Company/Organization Profiles | Television | Vermont

Celebrating Vermont Indies

1 Dec , 2000  

Written by Amy Souza | Posted by:

Vermont Public Television's new series 'Reel Independents' gives local filmmakers air time.
When Nora Jacobson’s film, "My Mother’s Early Lovers," aired on WGBH this year, one viewer taped it off the air and mailed a VHS copy to his cousin living in Vermont. The gritty film, about a young woman who discovers her mother’s diary and the secrets contained within, made the film festival circuit and picked up a number of awards along the way. And though the film was made in Vermont–and is set there, too–it didn’t show on Vermont Public Television (VPT) until months after it appeared on WGBH.

In a state with only 600,000 residents, it’s easy to imagine that Vermont has no real film community. People from out of state–or flatlanders–are often surprised to learn that there is, as Jacobson says, "a really nice, small film community here that runs from Burlington to Bennington." For years, though, Vermont Public Television officials seemed not to recognize the talent in their own backyard.

As Kelly Luoma, vice president of programming and education services at VPT puts it, "There’s been an inconsistent history between VPT and the film community."

"Filmmakers were frustrated with VPT," says Loranne Turgeon, executive director of the Vermont Film Commission. "They couldn’t really get in there. And though they’d do self-distribution, that didn’t give [their films] a very wide reach."

The Film Commission board—especially Founding President Bill Stetson—wanted to find a way to bring the filmmakers together with VPT. "Starting in 1997, we began talking to various VPT board members," he says. "But it’s really hard to initiate a new project like this."

It’s not that Stetson met objections. In fact, he says, when the idea for a new indie film series was brought up at a VPT board meeting last year, everyone was enthusiastic. The two boards worked together to create a new series, Reel Independents: Vermont’s Film Showcase. But, as Turgeon points out, "VPT doesn’t have the financing that WBGH does," so the film commission is helping to pay filmmakers what Turgeon calls "a very, very small fee" for their work.

Reel Independents can certainly be seen as part of a trend to create a deeper bond between indie filmmakers and public television. PBS itself created a new department to act as a liaison with the independent film community. For Kelly Luoma, the series fits perfectly with her vision of how VPT can thrive despite the growing number of cable channels. "Look at the world of TV and how competitive it’s getting," she says. "And what’s the one thing viewers can’t find on A&E? Local programming."

She adds, "We’d aired independent films before, but they were hit or miss." The problem, she says, was simple: "They didn’t get the publicity they needed."

In the past, VPT aired independent films as one-time only shows. Reel Independents, on the other hand, is a regularly scheduled series with a coveted Friday night at 9 p.m. slot. That makes it easier to build awareness. In fact, Reel Independents may indeed be a natural extension of promoting Vermont’s cachet. The state is great at marketing itself and its products to the rest of the world and to its own residents (think green mountains, the fresh air, the hillsides dotted with peaceful, grazing cows). Three films have already aired as part of Reel Independents, and so far VPT viewers have responded favorably to the series, partially at least, because these storytellers are their own.

"People love the fact that these are homegrown films," says Stetson. "And they’d much rather watch [these] than a rerun of an old movie they can rent."

Reel Independents shows "Vermont films." For now, that definition is left purposely open. It means a film about Vermont, a film made by a Vermont filmmaker, or a film produced in Vermont.

"We wanted to keep it broad enough to give us a large scope of work," says Luoma. "But we want [the films] to be really relevant to viewers."

The Reel Independents’ jury–which consists of filmmakers, writers, journalists, and theater owners–met recently to choose the films for the upcoming year. Locking themselves up for 12 hours, they screened 20 films on one long but fruitful Saturday. The lineup spans a number of genres from documentaries and features, to experimental, short format, and animation.

"This is an opportunity for [both] emerging filmmakers and talent that’s been here for years," says Stetson. And it’s also an opportunity for the audience to meet the people behind the films. "There are bookend interviews at the beginning and end of each night’s screening. Every filmmaker will have the opportunity to shoot the interview their own way."

So what has Nora Jacobson learned from having "My Mother’s Early Lovers" air in her home state? "After the showing I got a lot of email. I know that a lot of people saw the film," she says. "It really made me wise up to the power of TV." She pauses a few seconds, then adds, "There’s something about the intimacy of television that maybe makes for a more intimate experience." And, of course, "I hope that VPT continues to do this."

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