LEWISTON — More movie productions ought to be working and spending in Maine, the former director of the Maine Film Office said Thursday.

But that won’t happen until the state offers incentives to producers that would return one-fifth of a production’s cost to the moviemakers, Lea Girardin told an audience at the Great Falls Forum lecture series.

Without it, Maine cannot compete with places that offer incentives of up to 30 percent, she said.

“As far as feature films go, we can’t play in that park right now,” she said.

For much of the 1990s and the early 2000s, Maine drew major film producers and big stars. Mel Gibson made “The Man Without a Face.” Cameron Diaz and Harvey Keitel starred in “Head Above Water.” Kevin Costner and Paul Newman made “Message in a Bottle.” “In the Bedroom” starred Sissy Spacek and Marisa Tomei. And Newman returned with Ed Harris and Holly Hunter to make “Empire Falls.”

“That was a wonderful last, big production,” Girardin said of the acclaimed HBO miniseries, which shot around Skowhegan and Waterville in 2005.

Today, movie studios won’t contemplate filming in Maine, which offers to cover between 6 and 7 percent of budget costs, Girardin said.

A proposed law making its way through the Maine Legislature would change that.

The new bill likely would direct the state to cover about 20 percent of budget costs. It could bring millions into the state, Girardin said. 

Last year, TV and commercial production brought about $8 million into Maine.

“That’s less than half of what we had been making,” she said. “We have to offer incentives, even if we want low- to medium-budget films.”

Though she no longer leads the Maine Film Office, Girardin plans to keep careful watch of the legislation.

She is hoping for the support of Gov. Paul LePage.

As the mayor of Waterville, LePage witnessed some of the production of “Empire Falls.”

“He’s seen it firsthand,” Girardin said. “He knows how it works. He knows how the money spreads through the community. I do think he’s behind us, as much as he can be.”

In a way, film production is her legacy.

The Maine Film Office was created after the now-classic movie “On Golden Pond” with Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn was made in New Hampshire. As written, the story was set in Maine. But the state had no incentives and no film office.

The Maine Film Office launched in 1988 with Girardin at the head. 

Girardin, co-founder of Waterville’s Railroad Square Cinema, offered information to location scouts and worked with towns to ease possible roadblocks to filming.

Jump-started by adaptations of Stephen King works, film production took off.

“During these years, we brought in an average of $18 million annually,” she said.

It halted suddenly when Louisiana and New Mexico began offering huge incentives. It was followed by states such as Massachusetts, which has seen several big productions in recent years.

Girardin retired in November after 22 years in her post.

She still has faith in Maine as a nearly ideal location for movie crews.

“You’ve got the Midwest in Aroostook County,” she said. “You’ve got the ocean cliffs on the northern part of the coast. You’ve got post-industrial America. You’ve got quaint New England towns — so many looks are right here in Maine.”

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