By Rob 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.