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VOL. 121 | NO. 123 | Thursday, June 15, 2006

Memphis: The Next Hollywood?

Key players aren't talking, but evidence points to possible film, music deals

By Andy Meek

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GREAT BIG DEAL: Rumors are swirling that the historic Stax Records label could be re-launched soon thanks to an investment group that could include pop star Justin Timberlake. The Stax Museum of American Soul Music stands at the site of famed Stax Records at 926 E. McLemore Ave. Possibly related to the deal are negotiations with a large film company to build a local presence in Memphis. -- Photograph Courtesy Of The Stax Museum Of American Soul Music

When Memphis Music Foundation president Rey Flemings joined a contingent of local dignitaries in Park City, Utah, last year for the Sundance premiere of "Hustle & Flow," was he simply being an ambassador for Memphis' music establishment or did his presence signify something more?

Time will tell. Though he chairs a local music foundation, has a recording studio in his home and hobnobs with music industry bigwigs like pop star Justin Timberlake, Flemings is working on a pair of major business deals that involve him wooing not just music executives, but those from the film industry, as well.

And while it wasn't immediately obvious when he presented Memphis City Council members last week with details - including the possibilities of a re-launch of the Stax record label and a major film company opening a regional headquarters in Memphis - it's since become clear that both announcements are connected, possibly by way of one parent company owning both entities.

Signifying nothing?

For now, the music man at the forefront of negotiations is being tight-lipped about the news. But the entities apparently involve such a well-known corporate brand that saying too much about either the record label or the movie company would let the whole cat out of the bag, according to local officials who've been briefed on the details.

"I need people to respect that we behave the same way that a chamber of commerce or a convention and visitors bureau (CVB) does," said Flemings, who stepped into his role with the music group three years ago, at age 29.

Could Memphis be in line for something similar?
Lions Gate Entertainment is planning a $15 million studio complex on more than 50 acres near Rio Rancho, N.M.
Among a package of incentives offered to the film company, the Rio Rancho City Council has discussed giving Lions Gate more than $1 million in free land and financing another $1 million for more property to build the studio.
Recent Tennessee film legislation includes $10 million as incentives for film and television productions in-state, as well as a 15 percent rebate on in-state production spending for film companies.

Source: The Albuquerque Journal

"A CVB will recruit a few hundred conventions a year; they don't bat a thousand. A chamber will recruit scores of companies a year; they don't bat a thousand. I know this is different - people get excited about it because it's entertainment, but we just ask for the same respect those organizations enjoy."

His reluctance to say more probably is to be expected because he has a personal interest in seeing both deals come to fruition. Flemings wasn't approached by a big-name corporation that wants to put Memphis' entertainment industry even more prominently on the map; he was the one who initiated both discussions.

His group, the Memphis Music Foundation, is a private nonprofit organization that works alongside the Memphis and Shelby County Music Commission. Negotiations at the moment are being juggled among several major projects, including fund raising and the re-launch of a long-inactive Web site, www.memphismusic.org.

"I certainly stand on the shoulders of a lot of people who have brought this to fruition, but these recruitments were launched by me," he said, explaining the genesis of the transactions.

Opportunities missed, gained

Council members last week learned about one of the companies with which Flemings is in negotiations, a company he described as "a very large corporate customer that's expressed an interest in kicking the tires."

But no amount of deal-making, no matter how shrewd, could have compensated for the void that would have been left had state lawmakers not recently passed legislation that offers incentives to film companies. That's the opinion of Memphis and Shelby County Film & Television Commissioner Linn Sitler, who has made 10 trips to Nashville in the last few months to pressure lawmakers into getting something done.

Several things helped convince lawmakers to act. State Rep. Mike Kernell, D-Memphis, said it shocked his colleagues, for example, to discover the recent Civil War-themed film "Cold Mountain" was filmed in Romania, when a setting in rustic East Tennessee easily could have fit the bill.

"That turned the stomachs of a lot of people," he said.

Sitler said Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton's office provided a lobbyist who helped the city-county film and television commission persuade legislators. A few months ago, Sitler also turned to Flemings - and the local music commission and music foundation - for help.

And it didn't hurt that Flemings' group enjoys the support and financial backing of Memphis Tomorrow, a task force of the city's top executives that mostly operates behind the scenes.

"Sometimes I'd go up there for one night, sometimes two nights," Sitler said. "Some hideous times I'd go in the morning and come back that day."

Persistence, persistence, persistence

It apparently paid off. State legislation includes $10 million set aside as incentives for film and television productions in the state, coupled with a 15 percent rebate on in-state production spending for film companies.

Wooing a major film company and a high-profile recording studio represents possibly the biggest gamble Flemings has taken so far in his stint at the vanguard of the city's music industry. And while he's not giving up any details yet, Memphians can get a clue what might be in store by turning their attention to the town of Rio Rancho, N.M.

That's where film giant Lions Gate Entertainment is planning to build a $15 million studio, thanks in part to millions of dollars in state investment and tax breaks provided by that state, according to the Albuquerque Journal.

As for the local deals, rumors have been circulating since last year that a handful of Memphis record labels could be re-launched soon. Shelby Singleton, chairman of Nashville-based Sun Entertainment Holding Corp., said Flemings called in early 2005 to let him know a group of Memphis investors was interested in possibly buying the Sun, Stax and Hi record labels.

An October story in the British newspaper The Observer asserted that Timberlake was looking to purchase Sun, a transaction that would include a goldmine of more than 7,000 master recordings, the Sun logo and the historic record label. Whether that comes to fruition - or is even accurate - remains to be seen.

"We're out there and we're close, but these deals aren't done yet," Flemings said.

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