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Films Have Huge Impact in Tourism Branding

Steve Borrn, left, and Erik Matthews spoke on the film industry’s impact on tourism.The second day of the Tourism Department’s four-day forum didn’t miss a beat, picking up the energy from Monday’s agenda. The morning sessions focused on the film industry, and the local craft and retail markets.

The department is getting input on a five-year rolling tourism development plan for the territory, a project Gov. John deJongh Jr. and Tourism Commissioner Beverly Nicholson Doty announced last year.

The government contracted with the consulting firm Marketplace Excellence to develop the effort. The firm is facilitating this week’s conference and later will draft the plan. Nicholson Doty put the contract cost at about $100,000.

Marketplace Excellence President Bevan Springer and his father, Basil Springer, a change-engine consultant, kept things moving briskly Tuesday morning as panels comprising public and private stakeholders explored the film, craft and retail industries, each panelist talking for a few minutes before splitting into groups to throw around ideas, of which there was no shortage.

Erik Matthews, a 17-year veteran and cofounder of the V.I. film industry; Steven Bornn, the current development manager of the V.I. Film Office; and Michael Levett of CDC Development Solutions each spoke on local film opportunities.

Matthews, though no longer officially in film production, has an abiding interest in a healthy film industry. "We had nothing when I first moved here with Win deLugo to make a movie, and that’s how we discovered the islands had no infrastructure, nothing to offer a production company. It was a disaster,” he said.

"With the help of then Sen. Addie Ottley we established the first film office in 1973. It is one of the oldest film commissions in America, a founding member of the Association of Film Commissioners International, and the first in the Caribbean," Matthews said.

The industry was in its heyday in the 80s and 90s, Matthew said, with feature films –
"The Island of Dr. Moreau," "The Shawshank Redemption" – and slews of commercials being filmed in the territory.

"The film office experienced a slump in the early 2000s without even a budget," Matthew lamented, "until about three years ago when Steve Bornn came aboard. He has revitalized the industry. He has the passion for it, and that’s what it needs."

The Film Office is one of the few niches in the V.I. government that annually generates far more in revenues for the government than it spends.

According to Bornn, TV productions spend approximately $85,000 a day in a location. Such shoots last on average seven to 14 days. Feature-length motion pictures pump more than $100,000 per day, with low budget productions and documentaries average between $15,000 and $35,000 per day. Television commercials average between $50,000 and $100,000 per day, and still shoots run around $25,000 per day, Bornn said.

"You have to look at the lasting impact of films shot here," he said, "the branding. Then the crews who come here spend money. They spend lots more than regular visitors. They have to have lodgings, meals, entertainment. These people will spend $2.5 million on a feature film in three days,” Bornn said.

"We can’t wait for a five-year plan to take effect. We need to start tomorrow. This business is cyclical, and now it’s hot. We need feature films, along with commercials and print ads,” he said. “We need to let people know we are more than just a beach. All islands have beaches."

Levett, who has a film background working with such titans as George Lucas, stressed how films help tourism by authenticating the look of a region. "Your islands are unique," he said. "People will recognize the Virgin Islands."

The forum was video-conferenced to St. Croix and St. John. Johanna Bermudez-Ruiz of Cane Bay Films on St. Croix spoke of the need for collaboration on all three islands. She also stressed the need for a film program at the University of the Virgin Islands, a need all the speakers mentioned.

Todd Hecht, a 20-year veteran of the local film industry, and owner of Paradise Pictures, spoke about the frustration he experiences daily in logistics, specifically getting permits from the National Park Service. "They demand a 14-day advance notice, and that’s not the way the film industry works. They don’t have 14 days. We are losing a lot of business."

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