Mystic Pizza
Mystic Pizza in the Mystic section of Stonington, CT, famous for the 1988 movie of the same name with Julia Roberts, photograph Aug. 14, 2014. Credit: Enrico Della Pietra / Shutterstock

As the labor stoppage by actors and writers in Hollywood drags into its fifth month, it’s worth asking how it’s affecting Connecticut and whether the state’s attempts to lure filmmakers here are working.

Not surprisingly, Connecticut is feeling some of the same effects as other locations where film and television is produced. Earlier this month, the Hartford Courant interviewed one Connecticut film producer, Andrew Gernhard, the owner of Synthetic Cinema International in Rocky Hill. He told the paper bluntly that the strike has “put the kibosh” on movie production in the state.

Gernhard was quick to add, however, that once it became clear that a strike was likely, he intentionally planned more projects than usual at the beginning of the year. And post-production work does not require the striking workers, so his company has spent the last four months finishing up the films it had started.

One of Gernhard’s films was shot in Mystic, the site of one of Connecticut’s most famous movies, “Mystic Pizza.” Many films shot in Connecticut in recent years, including the four Gernhard’s company completed recently, are Hallmark productions.

Why is Connecticut an attractive location for filmmakers? For one thing, the state is centrally located with access to several nearby major cities such as Boston, New York and Philadelphia.

To wit, if you’re filming primarily in New York but need to shoot some scenes set in a place imbued with New England charm, towns such as New Canaan, Essex and Chester are a lot closer than Woodstock, Vermont, or Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. And with its shoreline, lakes, small cities, suburbs and country towns, Connecticut has bragging rights to a wide variety of authentic-looking structures and landscapes.

There are at least 20 film festivals held here. And Connecticut is a terrific place to study film, too. Several colleges here have respected film studies programs, perhaps most notably Yale and Wesleyan universities. UConn and Connecticut College also have programs. Majors and minors in film studies are available at those schools.

Even more attractive are the various tax incentives available through the state Department of Economic and Community Development. The question is whether those tax breaks — and the resulting loss of revenue – are worth it.

As the CT Mirror reported earlier this year, through tax incentives, $1.5 billion has been granted to the film, television and digital media industry since the program’s inception in 2007. Hearst Connecticut Media reported in March that half a billion dollars was spent by the film industry in the state during fiscal year 2022, with a fiscal benefit to the state of less than $1 million.

As it has for more than a decade, the program, administered through the Office of Film, TV and Digital Media, lost money in 2022. Last year, then-DECD head David Lehman recommended “dialing back” the tax incentives.

It is true that, in addition to the jobs directly connected to the project, productions bring in revenue for the local economy, including rental companies, hotels, restaurants and bars — all of which, in turn, pay sales taxes to the state. Still, one has to wonder if the tax credit, which the libertarian-leaning Yankee Institute has estimated burdens taxpayers to the tune of $100 million per year, is worth it. Furthermore, the institute adds, those costs are “often claimed, not by film companies who sell the tax credits, but by Connecticut’s insurance industry.”

Citing another report commissioned by the state itself, the institute also says, “There is evidence that Connecticut’s film industry owes its continued existence to these tax credits,” leading to questions about whether it should be abandoned. Indeed, state Rep. Josh Eliott, a progressive Democrat from Hamden, has filed a bill to phase out the film production tax credit. In the end, you can be sure that the question of whether to continue all the tax incentives will be based on a mixture of economics and politics.

Meanwhile, the strike continues with no clear end in sight. As I wrote on Substack, it all boils down to money and job protections. As is almost always the case, the two sides aren’t on the same page in terms of wages, but the gap is close enough that it can be bridged.

The other bones of contention are more complicated and perhaps intractable. The actors are upset that residuals have dropped dramatically with the decline of conventional television delivered via cable. Many of the old episodes of TV shows that used to be run in syndication now reside instead on the streaming platforms of the networks, where they can be accessed on-demand by subscribers, resulting in less revenue to both the networks and the creative community.

Writers and actors are also concerned about the use of artificial intelligence or, in effect, being replaced by robots. This is more complicated even than the residuals. I do agree that actors and writers should be fairly compensated for content generated by AI that uses their likenesses or ideas. But to object to automation on the grounds that it will result in job losses is a fool’s errand. We might as well never have invented the assembly line. Or maybe we should ban the automated check-out line at Stop & Shop, or fire Marty the robot, who cleans up spills and other hazards in the produce aisle.

It’s hard to find a solid estimate of the unemployment rate for actors, and I haven’t found any for screen and television writers. I’ve seen numbers for actors that range from 33% to 85%. Doesn’t that suggest we have too many actors and not enough work? I was an undergrad drama major and an aspiring actor, but I took one look at those numbers in 1982 and decided the odds weren’t good for finding steady work with benefits. So, for better or worse, here I am.

Unions can bargain for higher wages and better benefits, but that provides companies with greater incentives to automate. It’s a double-edged sword. It can be painful but disruptive change is inevitable in market economies. Ask anyone who, like me, has worked in the imperiled newspaper industry, where dozens of my friends and colleagues have lost their jobs.

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, is a Substack columnist and is the retired managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him here.

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