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Soundstage with a View?

Flick Chick


Published June 29, 2005 at 4:00 p.m.

As Vermont was considering a tax incentive to bring large-scale movie production to the state this spring, Chris Bohjalian wrote to key legislators about his support for the proposal. The Lincoln author pointed out that he had just toured Montpelier, Stowe and Addison County to scout locations that might suit a cinematic adaptation of Water Witches, one of his novels.

"The director agreed with me that it would be a shame for yet another of my books to be filmed elsewhere," Bohjalian noted in the letter, referring to the fact that Midwives was shot in Canada and Past the Bleachers in Georgia. "Hollywood producers feel their budgets would not go as far here."

Meanwhile, a Queen City man has spent the last month or so campaigning to transform the Moran plant on the Burlington Waterfront into a soundstage capable of luring motion pictures to the area. "I just got the idea in the middle of the night," explains Dennis McMahon, a retired New York attorney who moved north in 2002. "This could be a venue for those 'Masterpiece Theater'-type films, too."

He's trying to drum up enthusiasm for his brainstorm from city and state officials, as well as from big names in the entertainment industry: Steven Spielberg, Miramax, Warner Bros., even media mogul Rupert Murdoch. "I also want to approach Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David," says McMahon, 54. "The most important thing is networking." An admitted novice in the field, he suspects, "It's a matter of getting some experts involved."

Burlington's Community and Economic Development Office has been soliciting schemes for the Moran plant since March, after voters rejected a plan to allow the 51-year-old brick structure to house the YMCA. Because of the Public Trust Doctrine, the site must be limited to government offices, environmental research or recreational or cultural activities.

Although a soundstage is certainly cultural, it's not the kind of venture that provides significant community access to the prime waterfront real estate. And access was a surely factor in the Town Meeting Day decision.

McMahon is undeterred. "It's good to know the limitations," he says. "I've been overcoming limitations my whole life."

A Brooklyn native, McMahon was immersed in civic affairs on various local boards and did legal work overseas from the 1970s through the 1990s. He claims it was his concept that led to the 1998 McBride Principles, which require fair-employment practices by U.S. companies doing business in Northern Ireland -- meaning no discrimination against Catholics.

McMahon landed in Vermont by accident after becoming ill en route to Canada. "I was treated at Fletcher Allen Health Care," he recalls. "I'm an alcoholic and I got sober here through a 12-step program. I'm also disabled, with bilateral peripheral neuropathy, which is a nerve condition. This seemed like the best place to live."

Whether it's a good place to make movies is another question. Vermont doesn't necessarily boast the highly skilled labor pool and superior digital facilities that out-of-town filmmakers often want.

However, "Our lack of tax incentives is the number one problem," acknowledges Danis Regal, executive director of the Vermont Film Commission. "That's always the first thing I'm asked. We are not competitive with other states."

In an early June New York Times story about the viability of film production in the Big Apple, comedian-writer Mel Brooks said: "Without the tax benefits, the horrible truth is, this movie (The Producers) would probably be made in Kabul, or, you know, wherever it's the cheapest place in the world for us to shoot."

The Vermont legislature did not pass the larger economic bill that includes the tax incentive before adjourning this spring; Regal expects it to appear on the calendar for the next session. She will be talking with McMahon about his initiative, but wonders if the 44,143-square-foot Moran plant is big enough to accommodate the artistic enterprise he envisions there.

By contrast, Silvercup Studios in Queens is 200,000 square feet, and the 280,000-square-foot Steiner Studios is now being constructed in the adjacent borough McMahon once called home. Moreover, David Giancola's Edgewood Studios in Rutland already offers 40,000 square feet of soundstage.

"The cost to renovate a building like the Moran plant with soundproofing and special flooring is phenomenal," Regal adds. "It really would require private investors."

Such harsh realities do not discourage McMahon. "This is a project that needs a lot of technical input and a coordinated effort," he says. "But we have a terrific opportunity to be creative."

Call 657-3261 or email dennis to find out more about his impossible dream.