By George T. Marshall, RIIFF Executive
(March 2004) The winds
of change have blown over the New England film industry
and a quick snapshot shows no relation to the same region
of five years ago. The landscape has been drastically
altered. Gone is the talk of Hollywood East. Film Commissions
and related offices have dissolved, merged or been made
redundant. And no where is this more apparent than in
Rhode Island. Yes, Rhode Island, the regional poster
child for those afflicted with ADD in ethics.
The smallest state once boasted two film offices and
related positions in the various tourism boards. Quietly,
the two main film divisions have disappeared. The Providence
Film Commission was the first to go. Hamstrung by its
political ties to the administration of convicted felon,
former Mayor Vincent A. Cianci, the commission was on
life support during Cianci’s trial, then was dissolved
under the regime of Acting Mayor and City Council President,
For those in the know, the Commission was a vanity piece
for the former mayor and his cronies. The original director
was himself a convicted felon and served time for perjury
during a federal investigation. His successor had minimal
experience, most coming from being a production assistant
during a limited stint in Los Angeles. But he had the
right political connections. It was like watching a
remake of “Get Shorty,” as these dilettantes
puffed their way through an era that accomplished little
but boasted mightily. Truth was a fiction they served
cold. But it was colorful. Perhaps someone will make
a film about this less than glowing moment in the city’s
history. I’m sure these players would like that.
The embarrassment is not that they existed at all, but
that few in the industry were willing to speak publicly
about the office, its excesses and ineptitude. A climate
of insecurity and fear of reprisals permeated the city.
Most professionals stayed away. Ever wonder why the
TV series “Providence” only had b-roll of
autumn footage? Or that not much happened after Speilberg
On July 17, 2002, that all stopped. Cianci’s conviction
was upheld and like a snake losing its head, the lifeline
shriveled and dissolved. No more failed Screenwriting
Conferences, no more failed Renaissance City Film Festivals,
no more questionable fundraisers, no more preferential
treatment to toadies, parasites and hangers-on.
It’s no secret that Cianci’s highly touted
tax credit incentive for spurring growth in the Rhode
Island film industry was a total bust. To date, the
credit has not been used. And it’s also no secret
that turning Providence’s Cranston Street Armory
into a production facility has also been a dead end.
Oh, there have been plenty of ideas, but no delivery.
Last July 2003, the next change took place. Very quietly,
the RI Film & Television Office was removed from
its berth at the Rhode Island Department of Economic
Development to the Rhode Island State Council on the
Arts. This was a radical step and came through legislative
mandate. From business development to arts promotion
is a significant change, particularly for an office
not known for it support of smaller, independent films
and their creators.
In January of this year, the unthinkable happened, the
14 year term of the film office director came to an
So what lies ahead for Rhode Island? Where does a film
company go for logistical support if they wanted to
shoot here? Or, why should a film company want to shoot
here at all? What marketing arm will drive them here?
Under Mayor David M. Cicilline, the city of Providence
has taken some bold steps in establishing a cabinet
level position that now addresses the arts, tourism
and culture. Film was originally in the title, but was
merged with “arts.” There are plans to reinvigorate
a Film Commission, and unlike the previous administration,
the mayor’s hair stylist will not hold a seat.
Randy Rosenbaum, the Executive Director of the Rhode
Island State Council on the Arts, recently rewrote and
posted for the position of the new film manager. Slated
to serve as his Deputy, whoever gets the position will
be charting virgin territory, At press time, about 120
people have applied for the position. That number has
been whittled down to ten and will go through one more
round of eliminations to five. Interviews will be starting
There is a new feeling of freedom in the air thanks
to all of the changes and departures It feels like Prague
Spring. (One can only hope that the Soviets don’t
come marching back in.)
To get a handle on how others perceive what is happening,
I decided to speak to a number of Rhode Island filmmakers,
artists and educators. I wanted to know just what did
they think about the changes and the new direction that
things are taking. Here’s what they had to say:
NEED: What do you think should be the role of
a Film Commission in Rhode Island?
William Smyth, filmmaker and producer at WJAR
The first duty of any Film Commission is to support
filmmakers. Everything else is secondary. The office
should be a resource and support system for every filmmaker
from the student to the big budget production. The commission
should also actively support and promote the state's
film festivals. Last but not least, the commission should
be aggressive in getting outside production to shoot
in the Rhode Island. Getting outside productions to
shoot here is important to the small filmmaker. Outside
production doesn’t necessarily mean feature films,
although that’s nice. It also means commercial
and television shows. This is what helps fund a thriving
film community and it keeps highly skilled professionals
employed. These technicians and artists are the support
system that helps the smaller filmmaker complete their
Tom Viall, screenwriter, Executive Director of ListItRI.com
A To build a strong reputation for RI in the mainstream
film community in order to attract production dollars
to our state. B To work with lower budget outside productions
to showcase our locations and offer both education and
support within our own community of artists and technicians.
C To work with filmmakers and students based here in
RI to support their artistic efforts and production
needs in order to sow the seeds of future success stories.
SueEllen Kroll, director, Human Rights Watch
Traveling Film Festival Rhode Island
A central office that ties promotion, production, funding
opportunities and exhibition through a database resource
and website would be very helpful to bring together
all the people and organizations working in this medium.
In such a small state, we tend to take for granted that
everyone pretty much knows one another or that word
will get around about someone's project and that is
not necessarily the case. I think we could have a much
stronger network supported by the presence of mutual
aid, not competition.
Carolyn Bray, writer/filmmaker
For too long offices like the film commission were only
about getting Hollywood films made here, not about helping
the filmmakers here become part of imported projects
or just part of the working world of film as a whole.
With the college film faculty and students here, plus
festivals of note like the RI International Film Festival,
AND the combination of convenient size, varied locations
and talented personnel from writers to grips, there's
no reason this area cannot be a burgeoning, year-round
film community. The new film commissioner should make
part of the job finding out where and to whom film talent
here should go to get scripts bought or acquire hands-on
film experience. There are producers and agents in New
England. The film office should hook them up with writers
and directors, etc. The commission should also have
meetings and workshops that bring local filmmakers together
as a mutually supportive and networking community of
artists, taking a page out of on-line groups like Francis
Ford Coppola's Zoetrope.com.
NEED: Do you think it makes sense to move the
RI Film Office from Economic Development to the Council
for the Arts?
Mary Conlon, filmmaker and faculty in Communications
at the University of Rhode Island
YES! My biggest problem with it being part of economic
development was specifically for the above reason stated.
It became a revenue first priority instead of the other
way around. Good film, good TV should be valued for
the fact that it is excellent, not because it 'makes
money'. Good films, good TV, well done commercials make
money - and there are a good number of us making good
films or TV that are making money. A Gov. agency should
aspire to something higher than LCD standards, as should
Keith Brown, filmmaker
Yes, I do. I can't really believe that there is that
much work to do in terms of location scouting for big
budget films being shot in Rhode Island. I think if
that is the case, and if the Film Office is part of
the Council for the Arts, the Economic Development or
Tourism people can get involved at that point. I think
all Rhode Island filmmakers could benefit by having
a department strictly devoted to film within the Council
for the Arts.
Joce Donaghue, filmmaker and program coordinator
at the Courthouse Center for the Arts
Absolutely. While some producers and studios might beg
to differ, filmmaking is NOT primarily an economic endeavor.
While filmmaking can bring great economic benefit to
the towns and cities where the films are being shot
(and the final product can be a financial success) films
are first and foremost works of art, an incredible collaborative
effort of different disciplines. I think an Arts Council
Film Office would be more sensitive and knowledgeable
of the needs of a production company, though the Economic
Development Office should be an intricate partner/collaborative
office in assisting productions.
Fr. Ken Gumbert, filmmaker and faculty at Providence
I'm not sure where the film commission should locate
itself. insofar as the commission promotes the state
as a place to shoot films and actually has clout to
make the state a "friendly" place for commercial
filmmaking then it needs to be located in the economic
development office. but the film commission should also
be involved in helping Indie projects and low budget/local
projects also get off the ground. this function might
best work in the council of the arts. in any event Rhode
Island needs to be promoted as a smart choice for filmmakers
to come and make their films.
Tom Zorabedian, M.Ed., faculty in Communications
at the University of Rhode Island
I have not seen the rationale, but I am concerned. I
do fear that making the position a staff person with
RISCA diminishes the visibility, independence, and hence
the viability of film/TV production, which otherwise
has great potential, as we have seen here and in other
I don't think the department matters as much as the
direction or the office. If the role of the office is
to make RI more attractive to outside, big dollar productions
than I can see why some would raise an eyebrow at the
change from Economic Development.
That being said, I feel that the office can make an
impact as part of RISCA by leveraging the combined talents
of our thriving artistic community to SET AN EXAMPLE
of how RI supports all artists, not just out of town
artist with big wallets. Word like that travels... if
RI can't build bridges between there own talent and
their own business how can we build bridges to the Hollywood
NEED: What do you think of a regional collaborative
that would spur cooperation and link the states together,
providing a platform for our talent base?
Sara Archambault, founder/director of Picture Start
I think it's very important. There's not too much distance
between all of us and yet the information divide is
immense. There needs to be more opportunities for collaborations
between artists, cultural agencies, and media organizations
across state lines to keep our work vital. Resources
like newenglandfilm.com are very helpful in keeping
us all "in the loop," but there need to be
more tangible ways to know about each others' work and
to measure the "state" of filmmaking in New
England in order to inspire new ideas and new partnerships.
In terms of drawing productions to the region, perhaps
collaborative efforts between the Film Offices offering
resources or between the states offering "package
deal" tax incentives might be both helpful and
lucrative across New England.
John Lavall, filmmaker
No -- I think that RI would get lost in the mix. We
have a fantastic state and we should promote it as such.
I have seen some other film commissions at the IFP and
they go all out to promote their states and really reach
out to filmmakers both independent as well as Hollywood
big budget. I have never heard from one person at the
RI Film commission and I have made five small films
and spent over fifty thousand dollars of my own money
and they don't even know who I am!
NEED: The City of Providence recently created a cabinet
level position that combined arts, tourism and culture.
Originally, film was a part of the name, Now it's been
lumped with arts. Do you think that the local politicians
have a clear understanding of the film business or are
they clueless about its real impact.
Actually, I don’t think they do. Because of the
large amount of money needed to produce films –
even the so-called “smaller” films, filmmaking
more than any other art form is a combination of art
and commerce. Filmmaking is also the most collaborative
of the arts. A film office needs to be a supporter to
the artist, the center of the web that ties all the
craftspeople technicians and artist required to have
and active film community; and a salesman to get outside
projects to come here and keep these people working.
Also, the side benefit of tax dollars provided by outside
companies shooting here doesn’t hurt either. We
need to remember that. A film office is one government
office that can help make money, not just spend it.
It may not be a choice between having a clear understanding
or being clueless; perhaps it's somewhere in between.
I do feel that RI lags behind other states in our commitment
to this huge market. All the other 49 other states,
as well as Wash. DC & Puerto Rico, and many cities,
have active film offices. If Vermont, Wisconsin, Mississippi,
Wyoming (2 offices), Missouri (3 offices), Connecticut
(4 offices) Arkansas, & North Dakota deem it important
to support film offices, what do they know that we don't?
We seem to view a film/TV office as an expense, a luxury,
if you will, rather than an investment. Yet a few days
of a major film production can more than make up for
the small investment in a state office of film &
I don't think politicians have a clue about the art
of making film. There is film as a business and then
film as an art form. I don't think most of us as independents
do it for a business or even make money doing it. We
do it because we need to make movies. I do think that
any organization that supports that attitude of filmmaking
would be a benefit. Film is an important form of expression
just as painting, theater and dance all are. As long
as that is respected, maybe it doesn't matter what the
cabinet position is called as long at they actually
do something to foster the growth of filmmaking in the
Frankly, I am happy that politicians don't understand
film. It would make them more dangerous. Buddy Cianci
is the perfect example - he used his office to align
himself (in the public's perception) as a darling of
the movie industry. It was disgusting and misleading.
But he did realize the value in the sexiness, the mystique
and of course the big money stream that bigger films
bring in. But that was where he stopped.
It's filmmakers that perhaps need to understand the
politicians more. We are the ones who need to be better
advocates for ourselves. Use our competencies in persuasion
to more effectively communicate with them about what
our needs are, what the influences and benefits to our
industry are, which are significant.
We certainly need to spell out the business process
better to them if we are going to get the support we
need. The problem I see is that we are a bunch of extremely
busy "individuals" who rarely think of ourselves
within this larger framework of "industry".
Also, the very industry is so varied.
Clueless is a strong word - uneducated is a better one.
Politicians are often near sighted by nature, after
all most of them have only temp roles. Politicians do
what the businesses and citizens feel is best at the
time... if the office can educate and prove to the business
community that film is good for RI the politicians will
No. They need to realize that there are reasons why
this state and MA have a hard time attracting big Hollywood
films to the region. There are a number of things wrong
that could be changed or addressed from the unions to
the lack of any real marketing materials and comprehensive
guides for that outline locations, crew, talent... They
need to spend the money that is needed to promote this
state properly and try to see the big picture (no pun
intended) and realize there is a lot of money that this
state could gain as a result. For God's sake, they haven't
updated their webs site in ages! I can't see them spending
the money it will take. They are offering the job at
a salary of fifty thousand dollars a year, which is
fine if you are a state house hack but it may not be
enough to draw a qualified person to the position. I
feel it will be another appointment of someone-who-knows-someone
and we'll be back to the same stuff! They are still
riding the "True Lies" Federal Hill"
NEED: Anything you would like to share with our readers
about the state of the film business in our state and
in New England?
You no longer have to live in LA and New York to get
scripts seen or to work in film, although it's admittedly
still easier if you do. With the natural beauty of this
area, IF costs can be kept down we should see more and
more filmmakers working here. There's an exciting convergence
for film right now: shorts are so much cheaper than
features and many people now have the tools on computer
to make them; the advertising trend is for 30-60 second
narrative film commercials; and RI has the RIIFF, a
festival welcoming to new filmmakers, whose shorts qualify
as Oscar contenders. When I started making films here
in the late 70s, getting through festivals to get to
Oscar contention was financially prohibitive, after
draining resources on the very expensive filmmaking
(pre-video) process itself. Now, if that's a goal you
aim for, the making of a short and the entry of it for
festivals and ultimately Oscar contention is both easier
Not being a right to work state is always going to hurt
us in RI - we need to always struggle to make up for
that financial fact. We need to push not just the landscape
but the attitude and the savvy. We need to ask ourselves
why Toronto is New England in so many films.
Most of all we have to look at the impact that all of
our calls on what shoots and what doesn't shoot in RI.
When we turned away MTV from Aquidneck Island we didn't
just turn away noisy college students... When we turned
away Witches of Eastwick we didn't just turn away people
who were going to curse in a church... what we did do
is send a message to the production world in each case
that said "Thanks, but no thanks."
It would be great if we could pick and choose those
productions we feel are "good for the state"
that's not how it works. Let's save those kind of judgment
calls for our permanent guests, not those who simply
wish to spend there money and go home.
We all seem to understand the excitement, glamour, and
overall attraction of having film/TV production take
place in our area. However, we should keep in mind that
this is the best kind of economic development: generally
outside dollars coming in, large amounts of money being
spent in a short time, in a variety of area: from hotels,
restaurants, transportation, construction, & police
overtime, to job creation for our citizens who are in
areas when they often have to struggle to find work:
actors, costumers, make-up artists, set designers, tech-crew
We seem to quickly jump on other economic development
areas, such as robotics, digital technology, and now
bio-technology, and are willing to spend millions to
invest in these areas. However, we resist spending even
small amounts in this multi-billion industry. The fact
is that film production is going to take place somewhere,
and not just in LA and Florida.
Why not right here?!
About the Author:
George T. Marshall is the Producing Director of the
Rhode Island-based Flickers Arts Collaborative, the
creators of the annual Rhode Island International Film
Festival for which he also serves as Executive Director.
He teaches film and communications at Rhode Island College
and speech communications and documentary film at Roger
Williams University. He is a director, writer, producer
of commercials and industrials for numerous business
clients in the region and will be presenting his current
research paper “Teaching and the Blogosphere”
at the Annual Conference of the Association for Education
in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) in August.
He can be reached at email@example.com