Date published: September 8, 2008

Top row: left photo by Caroline Bonarde Ucci; middle photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures. bottom row: left photo by Richard Cartwright © 2008 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. and Beverly Blvd LLC. All rights reserved; middle photo courtesy of Boston Movie tours; right photo by Jonathan Daisy

READY FOR OUR CLOSEUP: (Left, top row, left to right) Bruce Willis, who was recently in town filming The Surrogates; Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon filming the 2006 film The Departed; Boston-area comic Dane Cook, star of the upcoming Boston-shot release My Best Friend's Girl. (Middle row, left to right) Steve Martin, who plays Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther 2, filmed here in 2007; Meg Ryan in the the upcoming, Boston-set release The Women; Will Arnett in the 2007 locally-shot indie flick On Broadway. (Bottom row, left to right) Kevin James in the locally-filmed Paul Blart: Mall Cop, to be released in 2009; a nighttime shoot for the 2007 Ben Affleck film Gone Baby Gone; visitors enjoying the L Street Tavern, site of several scenes in 1997's Good Will Hunting.

The Freedom Trail hasn't been replaced by a star-studded Walk of Fame, and the John Hancock Tower hasn't found itself standing in the shadow of a giant HOLLYWOOD sign. But there's no doubt in the minds of major movie studios and high-grossing box office superstars that the city of Boston is indeed ready for its close-up.

Over the last 24 months, Boston has garnered the nickname "Hollywood East" in some circles because of the sheer volume of big-time Hollywood stars that have come to the Hub to lens their latest films. Legendary director Martin Scorsese seemed to kick off this unprecedented era of local movie magic when he assembled Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon, among other heavy hitters, to film the mob drama The Departed in 2005. Since then, everyone from Denzel Washington (The Great Debaters) to Kevin Spacey (21) to Ben Affleck (Gone Baby Gone) to Jennifer Garner and Matthew McConaughey (the upcoming romantic comedy Ghosts of Girlfriends Past) have taken over the streets of Boston, crafting their latest pieces of cinematic gold.

"I always used to joke that producers came to Massachusetts to shoot three things: foliage, Harvard Square and rowers on the Charles River," says Angela Peri, a veteran Boston actor and, since 1991, the owner of local casting agency Boston Casting. "Now it's just exploded here in Boston. Instead of coming for a week, movie studios are coming here for 12-, 14-, 16-week shoots."

Just within the last month, superstar Bruce Willis shot his upcoming sci-fi thriller The Surrogates in various towns throughout the Commonwealth, and if you walk out on the streets of Boston today you might well run into Mel Gibson or Robert DeNiro, who are currently shooting the police drama Edge of Darkness all around Boston.

Extra! Extra!

Okay, so you've accepted that your chance at becoming the next Mel Gibson or Russell Crowe-esque leading man may be a pipe dream. But that doesn't mean you can't experience the excitement of appearing in a Hollywood film - even if only for a brief moment. The increase in films being shot here in Boston has dramatically expanded the market for extras - those nameless, silent throngs that pass through the background of every film from Ben Hur to High School Musical. Angela Peri (pictured above), owner of Boston Casting, offers her suggestions on what it takes to become a big-time movie extra.

Make yourself known to casting agents: "Go to, where we post information about open casting calls in the area, and where you can sign up online for our database. We'll e-mail people on that list about shoots we have coming up."

What to bring: "If you're cast as an extra, the best thing to bring to set is a good attitude and two forms of ID. Oh, and a book - expect a 12-hour day with a lot of sitting around."

What not to bring: "Leave any valuables at home. You have to be ready to drop everything and shoot at a moment's notice, and you won't have a locker to stow stuff."

What about the bottom line? "Non-union extras make $112 for 12 hours. It's basically minimum wage, but consider that you get to sit around, read the paper and spend the day hanging with Bruce Willis or Mel Gibson."

Why has Boston become a movie mecca all of a sudden? Like anything that has to do with the film industry, the bottom-line reason is financial. In 2006, the Massachusetts Film Tax Credit received a major upgrade: filmmakers who shoot at least half of their movie or spend half of their budget here in Massachusetts now receive tax credits equal to 25% of their total spending within the Bay State and are eligible for a 100% sales tax exemption on anything they purchase in-state for their production. These tax breaks are among the most generous to be found anywhere in the U.S., and have had plenty of directors and producers flocking to Beantown to make movies.

In addition to the tax breaks producers get, a big reason for Massachusetts' popularity as a shooting location is its visual diversity. "Boston has everything from historic buildings to small and quirky neighborhoods," says Rachel Coveney, whose husband, Jeff, started popular sightseeing walk The Boston Movie Tours (refer to tours listing) in 2005, taking film lovers to the sites immortalized in past films shot in the Boston area - like 1970's Love Story, 1994's Blown Away and 1997's Good Will Hunting - as well as sites like the "Cheers" bar (the inspiration for the long-running TV show) and other buildings used as exteriors for small-screen stalwarts like "Boston Legal," "Ally McBeal" and "Spenser For Hire" were shot. "Plus, Boston's all new to the studios. They've used Hollywood, New York and Canada to death over the years."

Add to that a chameleonic ability to stand in for just about anywhere, and Boston can be viewed as a sort of ultimate soundstage where the backdrops are already built, according to Peri. "We had Pink Panther 2 here, and the city of Boston was standing in for Paris," she says. "They used the Boston Public Library to substitute for the Vatican. The Proposal [a romantic comedy starring Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds] shot in Gloucester, which was standing in for a tiny fishing village in Alaska, and State Street in the Financial District is where productions shoot when they want to simulate New York City. From gritty working-class neighborhoods, to the seaside, to the mountains, producers can get pretty much any shot they want around here."

As the amount of filming in Boston has grown, the Boston Movie Tours have grown with it, says Coveney. What began with a one-mile walking tour has grown into a second tour - the Theatre-on-Wheels bus tour, which takes movie buffs all around the city to take in film locations from the Boston Public Garden (Alex and Emma, A Civil Action) to the Back Bay (Fever Pitch, The Firm) to South Boston (Good Will Hunting, Mystic River, The Verdict) as tourgoers watch scenes from the aforementioned films on video monitors aboard the bus and answer movie trivia questions.

"When we started the Movie Tours, we basically had The Departed and the films that had come before, and we would have been happy to base the tour around just that," says Coveney. "Now we have new films shooting every month, and it gives us the opportunity to constantly refresh and change the tour. We feel so lucky."

The motion picture industry's commitment to Massachusetts as a site for feature film shoots is so strong that at least three separate locations have been touted as potential future homes for full-fledged movie studios in the Bay State. In May, voters in the southern Massachusetts town of Plymouth overwhelmingly voted in favor of a proposal to allocate 300 acres of land as the future site of the planned Plymouth Rock Studios. An organization called International Studio Group has approached the coastal town of Weymouth about building a $300 million studio complex on 30 acres there, and there's even talks of building a state-of-the-art soundstage in South Boston.

"I've been waiting for the other shoe to drop, but there's been no sign of this slowing down," says Peri. "The tax credit bill runs through 2025, and I have a feeling Boston's going to be in demand for a long time to come."