A dramatic casting change is under way at the Vermont Film Commission in Montpelier. After four years in the top job, Danis Regal was fired last week as part of a major organizational overhaul. Her deputy, Tyler Debbs, has resigned. On Monday, the office on Baldwin Street was empty, and its voicemail had been redirected to Greg Gerdel at the Vermont Agency of Travel and Tourism. On Tuesday, a spokesperson for the commission announced Regal's replacement: former executive director Loranne Turgeon is coming back to run the show. The new interim director starts next Monday.
"We are cleaning house at the film commission," says Bill Stetson, a member of the citizen board that oversees the organization - an "instrumentality of the state" funded by the legislature through Travel and Tourism. Stetson explains that, at a recent board retreat he attended, "We voted to reorganize things . . . It's not that anyone's been criminal; we're just changing things around."
Stetson would not give any specific reasons for Regal's dismissal. The way it went down "would have been more sensitive if it could have. But it couldn't," he says. "This isn't a police action. It's swift, because that's how you make change. It's not ugly, or harmful, but there are some complicated aspects to it."
Regal declined to comment on the situation, saying, "I'm not sure I'm allowed to."
Stetson focuses on the future when discussing the shake-up: "We have to rethink everything . . . to be a more competitive and slightly leaner film commission." Regal has been earning a little more than $50,000 a year. Two other part-time salaries are drawn from the commission's annual $180,000 appropriation.
Stetson helped found the Vermont Film Commission in 1996 to "encourage the development of the Vermont film and television industry." Assisting local filmmakers was a part of the mission, but the real motivation was to woo big-budget Hollywood movies to the Green Mountains. Turgeon, who has since moved to Maine, was the commission's first executive director. She got credit for back-to-back pictures shot here in 1999 - Me, Myself and Irene and What Lies Beneath - and the economic benefits that resulted. The state hasn't landed a comparable Hollywood project since.
If Stetson holds Regal responsible for the reduced film flow, he isn't saying so. "A lot of things have changed: the economy, the unions - it's a different world," he says. "We just want to do as much as we can to let people know that Vermont is open for business."
Stetson is the first to admit that competition for film work is fierce in the U.S. and around the world. The Vermont Legislature recently passed a bill that gives financial incentives to out-of-state movie producers - provided their budgets exceed $1 million. But the deal doesn't compare with those being offered by film commissions in Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Stetson explains that moviemakers "look at the bottom line and say literally, 'There's $300,000 between what you can give me and what Connecticut can give me.' I say, 'But there's so much more we can do. Just come here. You'll save more.' They actually give you grants in places like New Mexico and New Zealand."
The incentives are so attractive elsewhere that even local filmmakers have been tempted to shoot out of state. Jay Craven and Bess O'Brien told Stetson they could "save a lot of money" by crossing the lake to work in New York. "That hit home," Stetson says.
Can Vermont compete? "We need to do better," Stetson opines, noting that all of the board members agreed the film commission was at an impasse. "We need to do a better job for our governor, for Bruce Hyde in Tourism and Marketing, and for our taxpayer dollars.
He's banking on Turgeon to make that happen. "We want to be the vital film commission we were when Loranne was there. She was just incredible," says Stetson. "The Farrelly brothers just loved her. I remember her driving a van with Danny Devito and his boys around." Until she starts work on Monday, her empty office is in good hands. Gerdel of Travel and Tourism was the point man for location scouts long before Vermont even had a film commission.