Monday, March 15, 2010

The Emerald Mountain State

Even though The Wizard of Oz was not the first color motion picture, it made one heckuva colorful statement. Compared to the browns and grays of the sepia-toned Kansas that Dorothy left behind, Oz’s magic was made palpable by the rich tapestry of color that greeted her as she stepped out to meet the Munchkins for the first time. And oh my, who can forget that first glimpse of the Emerald City off in the distance...?

A few weeks ago the Douglas Administration recommended zeroing out the state's support for the Vermont Film Commission because (according to a well-placed administration official) "Tiger Team Analysis" showed that the "operational footprint of the Commission was negligible."

While some might wish to question the validity of this analysis and its conclusion, I would like to focus instead on why Vermont desperately needs a Film Commission—one that is properly funded and offers incentives to film-makers:

First, someone knowledgeable about film production issues needs to be available to answer the hundreds of inquiries that come into Vermont looking for locations, looking for artisans or trades-people (including writers, actors, sound engineers, costumers, designers, gaffers, best boys, etc.), or looking for on-site or post-production facilities they can use without trekking back and forth to New York or L.A.

Second, someone knowledgeable about film finance needs to be available to the Vermont legislature, the state economist, and the Governor to explain exactly how a film incentive, properly structured, can not only attract major productions to film in our state, but not necessarily cost the state a dime. Even more important, this person could also explain how to build an incredibly lucrative economic sector that has very little negative "footprint" on our proud, environmentally-conscious state.

Third, someone knowledgeable about film and new media needs to be available to link our robust cartoon sector (thank you White River Junction!) to the burgeoning industries of new media, technology, and video-gaming (thank you Marlboro and Champlain College!) which share so many of the same post-production people and technologies with the film industry.

The Administration thinks that someone in the tourism office (VDTM) can answer inquiries from the field. That may be true to a limited degree, but should VDTM's already vastly overworked staff be responsible for servicing a different industry when it is fully engaged in servicing its own? Seems like a too-tall order. Film, television, and media producers don't have a lot of time to spend and will happily hang up the phone and call Connecticut or Massachusetts or Canada if it will save them even five minutes.

As for the Incentives issue, the problem is quite simple. What is it worth to the State of Vermont to have, say, a Steven Spielberg film shot here? Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Canada offer a 25% incentive. Some economists say this is too much.

Only one state has determined that the direct income it receives from a film shoot is 16% of its tax incentive investment, based on a detailed analysis of all the direct salary, meals, sales and use tax revenue streams a production generates. (Thank you, Massachusetts, for doing this incredibly boring but necessary analysis--see page 17 where it says Mass. gets $.16 back on every dollar of tax incentive money it "spends.")

In Massachusetts, thus, a $6 million production shoot with the standard 25% incentive program will result in it"owing" foregone taxes worth $1.5 million, but reaping about $.24 million (.16 x $1.5 million). In this scenario, Massachusetts “loses” $1.26 million.

Or does it?

First of all, what value does Massachusetts place on the employment of all these people and organizations who work the shoot? What would the cost of their "un(der)employment" have been during that same period if the film hadn't been shot? What would have happened if someone from Connecticut had been hired to be a key grip on the shoot because no one knew where all the Massachusetts-based key grips could be found?

Even more important, media moguls are always pointing out the incredible value of "unpaid advertising" that happens when locations in the state are shown around the world on film or on television. (Related to this, did anyone stop to think that maybe the fact that Cider House Rules was shot partly in White River Junction might have something to do with that town's reputation as an art-friendly town--one whose creative economy is more than robust? What is the value the state places on that?)

How valuable would a Spielberg film shot in Vermont be to the long-term health of our state? I have no idea, but it has to be considerable. Heck, people still come to Vermont looking to meet Darryl...or was it his brother...?

As the Film Commission's own materials proclaim proudly:

"Film uses established resources and infrastructure without straining our school systems, highways, and community resources or putting development pressure on our cities and towns. It employs local artisans and local businesses, offering wages that are often higher than average for the state. It promotes the Vermont Brand to broad, worldwide audiences, a factor that contributes to our economy many times over in the form of tourism and related industries. Film, video, and new media are the clean, green industries of the future. The Film Commission's mission is to grow this new and vital industry, creating the kinds of jobs that will be critical to the state's economic success in the 21st Century."

It's not that the Film Commission has a "negligible footprint." It simply has been starved to death these past ten years.

So let’s try this. Let Vermont offer a 15% incentive (1% less than its expected return, based on the Massachusetts data). We might not compete with our neighbors, but we might get some who currently AREN’T coming to Vermont because we offer nothing at all.

If film is going to ever gain more than a sporadic toe-hold in Vermont; if it ever is going to make the effort to connect up to the video-gaming industry, and be at the vanguard of a new media and technology sector; it needs a magician or two right now to pull some levers (Sen. Illuzzi and Rep. Botzow, there is your cue!).

Far from being eliminated, the Film Commission should be empowered to help pull Vermont out of its sepia-toned economic tornado and restore it to its original Emerald-Mountain-State hues.

1 comment:

Frank said...

If it hasn't already, this article should be sent to all legislators as well as all of the state officers.