Hollywood East

by Craig Bailey

The Vermont Film Commission heads the cast of players bringing out-of-state movies and money to the Green Mountains.

More than a dozen years after MGM/United Artists filmed "Baby Boom" in southern Vermont, Loranne Turgeon still receives phone calls. "Where's the bridge that Diane Keaton drove across when she went into that cute, little town?" people ask. "Where are the apple orchards?"

For Turgeon, executive director of the Vermont Film Commission in Montpelier, the lasting interest generated by motion pictures made in Vermont is proof film is a viable economic development tool. The effects on tourism, she says, work long after cameras stop rolling.

Following two big budget features shot in Vermont over the summer, Turgeon, her staff and board of directors are reflecting on the fledgling commission's banner year. At the same time, most agree more work needs to be done to educate communities on how to host film crews.

Loranne Turgeon (left) and Jeannette Wulff of the Vermont Film Commission assist filmmakers shooting in the Green Mountains. "It doesn't take just one person to bring a movie in and make it work," says Turgeon. "It takes the entire state."

"This is a business initiative; this is not an artistic initiative," says E. William Stetson. "We're talking about cash flow." Stetson is a long-time adviser to Gov. Howard Dean and president of the commission's volunteer board of directors. The Norwich resident points out the commission helped bring more than $25 million of direct expenditures into the state in 1999, on a budget of less than $200,000.

"What other industry can bring $25 million in and actually leave the state clean?" asks Turgeon. "They don't dump any toxic waste. ... They dump money and then they leave." Nearly every sector gets a shot in the arm when the movies come to town: hotels, car rental agencies, gas stations, restaurants, lumber yards and more.

Consequently, competition for film dollars is keen. "Hollywood does not see Vermont as Vermont. It sees Vermont as New England," explains Turgeon. "If there's a picture set in any one of the New England states, they look at every single New England state to see if it's viable. We compete against each other."

The results are mixed: "The Cider House Rules" (1999), written by Vermonter John Irving, was filmed in nearly every New England state except New Hampshire, where it takes place. "The Spitfire Grill" (1996) set in Maine, was shot in Peacham.

New England states often join forces: At the locations trade show in Los Angeles, sponsored by the Association of Film Commissioners International, Vermont routinely shares a booth with its Northeast neighbors. This month's trade show and the commission's sponsorship of the Sundance Film Festival in January exemplify the commission's accelerated marketing push. The biggest advantage Vermont has over other states is its looks. "Our classic villages still look classic," Turgeon says, with a nod to the state's laws that all but prohibit off-premise signs.

Vermont's proximity to Boston, Montreal and New York also work in its favor, though its border with Canada is a constant challenge. "It starts with exchange on the dollar. We can't fight that. You save 40 to 50 cents on every dollar," after incentives, Turgeon says. "Tax incentives in Canada are huge."

Mise en Vermont scene

Big budget features gain most of the attention, but executive director Loranne Turgeon stresses the Vermont Film Commission's duty includes serving indigenous filmmakers. "There are a lot of young, up-and-coming filmmakers here," she says. A handful of Vermont filmmakers like Jay Craven and John O'Brien have established name recognition among Vermont audiences. According to location manager Shawn Sweeney, who has also directed movies, they face the same challenges independent filmmakers the world over face: "It's tough to come up with a 'Blair Witch Project,' he says, referencing the indie hit from 1999. "It's like winning the lottery."

Rutland filmmaker David Giancola specializes in action/sci-fi pictures. His 1991 feature "Time Chasers" received the dubious honor of being featured on "Mystery Science Theater 3000." Pictured: rehearsing a scene from "Diamond Run" at the Rutland airport. Stetson estimates that DreamWorks SKG saved one-third of its budget when it opted to shoot its remake of 1942's "The Man Who Came to Dinner" near Toronto, Ontario, instead of in the Quechee/Woodstock area it had nearly decided on in late '98. "It's always tough to take, but that's the business," says Shawn Sweeney of Burlington, who served four months as location manager for director Danny DeVito while the production scouted Vermont. "It's not personal. It's a business driven by money," says Sweeney.

Sweeney grew up in Montpelier, got started in film in New York and recently moved back to Vermont with his wife, Randy. He says he often finds himself turning down work because there's so much activity in Vermont. Most jobs, he says, involve still photo shoots, commercials and independent films. "The big films are what people hear about," says Jeannette Wulff, deputy executive director of the commission, "but day-in-and-day-out there are a lot of smaller but equally important activities."

The smaller projects are all but invisible to most. Turgeon cites a recent series of Chevrolet ads shot mostly in Stowe. "Nobody heard about that," she says. "They dumped $500,000 on our state in a matter of a week."

Developing the same incentives for filmmakers Canada offers is easier said than done. "They're not big on tax breaks," Stetson says of the Legislature. "We have to explain to them that if we don't have the business there's no cash flow at all."

In 1998 the Legislature passed the Performers' Income Tax Incentive. It enables the state to tax performers at Vermont's rate or the rate of the performer's home state, whichever is lower. The incentive was partly a reaction to a flap over actor Don Johnson's taxes on the made-in-Vermont film "Sweet Hearts Dance" (1988). "As many major performers in film now have a say as to where a film is shot, taxes become an issue," explains Turgeon. "Negative perception can harm the state."

Vermont's hotel tax incentive is also often put to use by filmmakers: It eliminates hotel tax for people staying 31 days or more.

Turgeon is quick to praise the Legislature for its support of the commission. Nonetheless, considering the budgetary situation at the time, some were surprised when the Statehouse passed legislation in 1996 that created the commission. Stetson and filmmaker John O'Brien ("Man With a Plan") had spent time a few years ago talking to business people and others about filmmaking. At that point Greg Gerdel was handling film-related calls at the Department of Tourism and Marketing; the amount of time he could devote to the cause was limited.

Stetson and O'Brien hitched up with Matt Dunne, then a state representative from Hartland, who says he was trying "to bridge the environmental protection community with the real need for creating economic growth and jobs." Stepping up the state's film initiative seemed a perfect match. "Not only does it not deplete our natural and historic resources," Dunne continues, "it celebrates them."

He introduced the bill, which passed with a $40,000 allotment. "Money was very tight so that was the biggest barrier," recalls Dunne, who left his Statehouse seat in January to direct Americorp Vista in Washington, D.C. "Other kinds of economic development like manufacturing and those harder industries were ones that legislators in Vermont understood. The film industry was a brand new one."

Vermont became one of the last states in the nation to establish a film commission. (New Hampshire followed Vermont.) As a non-profit organization created and partly funded by the state, the Vermont Film Commission and Minnesota's are the only independent commissions in the country. With a staff of two and a budget of $130,000 for fiscal year 2000, Vermont's is also one of the country's smallest. (An additional $150,000 in one-time funds was allotted this year to deal with capacity issues that cropped up last year.)

Following passage of the bill, a four-member board with Gerdel serving as interim executive director was formed; Wulff, who is also a natural history photographer, came on as a part-time employee. One of the board's first initiatives was a national search for someone to lead the commission.

Former state representative Matt Dunne (left) introduced legislation that created the film commission in 1996. He resigned his seat on the board when he took a job in Washington, D.C., in January. "When you start an organization like the film commission, and you get it to a point that you know it's sustainable," he says, "you have to be willing to let it go."

At that time Turgeon was working at DreamWorks in Los Angeles. It was nearly a childhood dream come true for the Newport native. "I was a little girl and I realized I wanted to be in the movies," she says, "but any time you'd mention it, people would go, 'You're crazy. What do you want to do that for? Maybe you ought to get into advertising.'"

Following a marketing degree from Champlain College in 1986, she headed to New York City to work in -- what else? -- "Advertising," she says with a chuckle. As an account coordinator at Jordan, McGrath, Case, Taylor & Manning she worked on accounts like Welch's Grape Juice and Tonka. Within six months a higher-up noticed her initiative and shifted her onto the AEtna account where she worked developing episodes for "AEtna Presents," a television series the insurance company produced. At 19, she found herself taking story pitches from veteran filmmakers like Robert Altman ("Nashville," "The Player").

"I really wanted to get into the heart of it, and L.A. is where it's at, really, if you're going to be in movies," Turgeon says. So in 1988, at the peak of an eight-month, industry-stifling writers' strike, she drove to Los Angeles. It was the second time in her life people told her she was crazy. During her trek, like a Hollywood movie, the strike ended and Turgeon landed her first West Coast job on arrival: working for talent agent Michael Gruber at the fabled William Morris Agency. "Timing is everything," she purrs.

Later she became an assistant to producer David Valdes, who produced for heavyweights like Clint Eastwood. Her first film with Valdes was Eastwood's four-time Oscar winner "Unforgiven" (1992).

By 1996 Turgeon had moved to DreamWorks, working under producers and animation studio heads Sandy Rabins and Penney Finkelman Cox, and Jeffrey Katzenberg. Before long an ad for the Vermont Film Commission in a trade journal seemed to offer her a way to work in film and the state she loved. Of the more than 100 resumes the commission received during its search, one was from Turgeon.

Four finalists for the executive director position went through day-long interviews before Turgeon was selected. "She knows Vermont, knows the locations, knows the people, knows the ethic," says Stetson. Dunne, who sat on the board until January, says it was Turgeon's knowledge of the state as well as her Rolodex that got her the job.

"I've known every single producer attached to every project that has come here," confirms Turgeon, who, nonetheless, believes she was "very lucky" to land the job.

The commission resides in a Victorian house on Baldwin Street; the Statehouse dome glitters in the not-so-distant distance. A humble sheet of paper tacked along the staircase points the way to the third floor: "Hollywood East," it reads.

It's hardly office space that smacks of big, Hollywood deals. Angled ceilings, quirky turrets and a decidedly non-corporate atmosphere might help sell Vermont's wholesome image to visiting filmmakers if they ever saw them. Few ever do.

More often Turgeon or Wulff, a Middlesex native who worked in television production in Washington, D.C., before she joined the commission, meet location scouts and the like at airports or hotels. The skills their jobs require are varied; the hours are long. "There's plenty of work for both of us," Wulff understates.

"Whatever it is that they need is our job," says Turgeon, who lives in the Barre/Montpelier area. Last summer she logged some 80-hour work weeks.

The commission worked with the Vermont Department of Agriculture to locate apple orchards for Miramax Film's "The Cider House Rules," released Dec. 10, 1999. Pictured: filming in Bellows Falls.

Sometimes landing a big feature can take years, like "What Lies Beneath," the Robert Zemeckis film with Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer that was shot in Addison last summer. DreamWorks/ImageMovers scouted locations with the commission for a year and a half before it decided to shoot along Lake Champlain. 20th Century Fox/Conundrum Productions decided to take its latest Jim Carrey vehicle, "Me, Myself and Irene," to the Burlington area within days.

"Loranne and Jeannette are doing a tremendous job of bringing film production to the state," enthuses Dunne. Attracting productions is only part of the job. The commission runs itself ragged catering to production companies once they're in town and working with municipalities to smooth any wrinkles that might arise.

"It's kind of like a big monster that comes in," says Sweeney, who served as location manager on "What Lies Beneath." "Hopefully you keep it tame."

Fox and DreamWorks tripped over a couple of small wrinkles: local merchants upset with closed roads, and controversy with temporarily dismantling a stone pavilion, respectively. Sweeney says minor glitches are bound to happen, but most agree that both companies went home with positive impressions of Vermont.

Turgeon says it's a question of comparing the pros to the cons. "The inconveniences seem to be getting all the press," she laments. "The positive far outweighs the negative." The solution, she says, is education.

"Just like when you go to the doctor you always feel better knowing what it is they're going to do to you," says Wulff, communities need to know what's in store before they agree to host a film. The commission is working with the UVM Extension System to produce an educational packet for municipal officials. Vermont's select board-controlled municipalities can be undesirable wildcards for filmmakers who are more accustomed to dealing with county or state government for fees and permits. The commission hopes to establish a database that will indicate which towns are interested in playing host and what fees they charge to eliminate the guesswork.

Turgeon would also like to "establish some rules and regulations about what films can and cannot do while they're here." Building a library of industry-standard, 360-degree photos of Vermont locations is high on her agenda, too. Luckily, Stetson says the search is on for a third employee.

"We've had very little time off. We're really trying to regroup here and start fresh," Turgeon says. "We really worked very hard to prove to the state and the Legislature that it's a viable industry. ... It's not where we're going to stop, though. We want to see it grow."