Vermont Has Film Festivals, but Does It Have a Film Industry?

Artwork by Steve Hogan

by Mike Dunphy

Living abroad, it was often a challenge for me to explain Vermont. The vast majority of people I’d meet had never heard of it, and oddly, would often confuse it with vermouth.  Thankfully, when The Lord of the Rings movies came out, I was able to say, “You know Hobbiton? That’s essentially Vermont”—a secluded, pastoral, hilly, green landscape where hearts (and bodies) are stout, often hairy, and loving of ale and pipe weed.

In other words, Vermont is a cinematic place, a fact long proved over the years with films either set or made in the Green Mountain State, including such notable films as The Trouble with Harry; The Cider House Rules; Beetlejuice; Something Wicked This Way Comes; Me, Myself & Irene; Baby Boom; What Lies Beneath; and more.

But if the late 1990s and early 2000s marked the high tide of film production in Vermont, the 2010s may be its lowest ebb, with only a smattering of productions taking place over the past decade. Much of the reason can be tied to the collapse of the Vermont Film Commission in 2011 and its successor, the Office of Creative Economy a few years later, leaving the state with no unifying authority or cheerleader for film and television production in Vermont, and few obvious financial incentives for any filmmakers near or far to saddle up cameras and crews.

For Vermont-based filmmakers such as the award-winning Bess O’Brien and husband, Jay Craven, that presents significant challenges to both developing homegrown productions and wooing outside productions to the state. With no coordinating body, when films or TV shows do come, it often means talent in Vermont gets overlooked and outside help imported, particularly in “below-the-line” jobs such as carpenters, camera operators, make-up artists, and more.

“There used to be a website,” O’Brien remembers, “where you could say, ‘I need a gaffer, where do I find one?’” But it doesn’t exist anymore, relegating locals to their individual silos. “There are certainly filmmakers, technical people, and videographers in the state, but I don’t think everybody knows who those people are.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Philip Gilpin, Jr., executive director of the Independent Television Festival (ITV), which moved from Los Angeles to southern Vermont in 2012. The lack of coordination was the main inspiration for his co-founding the Vermont Production Council in 2016 to fill the role the Vermont Film Commission once did, “to identify and promote resources from around the state and to connect them with content creators seeking locations, experienced screenwriters, cinematographers, production accountants, equipment manufacturers, and industry professionals of all trades,” according to the Council’s website. 

Happily, the initial results of the Council’s first efforts to assess and collect the level of existing talent has been surprisingly positive. “We’ve discovered more people in Vermont than originally thought. We already have a pretty significant TV and film network that can be activated without having to build it ourselves,” say Gilpin.

That’s a key factor for attracting Hollywood and major television productions if it is properly harnessed and marketed, according to Gilpin. “Hollywood doesn’t care about the size of the population of a state,” he explains. “They just want two things: They want to have available the talent that can get the job done, and they want it done as cheaply as possible. So if Vermont can give them both talent and low cost, they’ll come to Vermont.”

As with any business, however, it usually comes down to dollars and cents, and while Vermont can indeed offer film crews significant savings in costs compared with other states, it’s failing to provide direct financial support, particularly in the form of tax incentives. Nor does the state and state organizations offer any significant grants to filmmakers or even fund marketers to promote Vermont at film festivals, film markets, and conferences.

“You can find talent anywhere,” O’Brien points out, “You can find actors. You can find gaffers. You can find directors. You can find writers. That’s not the problem. The problem is the money to make the movie. It is just a huge, huge challenge.”

Filmmakers looking to the Vermont Arts Council—and by extension the National Endowment for the Arts—to provide support in the form of grants should expect to be majorly disappointed. “The Arts Council gives very small grants because the National Endowment for the Arts has been cut to shreds,” O’Brien explains. “When you are getting $3,000 grants and you are making a $250,000 movie, you might as well not write the grant proposal.”

But the larger missing piece of the financial puzzle is related to the lack of tax incentives, which most states offer to lure productions. Essentially, this means rebates and credits for productions made in state. On average these run between 10 and 30 percent. The idea is that the overall economic impact of a production, including hotels, restaurants, transport, entertainment, jobs, and more, creates a net profit.

That’s a big reason why the 2016 film A Christmas in Vermont was filmed in New York, which offers hefty incentive packages that start with a “30-percent fully refundable tax credit on qualified production and post production costs while filming in the state,” and adds bonuses the more you spend. Massachusetts is also generous, offering a 25-percent production credit, a 25-percent payroll credit, and a sales tax exemption, among other incentives.

That Vermont offers nothing is often fuel for awkward silences among producers and promoters. “When we go out there and people ask us what kind of support the state offers,” Gilpin points out, “right now that’s a question we can’t answer, and it’s an awkward moment in the conversation when you are trying to sell something, and the thing you are trying to sell is not sure of its support yet.”

There is some movement, or at least commitment to movement at the state level, according to Wendy Knight, Commissioner of the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing. “The governor is very interested in fostering a thriving film and TV production industry, and I’ve been working with the governor’s office and the legislature and various groups in terms of looking at ways me might support the industry. We don’t have the funding for tax credits but there are a lot of other things we can do.” Knight points to thinkvermont.com, a state marketing campaign and website launched in October 2017, where she plans to develop a “creative economy page” to identify resources in Vermont for TV and film production.

Gilpin and his allies, including Representative Brian Keefe of Bennington County, are trying hard, too, with a new bill, H. 854, currently being shepherded through the legislature as we go to press. However, it falls far short of creating or implementing specific policy and only says the Agency of Commerce and Community Development “shall consider and report … a recommended strategy for attracting television and film production activities to Vermont and include an economic impact statement specifying potential revenues from increased activities.” 

Most likely, that will not be the final language of the bill. “I think there will be a bill passed,” Gilpin believes, “but we don’t know right now what the exact final bill is going to look like.” But it seems like a no-brainer to him, particularly with the economic impact he’s demonstrated with the annual ITV Festival. “We’ve already proven over the last five years that we are capable of bringing in significant amounts of tax revenue. So the notion that ‘is there a return on investment, or how do you prove that this works’ . . . well that question has been answered.”

Knight, on the other hand, isn’t so sure about including tax incentives, or their effectiveness, despite the fact that the vast majority of states offer them. “There is some research out there that says, from an economic development perspective, tax incentives are not effective,” particularly when Vermont is faced with a budget gap.

But Gilpin stresses money and incentives alone are not enough. Equally important for the Vermont film industry is the need to get out there and both promote Vermont as a great place to film and to develop deep ties with industry leaders. “Vermont needs to put a forward-looking face out to the industry and attend industry events,” Gilpin emphasizes. “There should be a Vermont booth at the major festivals.  Where was the State of Vermont booth at Sundance or the American Film Market? Even just to let people know we are interested in having them come here would be such a great first step.”

O’Brien agrees. “When you go to a film festival or conference, there are tons and tons of film commissions trying to woo directors, producers, and executives to come to their state and shoot their movies. It’s not just about putting some money in the coffers and hope people will come and shoot a movie. No. You have to get out there and convince people to choose Vermont over New York, New Hampshire, Maine, or whatever.”

There are plenty of opportunities in state as well that would cost minimal to no money, O’Brien believes. “The Department of Tourism could show our films and use our films. You’ve got all these filmmakers who are coming up for leaf-peeping season. Why not run a series of screenings of Vermont films, bring those people in, and give a chunk of the money to filmmakers or start a fund from that?”

Even without incentives, there are still plenty of attractive items to dangle in front of producers if someone makes the effort to communicate with them effectively, starting with Vermont itself, which retains its formidable power to win the hearts of people like Gilpin. “People are just in awe of how beautiful Vermont looks on film.” Plus, in many ways, Vermont is cheaper. For evidence, Gilpin points to the 2017 film The Land filmed entirely in Vermont with an 89-percent in-state crew, the four-day shoot realized a 67-percent savings over going rates in New York and Los Angeles. There, based on standard union rates, the production would have cost between $95,000 and $120,000, but in Vermont, it came in at $32,261.

“Yes, we don’t have the tax base to offer a 40-percent tax rebate for every show that comes in,” Gilpin explains, “but we have the ability to cut your costs before you even get here. So you don’t have to go through the paperwork of doing rebates and hiring attorneys and accountants to go through a long financial process.”

Plus, the infrastructure and resources of talent are growing, with film programs at the University of  Vermont, Champlain College, Vermont College of Fine Arts, Middlebury College, Lyndon State College, and the soon-to-open Vermont Film Institute, which will focus on training for the below-the-line crew jobs.  The Institute will partner with Vermont Technical College and use their locations, with the first workshops to be launched in spring and full-blown classes starting in the fall of 2018.

Vermont’s small size also works to its advantage, O’Brien points out. “I probably couldn’t be doing what I do anywhere except for Vermont. The reason I say that is that Vermont is a small state, and so you know who the players are. You  can literally call the governor and meet with him if you have to. The idea that you can essentially have a meeting with the Commissioner of Health and talk about a film you are making on the opiate crisis and ask him if his department might be willing to help support the funding of it—I don’t know how many states you could do that in.”

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