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February 15, 2011

VT Filmmakers Say Film Commission Is "Failing" at Its Mission

Almost exactly a year ago, the Associated Press ran a widely circulated article about the potential end of the Vermont Film Commission. The tiny state agency, headed by Executive Director Joe Bookchin, was threatened by then-Gov. Jim Douglas' budget cuts.

The VFC was spared. But now it faces a damning critique -- from some of Vermont's most prominent filmmakers.

The diverse group includes John O'Brien (Man With a Plan), Jay Craven (A Stranger in the Kingdom), David Giancola (who directed Anna Nicole Smith in her final role in Illegal Aliens) and Rusty "The Logger" DeWees.

This afternoon, a letter signed by 11 filmmakers was sent to Gov. Peter Shumlin and various state legislators. It calls for a "restructuring" (not elimination) of the VFC and opens thus:

We, the undersigned filmmakers, believe that, in its current form, the Vermont Film Commission (VFC) is squandering taxpayers’ dollars and no longer effective for filmmakers, or Vermont. We recommend a re-structuring that will save money in the short term and, ultimately, produce new revenue for the state.

What's wrong with the VFC? The letter continues:

The original mission of the Vermont Film Commission was to attract Hollywood feature film productions and TV commercial shoots to Vermont.  Over the years, the mission expanded to include the nurturing of in-state film and media production, distribution, and exhibition.
Presently, the VFC is failing at both these missions.

Without a state program of tax incentives, the filmmakers point out, Vermont simply can't attract Hollywood folks. It's been over a decade since we hosted a big production. (That would be the Farrelly brothers' comedy Me, Myself & Irene and What Lies Beneath, both partially shot here in 1999.)

But tax incentives are "not viable at this time," the filmmakers acknowledge. There's no room in the state budget for the sort of perks that have made Boston into a magnet for Hollywood producers. (See The Town, The Social Network, Shutter Island and other big productions with Beantown shoots -- on which some Vermont-based film professionals were employed.)

If it's not luring Hollywood's big money, what's the purpose of the VFC? The letter's signers believe it should be "growing the Vermont filmmaking and new media industry that’s here already."

They explain:

The Vermont film community is diverse, talented, far-flung and untapped.  It includes:  independent filmmakers; editors; actors; cinematographers; film crew professionals; exhibitors (cinema owners); teachers and students of new media (college and high school); inn keepers; restaurateurs; caterers; carpenters; musicians; video game programmers; even wedding videographers.


Furthermore, this is an industry that doesn’t need to be “bribed” to do business in Vermont!  Unfortunately, this community, and its potential, is being ignored by the VFC.

True, the VFC boasts a website where local film pros can post their resumes and offer their services. But the commission, the filmmakers say, isn't doing enough to address the nitty-gritty questions:

What can we do to keep our tech-savvy, new media graduates in the state?  How can we help the independent Vermont producer make a $3 million (or $30,000) movie here, distribute it to 100 theatres around New England, and sell 50,000 DVDs at Vermont general stores?  What is it going to take to get Vermont political candidates (or state-funded colleges, or Vermont hospitals, or the Vermont Lottery) to hire Vermont-based production companies to make their commercials? 

At a time when online video is the new advertising frontier, the last question is the money shot.

The signers are asking: With a film commission to maintain a database of local talent, why do some big Vermont organizations look out of state for their TV and new-media PR? Do local film pros lack the skills to compete? Or are we selling them poorly?

The letter's signers believe the VFC is the problem, and they word their opinion strongly:

It's time to reform the VFC.
We need new leadership.  As it stands now, no VFC would be better than what we have. 

So, what's the solution?

The filmmakers offer two concrete proposals. First, they want Shumlin to "[e]liminate the [VFC's] Executive Director position and hire a part-time administrator" who would "start reaching out to the Vermont film industry, 'Hi. We’re open for business. How can we help?'”

Second, they want to "[h]old several town meetings where the Vermont film community deliberates [on] the future of the VFC," elect an advisory panel and offer "recommendations for going forward by the start of the next legislative session."

In a nutshell: new leadership, more input from the grassroots filmmaking community. "As Vermonters," the signers write, "we believe that the state government is our government; likewise, as Vermont filmmakers, we believe that the Vermont Film Commission should be our commission."

To some Vermonters, all this may sound like inside baseball. Film and video don't exactly rank with maple syrup among our best-known exports. Still, the letter's signers include some heavy hitters. Besides the aforementioned O'Brien, Craven, DeWees and Giancola, they include

The signers represent a range of perspectives, too. Giancola, who has brought TV film crews to Vermont with his Rutland-based Edgewood Studios, was vocal in his support for tax incentives when the state legislature considered that option.

"When we bring a production in, not only do we spend a lot of money, but there's a huge trickle-down effect, and there's a tourism benefit," Giancola told me last February in a phone interview. The film industry, he added, is "about as environmentally friendly an industry as you can get. The worst thing we would do is blow up a used car."

Craven, for his part, thinks the state should focus more on fostering indigenous production. In an interview with me last year, he called tax incentives "more an economic development tool than a cultural development tool," adding, "film incentives are good in the absence of a national policy. But, in reality, it just gets the states competing for Hollywood movies."

Clearly, though, both filmmakers -- and their fellow signers -- believe the VFC needs to do more to support Vermont's burgeoning ranks of film and video professionals, or face the prospect of their departure. When I talked to Giancola, he mentioned skilled young people like Nathan Beaman -- who's worked on several of those big Boston productions -- and Mike Turner, who's done makeup effects for Edgewood.

Can the VFC give them reason to stick around? How does Exec Director Bookchin -- who got his job in the wake of a major house cleaning just four years ago -- respond to the filmmakers' broadside? We should find out in the next few days.

Maybe the outspoken Giancola -- who's a fount of anecdotes about the local antics of stars like Morgan Fairchild and James Coburn -- put it best. He said a year ago, "I love my state so much that I don't like where it's going. I'm not going to stop. I'm not going to give up on these guys."



Are there tax incentives for out of state film production? I seem to recall what's-his-face from Miami Vice screaming about about having to pay Vermont income taxes on a film he shot here.

On the marriage equality legislation - the media buying, production, script writing, voices etc. - was all done right out of our our firm in Montpelier, using talent from around the state. It was top quality, locally-grown, faster and more flexible than anything that could have been done out of state. It remains a mystery why Vermont politicians and other entities continue to go outside Vermont. Political campaigns are not innovative so they go with the DC consultants. They will come around eventually.

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