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VOL. 121 | NO. 167 | Thursday, August 24, 2006

Major Hollywood Studio Eyes Memphis

Although deal isn't final, all signs point to Warner Bros. business partner Village Roadshow

By Andy Meek

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OPENING SCENE: If all indications are correct, Australian-based Village Roadshow Pictures Group or one of its divisions could open a major film production operation in metro Memphis. The company is a production partner of Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. -- Photo Illustration By Brad Johnson

After producers from Twentieth Century Fox chose the Memphis area as the location for 2005's Academy Award- and Golden Globe-winning movie "Walk the Line," they pointedly told a state official, "Enjoy it - it's the last film we're doing in Tennessee without a strong package of incentives."

Some two years later, how things have changed.

A local ad hoc pursuit team currently is in talks to woo either Village Roadshow Pictures Group or a division of that company to set up a major film production hub in the city.

That would continue a recent streak of high-profile feature films that have been shot in Memphis, including "The Firm," "Cast Away" and "21 Grams."

The Big Time

Village Roadshow, which has maintained a co-producing agreement with Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. since 1998, bills itself as one of the most successful independent producers in Hollywood. It has been responsible for such recent blockbusters as "The Matrix" trilogy starring Keanu Reeves and 2001's "Ocean's Eleven" with George Clooney, Brad Pitt and other big-name celebrities. It's also credited with 2004's "Ocean's Twelve" and 2005's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp.

Village Roadshow Limited, parent company of Village Roadshow Pictures, reported net profit for the 2005 financial year as $40.7 million Australian dollars after taxes, specific items and discontinuing operations, according to its annual report. The company's divisions include cinema exhibition, theme parks, radio stations, film distribution and film production.

The local recruitment, which is relying on everyone from Memphis Regional Chamber officials to members of the city's film and music commissions, would include building a soundstage and production offices in Memphis, according to sources close to the deal.

Word has it that the motion picture studio might be engaged in television productions, and as many as four productions could be initiated from the studio each year.

Hooray for Hollywood

Without mentioning a company by name, Memphis Music Foundation president Rey Flemings told Memphis City Council members in June that continuing negotiations involve a film company looking to spend $250 million on productions in the city over five years. More than one source since has confirmed the company is Village Roadshow.

"I know that there are several entities who have been involved in trying to lure these people here," said Martin Lane, who has worked locally as a location manager on a string of recent feature films, including "Walk the Line."

"We're all very anxious to see about the possibility of them coming. It's a division of Village Roadshow Productions, which is a major Australian-based production company."

When asked about the deal earlier this year, all Flemings would say is it involves a "very large corporate customer that's expressed an interest in kicking the tires." A series of meetings he described as "sensitive and important" were scheduled to be held with investors last week, but a city leader who was planning to attend said at least one of them was postponed indefinitely.

"I'm very pleased with where we are, actually," Flemings said in an interview earlier this month. "We're moving right along. We're primarily putting their incentives together and raising money to get it done."

No biz like showbiz

A finalized deal doesn't appear to be imminent, as several major components have yet to be consummated. One of them may have been inadvertently previewed this week via a local news broadcast that said city leaders are considering turning The Pyramid arena into a soundstage if the proposed Bass Pro Shops deal falls through.

Perhaps an even more crucial part of the deal has to do with rebates and other incentives Tennessee is using to attract filmmakers.

Gov. Phil Bredesen's $26.1 billion budget for 2007 includes $10 million set aside for state officials to offer rebates to filmmakers who spend money in-state.

That $10 million, though, is a nonrecurring fund, so there could be a push soon to make the fund more of a continuing incentive.

Still, it's a start. David Bennett, executive director of the Tennessee Film, Entertainment and Music Commission, was the state official quoted in February in Nashville's The Tennessean newspaper as saying Twentieth Century Fox producers might not come back after "Walk the Line."

Meanwhile, the pursuit team - which includes state legislators - is pushing ahead on the Village Roadshow deal. Several key groups and individuals have been mentioned as either involved with or knowledgeable about the discussions, including members of Memphis Tomorrow, a task force of the city's top executives that mostly operates behind the scenes.

"There are a few organizations and community and business-oriented groups in this - like, I'd heard one of them was a company that helped convince Pinnacle Airlines to base here," Lane said.

About the possibility of Village Roadshow coming, he added: "This thing would certainly be very lucrative if it happens. If they were asking me to vote on it, I'd certainly vote on it favorably."

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