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RI On The Big Screen

Forty-three minutes into the 1974 film version of The Great Gatsby, there is a moment when Robert Redford, dressed in a spotless white suit, steps into the frame to greet Mia Farrow’s Daisy …

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Smallest State, Greatest Backlot
One of the best parts of living in Rhode Island is that no matter where you are standing at this moment, you are less than an hour from the beaches of Narragansett, the theaters and restaurants of Providence, the mansions of Newport and the woods of Glocester. It is precisely this wealth of locations in convenient proximity that has helped make Rhode Island an attractive place not only for its residents and tourists, but also for production companies looking to make movies.

Over the past ten years, Rhode Island’s film industry has grown significantly. Since 2011, the Ocean State has served as the backdrop for Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, Woody Allen’s Irrational Man and Maya Forbes’ Infinitely Polar Bear, for which Mark Ruffalo was nominated for a Golden Globe in 2016. This year will see a number of films shot in Rhode Island hitting theaters, including Sacha Gervasi’s November Criminals, the Martin Scorsese-produced Bleed for This and the third installment of highly successful The Purge franchise, The Purge: Election Year.

As Steven Feinberg, Executive Director of the Rhode Island Film and Television Office, explains, this boom, in large part, can be attributed to Rhode Island’s 25% movie production tax incentive. The program – which Steven says was one of the first of its kind and has since been “emulated by many other states” – allows Rhode Island to compete financially with other states and countries that offer tax credits to production companies.

But that isn’t the whole story. As Steven puts it, “In the big city, you’re a number, but in Rhode Island, you’re a neighbor.” Rhode Island’s small size, which could be seen as a detriment, has been turned into one of its greatest assets. As the Film and Television Office’s website proclaims: “Welcome to Rhode Island: Smallest State, Greatest Backlot.”

From Cumberland to Hollywood (and Back Again)
To find out if this slogan held up, I recently spoke with Erika Hampson, co-producer of The Discovery, a current production starring Robert Redford. A native of Cumberland, Erika was instrumental in bringing The Discovery to Rhode Island as well as Infinitely Polar Bear and the forthcoming drama Measure of a Man directed by Jim Loach and starring Donald Sutherland, Judy Greer and Luke Wilson.

Asked why she encourages producers and directors to film in Rhode Island, I heard many of the same qualities touted by Steven. “This state gives filmmakers much to play with,” Erika says. “Creatively speaking, there’s a lot of variety and so many different looks.  The beach, the city, fancy, gritty.” Even though she’s now a resident of New York City, she says that working in Rhode Island allows her to come home, both professionally and personally. “I’ve been here enough times now that I know the crew and key players. Also, with my family still living in Cumberland, it’s nice to be able to spend time with my parents and my brother and his family on the weekends. I can’t do that if I’m working in New Orleans or Vancouver or one of the many other places I’ve been lucky enough to work in.”

Erika’s work in Rhode Island has not gone unnoticed. On the night of this year’s Academy Awards, the state’s film community gathered at Veterans Memorial Auditorium to kick off the 20th Anniversary of the Flickers’ Rhode Island International Film Festival and celebrate the achievement of Erika and four other honorees – Chad A. Verdi, Trudy Coxe, Richard Marr-Griffin and Mauro Colangelo.

Receiving her Producer’s Circle Award, Erika credited Steven and “the fantastic local crew” for making working in Rhode Island “such a wonderful experience.” She also praised Chris O’Donnell and Kevin Sciotto, heads of the New England Studio Mechanics Union, saying, “I would make all my movies in New England if it meant getting to work with both of them every time.”

The Next Generation of Filmmakers
Along with bringing production jobs and tourists to the Ocean State, the boom in Rhode Island’s film industry has been credited with increasing students’ interest in film careers. As Steven explains, his office has helped connect college students with internships on a number of recent productions. He has also been able to act as a liaison, bringing in filmmakers to speak about movie making with students.

Asked about her own start, Erika says she began her career as a personal assistant. Graduating from Boston College in 1999, she moved to New York, first landing a job on The Queen Latifah Show and, two years later, becoming Vincent D’Onofrio’s assistant on the long-running crime procedural Law & Order: Criminal Intent. She made the jump to producing in 2008 when Vincent directed the indie horror-musical Don’t Go in the Woods. Since then, Erika has worked as a producer on numerous projects, including Robot & Frank, winner of the Alfred P. Sloan Prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, and God’s Pocket, starring Rhode Island’s Richard Jenkins, Christina Hendricks and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.

So what advice would Erika give to students in Rhode Island interested in working in the film industry? “Do whatever it takes to get your foot in the door. If you hear of a movie coming to town, be proactive. Call the production office or wander by the set to talk to anyone who looks official and offer to work your butt off… for free, if necessary.”

Though she is currently helping scout sites and manage budgets, Erika makes it clear that she started by getting people coffee, arriving to set early, and staying late. “When you’re starting out,” she says, “No task is too small or menial. You may not realize it, but if you are a hard worker, if you’re kind and if you have a good attitude, people will take notice and they will want to keep you around.” She concludes, “In this business, it takes a little luck and timing to get that first opportunity. The rest is up to you.”