Sean Mewshaw (right) directs actors Jason Sudeikis and Rebecca Hall in the 2015 comedy "Tumbledown," set in Farmington, Maine, but shot in and around Concord and Groton, Massachusetts. Mewshaw wanted to shoot the film in Maine but his financiers insisted on producing it in a state with strong tax credit film incentives. Credit: Credit: Courtesy of Seacia Pavao

“Welcome to Derry,” an HBO Max prequel series based on Stephen King’s 1986 horror novel “It,” began filming on May 1.

Like its predecessor movies, “It” and “It: Chapter Two,” the 10-episode prequel will not be shot in the book’s fictional town of Derry, Maine, assumed to be near Bangor. It is being shot in Toronto and nearby Port Hope, which filmmakers say looks like a small American town. The 1990 miniseries adaptation was similarly filmed in British Columbia.

It is an often-repeated scenario for stories set in Maine but shot elsewhere because of more lucrative incentives. The state competes with many other locations to attract filmmakers, but it is doing poorly, according to an oversight report submitted to the Legislature in March.

That report offered a scathing review of Maine’s visual media incentives that began in 2006 and remain among the smallest in the nation, saying they “have had limited effect and have not been adequately administered.” Film industry professionals in Maine are trying to change that.

They are asking policymakers to make it easier to base productions here. One Maine bill aims to at least double wage incentives to make the state more competitive with Massachusetts, which offers a 25 percent wage credit, compared with between 10 percent and 12 percent here.

The Canadian province of Ontario, where the two “It” films and the prequel are produced, offers a tax credit of 35 percent on qualified labor expenditures, which gets bumped up to 40 percent for first-time producers.

“Those incentives are hard to compete with,” said Sean Mewshaw, a director and producer who runs Portland-based Rusticator Pictures with his wife, Desiree Van Til. “The incentives that are currently in place here are so miserly as to seem ridiculous to film financiers.”

Mewshaw said the film industry has become addicted to incentives, and bumping up Maine’s contributions could make a big difference in its ability to attract major films.

He and his wife moved to Maine from California 14 years ago to work on their film “Tumbledown,” a tribute to Farmington that was released in 2015. But limited incentives and strict rules on using tax credits in Maine forced Mewshaw to move production to Massachusetts.

The film industry is prospering there. In 2017, the 148 productions filmed there received $87.4 million in tax credits and generated $10 million in new state revenue, according to state data.

Maine had only 54 media productions created between 2013 and 2022 that used one of the state’s visual media incentives, the oversight report said. The incentives are administered by the Maine Film Office, which is located in the Maine Office of Tourism within the Department of Economic and Community Development and Maine Revenue Services.

By increasing incentives and taking other small steps to relax rules, Maine could quickly grow its industry, Mewshaw said. Maine’s film and video production industry has a total economic impact of $64.3 million in revenue, 609 jobs and $28.7 in labor income, according to a 2021 study by the Maine Film Association, a 200-member professional organization. That includes the effect on other industries, including hospitality, retail, trades, legal and accounting services.

The association and film advocacy group Picture Maine are trying to get the word out about media production in Maine and how to build up the industry. Another study due out this summer is underway to analyze Maine’s production capacity constraints, opportunities, talent and workforce.

Efforts are afoot to make Maine more competitive location to film movies.
Efforts are afoot to make Maine more competitive as a movie location. Credit: Courtesy of Victoria Morton via Pexels

DECD Commissioner Heather Johnson said in a March letter to the Legislature’s oversight committee that the Olsberg SPI study would help her office better understand gaps and how improvements could increase production. The department cannot increase incentives without direction and approval from the Legislature.

The film industry brings more than Hollywood executives looking for tax breaks, said Emma Gregg Brego, president of the Maine Film Association and a production director at p3 Maine, a Portland-based filmmaking company. When she worked on the 2019 movie “Blow the Man Down” in Harpswell, she said a crew of roughly 50 descended on the tiny midcoast town in the winter when no one else was visiting, giving it an economic boost by using hotels, restaurants and gas, as well as hiring 20 locals as extras.

Service industry skills also transfer to sets, and people can make money renting out their backyard or homes, Gregg Brego noted.

“I wish more people understood that this is not about lining the pockets of fancy filmmakers from out of state,” she said. “It’s about creating alternate revenue streams for this state.”

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Lori Valigra

Lori Valigra, senior reporter for economy and business, holds an M.S. in journalism from Boston University. She was a Knight journalism fellow at M.I.T. and has extensive international reporting experience...