Mhe Vermont Film Com-mission as an engine of economic development? Not the first thought that comes to mind when thinking of an entity that supports creativity, but once Joe Bookchin starts to talk, it begins to make sense. “People see filmmaking as an artistic endeavor,” he says, “but for me it’s all about creating jobs.”
The former director of the film program at Burlington College, Bookchin took the position in Montpelier as the commission’s executive director in 2007, facing a rapidly evolving industry. “The nature of media as we know it is changing,” he says. He mentions small shops that can handle a variety of media under one roof — those such as Egan Media, Mount Mansfield Media, and Sub-atomic Digital — which are opening around the state. This comes as a result of the decentralization of media companies. No longer must one be in New York or Los Angeles or Boston to do such work.
“Here we are in Vermont,” says Bookchin, “and these Vermont companies are doing state-of-the-art work, and they’re doing it in a way that is incredibly environmentally friendly. I’ve been asking myself, ‘What does the state want to become? What kinds of jobs does it want to attract?’ I personally think these new media jobs that are high-paying — that fit within the rural character of the state — are a very good fit.”
These companies also enable talented young Vermont filmmakers to remain here, he says. “When I was director of the film program at Burlington College, we were graduating these incredibly talented students and my goal is for them to stay in Vermont.” To that end, he keeps himself accessible to students and experienced filmmakers, and will often hook up recent graduates with associate producer positions that become available on projects in the state.
Bookchin brings years of film production experience to his position. A graduate of Burlington High School and, in 1983, the New York University Tisch School of the Arts, he began his career at CBS News in New York, starting as a desk assistant and leaving as an associate producer.
Feeling that his real calling was working in feaature films, he moved to California in 1989, landing first at Paramount Pictures, where he was a set production assistant, cutting his teeth on the film Crazy People, starring Daryl Hannah and Dudley Moore. In 1990, he moved to Warner Bros. Studio.
“When I left Warner Bros. in 1994, I was a contract administrator,” Bookchin says.
He was lured back to Vermont in the mid-’90s when Richard Parlato and Bob Kaphan invited him to join Proximity Teleconferencing, an up-and-coming technology firm. From there he went on to establish the film production department at Burlington College in 1996.
All these years in the industry gives Bookchin a comprehensive understanding of the needs of filmmakers, making him as much of a resource as the commission’s website, whose complete re-imagination he’s overseen in the last two years.
Filmmakers logging on to the website (www.vermontfilm.com) can find guidance in many areas as well as upload their materials for prospective clients and funders to see.
Local freelance videographers, producers, makeup artists, and others post their profiles on the site so production companies looking for crew can easily locate Vermonters with whom they might work. An area devoted to equipment and supplies can hook filmmakers up with everything from antiques to lighting and grip equipment and wardrobe rentals. Profiles of Vermont business people such as floral designers, animal trainers, or transcription providers can also be found on the site.
Funders are listed, Vermont attorneys specializing in entertainment law can be found, and locations can be surveyed by looking at hundreds of photographs of places around the state that might be just right for a shoot.
Bookchin’s use of the Internet to make so much information available underscores his efforts to bring greater connectivity to Vermont. As Bob DiVenuti of Sub-atomic Digital in Colchester says, “A faster Internet leads to the creation of more high-tech positions in the state.”
DiVenuti’s company came into being four years ago and, thanks to the Internet, he and his staff of nine can work for clients such as iTunes and X-Box while still enjoying a quality of life that can’t be found in San Francisco, Chicago, or New York City. “Joe is a real advocate for bringing more high-tech jobs into the state,” he says.
Bookchin also advocates for increased incentives to bring out-of-state production companies to Vermont. These productions range from feature films to advertising campaigns and still shoots. The state offers breaks on sales taxes and rooms and meals taxes, but other states, including nearby Massachusetts and Connecticut, offer far greater incentives, he says.
“Historically Vermont is not a big fan of incentivizing people to come to the state,” Bookchin says. “My hope is that the Legislature will take note of all the interesting advances that are happening, and if those advances dovetail with the larger view of where the state should be going, lawmakers will try to figure out a way to attract these productions to the state.
“My goal in working with the Legislature is to try to figure out a very specific incentive with very specific caps that really targets the kind of films and industry we want to bring into the state.” He stresses that he wanted to make sure if we had a film incentive, it was within what the state could afford.
Bringing productions into the state not only supports local filmmakers and assorted businesses related to filmmaking, but also has far-reaching effects on the local economy, says Bookchin. For example, from 1998 through 2009, $61,300,900 has come in in direct expenditures.
“I was looking at the figures in Chester just the other day — that’s May of 2009 versus May of 2008 when David Giancola’s film for the Hallmark Channel, Moonlight and Mistletoe, was shooting there. May of 2008, income from rooms was $62,890; in the same period of 2009, the number was $37,440 in money taken in. That’s a 40.5 percent decrease; so when the production company was there in the off-season, it was a real shot in the arm for the local economy.”
Bookchin is committed to supporting the 200-plus filmmakers who call Vermont home as well as out-of-state productions. “I feel that those people who live here — who are reinvesting money into the state trying to make their movies, who are paying taxes — I feel they are equally important as any kind of Hollywood film that comes here,” he says. “I want to try and keep them in the state and make it possible for them to make a living here.”
John O’Brien, an independent filmmaker and president of the commission’s board of directors, is well aware of this commitment. “Joe has a big-picture view of where we’re going, of what film and new media can be,” he says. “With his Vermont roots, Joe understands the history of film in the state and knows who the players are.”
Commitment or not, the Vermont Film Commission has not been immune to the effects of the economic downturn. Funded primarily by grants from the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing, the commission took a 5 percent hit in 2009, lowering its budget to $171,000.
To save money, Bookchin now drives his own car on state business, and when one of his two employees recently left, he didn’t fill the position. The commission now consists of a deputy director, Perry V. Schafer, and an intern from Burlington College, Heather Beliveau, in addition to Bookchin. “It’s the usual lament — more work, less money,” says Bookchin, “but I’m undeterred.”
He credits his parents with his sense of the importance of community-building, the environment, and people working interdependently. His mother, Bea Bookchin, was instrumental in saving the Burlington waterfront. His late father, Murray Bookchin, was one of the critical thinkers of the environmental movement of the 1970s and one of the founders of the Institute of Social Ecology at Goddard College in Plainfield.
Bookchin recently became engaged to Cathleen Sullivan of Burlington. The two enjoy sailing on Bookchin’s 22-foot Catalina, which he keeps at Perkins Pier in Burlington. In the winter, he enjoys cross-country skiing. He laments the fact that he goes alone on these adventures since Sullivan blew out her knee on the slopes. But mostly, says Bookchin with a laugh, “In winter, I think about summer. Summer looms large for me.” •