for the days they’re closed. If a company wants to rent a house or a mansion, they can end up paying up to $10,000 a day.

Stinson said compared to Massachusetts, production companies would likely have to spend far less in New Hampshire.

“I know you can do that for so much less in New Hampshire,” he said.

With all the movement to Massachusetts, New Hampshire film insiders got to talking.

“This kind of propelled it forward because we realized if we wanted to make it a voice for the state, we needed more people,” Messina said.

Messina, Stinson, Greene, along with Tyler York of Big Brick Productions, Portsmouth-based producer Nicole Galovski of Culture House, filmmaker Karlina Lyons and others starting talking about what it would take to put the New Hampshire film industry on the map.

“There’s a group of us, we’ve been meeting for a year and a half,” Messina said. 

Realizing the benefits of a larger film business would extend not just to top producers but 50 or 60 other types of local jobs, including photographers, graphic designers, motion designers, people who work in special effects and audio and so on, they put feelers out to see who would support this kind of advocacy. Messina said they got over 100 people to sign on, including folks who represent businesses that employ hundreds of people. 

“There’s more than we realized, because there’s never been an effort to bring the entire community together before,” Messina said. 

Some states have nonprofit organizations that fill the role of a one-stop-shop for attracting and assisting film producers. Messina said if a production company contacted Cincinnati, Ohio, and sent them a copy of a script, the organization there will come back with a list of potential locations and possible financial incentives.

Messina said the group is considering the possibility of creating such a nonprofit here in New Hampshire, but it’s still very much in the conceptual phase.

“It just comes down to community. Knowing there’s a community that’s gonna be there and support you,” Stinson said. “It would be interesting to see what homegrown talent and people from New England can do.”

For Messina and Stinson, it remains to be seen whether the Division of Travel and Tourism Development will be up to the task. But a vibrant film industry does have a feedback effect on the broader tourism industry, they said. 

A popular way to attract tourists in Massachusetts, for example, is to mark the map with the filming locations of popular movies.