Commentary: Vermont Should Be in Pictures (May, 2014)

By Rob RoperRob Roper

After college I worked for two years in Japan. My boss was an Indian-born Australian who grew up in Thailand. In our discussions about the United States he repeatedly told me in terms vivid enough that I remember them twenty years later that the one place he wanted to visit in the world was Vermont.

Why Vermont? He had seen the images of the Green Mountain State on the popular television show Newhart, which took place in a traditional Vermont bed & breakfast. This is how powerful the Vermont Brand and the imagery behind it can be. It can stir the imagination of people from totally different cultures half the globe away. This is why it is surprising that our state government doesn’t do more (or, actually, anything) to actively bring television and movie production here. In fact, our tax polices are inexplicably hostile to it.

Captain Richard Phillips, the subject of the Tom Hanks film that bears his name, was recently asked, “How do you feel about the Underhill, VT scenes having been filmed in Sudbury, Mass?” The Captain replied, “You cannot get Vermont into Massachusetts by any angle of the lens – all Vermonters know that, and I grew up in Winchester, Mass. I wished they had filmed in Vermont, for the benefit of the workers and people of Vermont.” (DestinationVT, http://destinationvt.com/capt-richard-phillips/)

So, why didn’t they? Taxes.

It’s no great revelation that movie-makers, like anyone else, go where their money is treated well. It’s why the famous “Spaghetti Westerns” were filmed in Italy and not in Tombstone, Arizona. But many states are catching on to the idea of cultivating film production as an economic driver.

Just this past month, for example, the state of Maryland came up with an $11.5 million package of tax credits to keep the Netflix show, House of Cards, filming in their state. Governor Martin O’Malley explained, “We’re going to keep the 3,700 jobs and more than $100 million of economic activity and investment that House of Cards generates right here in Maryland.” (Variety, 4/25/14)

Massachusetts (who played the part of Vermont in Captain Phillips) saw the potential for development of the film industry back in 2006 when their legislature implemented an aggressive set of incentives to lure production to their state.

According to the Massachusetts Film Office, “Companies that produce at least half their projects in Massachusetts receive credits equal to 25 percent of their costs. This, combined with a sales tax exemption and payroll credit for big projects, makes Massachusetts one of the production-friendliest states in the country.”

Vermont, by contrast, lists but one incentive: “Vermont provides income tax credits to out-of-state residents performing in films shot in the state. The credit equals the difference between the tax on the income earned in Vermont at the highest rate in the performer’s home state and the Vermont tax.” (State Film Tax Incentives, 5/10/2011 http://www.cga.ct.gov/2011/rpt/2011-R-0209.htm) Gee, thanks.

Back in 2011, Vermonters Len Britton and Brad Broyles pitched a screenplay about an underdog team of downhill ski racers titled Woodchucks. The movie was set in Vermont, and Britton and Broyles wanted it to be filmed in Vermont. For a brief while there was a buzz of excitement that this would be the case.

That dream fizzled because of Vermont’s tax policy. As Britton explained to me, “When you’re trying to raise $10 million to make an independent film, the first question you’re asked [by potential financers] is what kind of rebate or incentive are you getting? If the answer is ‘none,’ they’re going to shut the door on you.” And that’s what happened.

But, can you imagine the economic benefit Vermont would reap from a globally distributed film, shot on location in what we all believe is the most beautiful place in the world about a key pillar of tourism industry? People still travel to Salzburg to see the place where the Sound of Music was filmed.

Instead, Britton and Broyles’ film is now in production with a new name, No Limits, and in a new country. “It’s going to be a picture postcard for skiing in Austria and not for skiing in Vermont,” said Britton.

What a shame! If the minute-long opening to Newhart could convince my old friend Shapoor to come here from all the way from Tokyo, just think of what a two hour theater experience could accomplish.

The Vermont Brand has taken a serious hit in 2014 over the heroin epidemic for which we have become the national poster child and punching bag. Our image and our economy could use a Hollywood makeover. It is an industry where we can and should compete. Vermont is ready for her close up.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

jim bulmer May 1, 2014 at 1:10 pm

I believe Rob is onto something. Hopefully there will be someone in Montpelier with some real clout who will give this suggestion some serious thought. It could be a real winner. Vermont provides a beautiful setting for a number screen plays – winter, summer and fall folage. How about the Grand Canyon of the east – Quechee Gorge. The White River, Lake Champlain, Fort Ty, Middlebury College, Billings Farm National Park, Shelbourne Museum, the list is endless.

Reply

Lars Torres July 7, 2014 at 1:50 pm

Good discussion, and an important one for Vermont’s creative economy (full disclosure: I am currently serving as the state’s director of the equivalent of a film office – the Vermont Film Commission was shuttered in 2012).

Part of the challenge is growing enough of an industry here that we can capture the benefits such incentives are tooled to deliver. For example, were a major production to choose Vermont, with our current in-state industry profile most of those jobs would flow out of state – to union crews out of Boston, New York, etc. With them the very advantages a tax incentive program is aimed at capturing.

The short of it is that a tax incentive on the order of MA, NY, GA, LA, NC or other “best in class” states for production would be a wholesale giveaway to the industry, the cost of which would be shouldered by the already strapped Vermont tax payer. Despite the enthusiasm, the economics aren’t right. Yet.

My current strategy is to play to our strengths in the industry, and find ways to tool production incentives that support the growth of Vermont-based producers. This means we’re going for independent, narrative films on the low-budget side ($250k to $5M) that get Vermont stories into the world while building our production capacity.

On the assets side:
– Vermont does not require permits for most locations, removing a significant amount of administrative headache. We’re nimble.
– Vermont has a trove of historic properties, some of which are owned by the state and can be parlayed into lower-cost locations than elsewhere.
– Our industry is small, and finding the right connections to get work done – from pre- through post-production – is pretty easy, and very congenial.
– Vermont’s outstanding colleges and universities have film programs graduating the next generation of digital producers eager to be put to work.

On the growth and opportunity side, we’re seeding and supporting several important efforts:
– Development of a media production alliance that can serve as a unified “voice” for the industry, to my office, the legislature, and the industry actors beyond our borders.
– Proposal for a digital production fund that could provide first-in, modest grants to in-state producers for discrete projects, with the goal of inducing follow-on funding and increasing deal-flow.
– Supporting the growth and success of film festivals like ITVFest.com which bring important industry actors – distributors and producers for example – to Vermont, mixing our pool and getting local talent seen by outside influencers.

These are a few activities that the State is pursuing through this Office. I would love to have the chance to explore these ideas more with you and your audience if this is a topic that you are pursuing in earnest.

Reply

Orly Yadin July 8, 2014 at 1:44 pm

In reply to Lars Torres’s posting, I understand why he and the Vermont Office of the Creative Economy are reluctant to give tax incentives, fearing they’d cause more red tape than their economic gain, but I see this as a chicken and egg problem. Lars says that there aren’t yet enough tech people here to supply the potential needs of out of state productions, but perhaps one of the reasons is that there aren’t enough productions to spur people to enter that professional area. I spoke to someone in Burlington last week who frequently hires crews for his commercials (nationwide productions) and he finds it cheaper to pay tech professionals to come from NY or Maine etc than to hire local professionals who, because they work so little, charge a much higher daily rate. so the less frequently they get hired, the less experience they acquire. And if there’s no work, then there’s no incentive to train in the field.
This to me is a sad state of affairs. It seems to me that Champlain College in Burlington is doing more to get its graduates jobs in Vermont than is done on the state level.

And then there is the culture of film/video: I believe the OCE is underrating the psychological element that might be harder to quantify and needs people with vision. To quote Ray in Field of Dreams: “if you build it they will come”.

VTIFF has been championing VT filmmakers for decades, and in the past couple of years has ramped up its support by various means, including increasing the number of awards at the Vermont International Film Festival, starting a VimeoPro channel for VT Filmmakers and generally assisting filmmakers in a variety of ways. The direct economic domain has to be recognized by, and assisted at, state level. Lars, you’re doing excellent work with your small budget but we all need to campaign for increasing it and for more.

Orly

ORLY YADIN
Executive Director
Vermont International Film Foundation
230 College Street, Burlington, VT 05401
802-660-2600

http://www.vtiff.org
http://www.facebook.com/vtfilmfoundation

Reply

Arthur Bell July 9, 2014 at 11:08 am

Incentives are a good part of the mix to expand but I believe the more important issue is less in trying to spur an industry and more in not seeing and not using the world class creative industry we already have here.

It seems many larger Vermont entities like Fletcher Allen, Burton, Ben & Jerry’s, Green Mountain Kurig etc., tend to look out of state for creative juice. The state itself may be the worst offender, from Vermont Health Connect, to the state universities and VT dept. of Travel and Tourism who all spend millions out of state importing creative brainpower.
Do many of the large Vermont entities believe we cannot creatively think and execute world class, locally?

We are known for our world class cheese and artisanal beer but when it comes to creative thinking, many of Vermont’s largest companies seem to feel the need to go out of state to produce television campaigns and brand films. They hire labor and rent lights here but they import the thinking part. Every time this goes on we miss an opportunity to use the world class creative that exists, keep the money here and grow the infrastructure.
And to your point we are in pictures – Our company is based here – our work is on television in over 30 countries, we have had films in over 100 festivals films around the world, but we seem to do more great work for out of state and out of country companies.

More importantly Vermont is one of the few states that authentically has a truly great brand worthy of exporting to the world. It’s a shame many of the larger companies think we need to import the vision to show the world how great we are.

Thanks,

Art Bell
Dreamlike Pictures

Reply

Rob July 9, 2014 at 11:24 am

“It seems many larger Vermont entities like Fletcher Allen, Burton, Ben & Jerry’s, Green Mountain Kurig etc., tend to look out of state for creative juice. The state itself may be the worst offender, from Vermont Health Connect, to the state universities and VT dept. of Travel and Tourism who all spend millions out of state importing creative brainpower.
Do many of the large Vermont entities believe we cannot creatively think and execute world class, locally?”

Great point, Art. As one who came to Vermont from the New York advertising industry, I know the talent is here. It amazes me that those you speak of do not access and cultivate these clean, high-paying (at least potentially) jobs.

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Lars Torres July 9, 2014 at 2:19 pm

Art, you raise an important point, which is whether the state can do more to support our (truly) world-class creatives at the business end. I believe the answer is yes; here are a few ideas about how:

1) Networking. Despite the fact that Vermont has a high concentration of advertising and marketing agencies, too many are unaware of the talent next door. For example, if you hold a national account for an action sports brand, its probably easier for you to find a top-notch outdoor sports photographer via a talent agency in New York or L.A. than here at home. Its the nature of networks and deal flow. This Office would like to change that by facilitating encounters between creatives, helping talent to connect.

2) Policy reform. We heard this challenge loud and clear last year and worked with leadership across agencies to find ways that we can eliminate friction in the contracting process. We heard that Vermont creatives aren’t looking for preferential treatment, just real consideration in the procurement process (we want to be careful to not disadvantage firms bidding out of state by “chilling” competition at home). One resource that is UNDERUTILIZED by creatives is the Vermont Procurement Technical Assistance Center – it should be the go to resource for any firm bidding on a state contract to ensure that your “i’s” are dotted and “t’s” crossed. All things being equal, cost-competitiveness is going to remain an important consideration.

3) Promotion. I believe firmly that we need to do more to CELEBRATE the world class creative talent that we have in Vermont. Its not a significant part of our narrative – yet. The fact that home grown ad agencies have helped build brands like Burton isn’t a part of our narrative. The fact that a Vermont firm provides the creative behind Dale Erhardt Jr’s Daytona car wrap isn’t something we’re asked to get excited about. Who knew the Audobon Society’s popular nature guides are produced by a Vermont company? These stories – and dozens of others – need to be told visibly. That’s why we’re starting to put modest resources behind showcase events like the Woodstock Digital Media Festival, the Vermont International Film Festival’s Vermont Filmmakers Showcase and ITVFest – we’ve got to develop a culture and pattern to celebrate these accomplishments in digital production while making efforts to direct business toward these creatives.

4) Coordination. I’m incredibly excited about efforts to create the Vermont Media Production Alliance – its the first step toward creating an industry voice in Vermont, a sorely needed gap to fill. Typically an incentive package – or any other “ask” from an industry to the state – will arise from the insights of industry operators, its the result of negotiations that produce requests matching need to (though not always) realistic expectations. If successful, the MPA in Vermont has the opportunity to establish a network of end-to-end talent, use that network to generate a production guide, promotional initiatives, and policy recommendations.

Now THAT is something the Office can get behind.

At the end of the day I recognize that this (growing our digital production industries) is a long play – nothing’s going to happen over night, and there are years of frustrated efforts behind the insights shared across our community. Part of the opportunity ahead that I see is to reframe the question: what can we do today to support the next generation of creative enterprises in Vermont while tapping the expertise of our existing firms? Arguing that we need multi-million dollar, budget-busting incentive programs like the big states have without a larger strategic framework and due diligence behind the numbers is putting the cart before the horse.

And, to your point Rob, have a look at the following – there are efforts to tap our “native creative” – its always clear that we can do more AND I think we should start with fair assessments of what IS happening, what we can AMPLIFY:
http://henhousemedia.com
http://www.mobilenomix.com/digital-signage
http://www.wearehmc.com
http://www.vtdesignworks.com/portfolio
http://mtmansfieldmedia.com

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Jon Andrews July 9, 2014 at 4:34 pm

I’m writing to briefly chime in as one of the founders of the Vermont Media Alliance. Our mission is to support and promote the production of world-class film, video and new media content in Vermont. As Art points out, we have exceptionally talented and accomplished media makers here who lack the opportunities to fully activate their talents; we also have many more who aspire to create amazing films, shows, commercials, games, etc. but lack the resources or training or collaborators to make their best work.

The VMA will connect Vermont media makers with each other, provide them with a platform for engaging with potential clients and collaborators, offer them professional-development opportunities, promote their work to the world and advocate for them in Montpelier. Though we hope to receive some seed funding from the OCE, it is our intention to be completely self sustaining by this time next year.

I’ve been spearheading the effort to create a production alliance because I believe Vermont has the talent pool, and the unique culture, to be real force in the world of media production, from feature films to games. I think Lars is right to think strategically about how to get there from here, rather than accepting the conventional wisdom that has cost so many other states so much money with such uncertain ROI. I’ve read a dozen or so economic impact analyses of production tax incentive programs, and it’s unclear whether they actually benefit the states that offer them, once opportunity costs and foregone revenue are taken into account. The biggest unknown is the value, in marketing dollars, of a given state’s appearance in a popular film–clearly there is a value, as Rob notes in his article, but it’s hard to measure.

Thanks everyone for this stimulating discussion. I look forward to continuing the conversation over the coming years!

Warm regards,

Jon Andrews
President
Vermont Media Alliance

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Rob July 9, 2014 at 5:08 pm

Thanks for your thoughts, Jon, and good points. I think (as you point out, hard to quantify) that Vermont is in a unique position as a tourist destination with such a strong brand to reap the benefits of being featured in films — if it’s the right project. I don’t think we’d benefit much from filming a sci-fi picture set on Pluto in a studio (not that that would be bad). But, a TV series or a feature film based on and filmed in VT could have a lot of synergies. I wonder what the show Northern Exposure, for example, did for Alaska tourism. And, I don’t even think that was filmed in Alaska.

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lance olson July 17, 2014 at 8:40 pm

The unique stories that might come from Vermont require producers to bring together the many elements needed to “tell” them.

My daughter is using LA money, shooting a TV show in Toronto, that’s set in New York City, with Post in LA. It features the City’s allure and boosts NY tourim while employing no one in NY. It’s shot in Toronto because Toronto offers the many hotel rooms, well qualified union crews, easy transportation to LA, and well stocked vendors of the many film needs, from equipment to stake trucks to craft services to late pickup FedEx. Yes there are financial incentives and savings produced by exchange rates and governments, but large pools of people and stuff make it easy to produce both simple and complex shoots, and to do many shoots simultaneously. One of the most expensive problems is not having the right tools when you need them — failing to get it done. Toronto has the tools and the talent. That creates buzz in the networks and gets the location managers excited.

Lars is correct to incentivize that networking, to help indsutry decision-makers from outside the state recognize our Vermont tools and talent. Seeding and distributing excellent work bred and born in Vermont sparks the imagination.

Another element of this is bringing producers and creatives to Vermont, helping them see the state’s unique qualities, and encouraging them to put down roots here. Stowe Story Labs is bringing world-class producers to learn with rising film makers and showing the virtues of our state within the film creation world view. It’s another way of building Vermont into the network.

The network of film creators is based on knowledge. Providing and promoting these connections, as everyone in this thread says, is critical to building the cultural and creative industires of Vermont. Thank you all for your meaningful contributions.

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