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VOL. 119 | NO. 121 | Monday, July 11, 2005

Memphis Film Industry Grows as Economic Force

By Andy Meek

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BIG BUSINESS: 'Hustle & Flow,' set and filmed in Memphis, premiered in the city last week. -- Photograph By Andy Meek

If Linn Sitler could write a sequel to the blockbuster growth of the film industry in Memphis, it might sound like this.

Director Craig Brewer, whose film "Hustle & Flow" got its red-carpet premiere in Memphis last week, would return to the Bluff City to shoot his next picture, "Black Snake Moan." He would be undaunted by the lure of film-friendly states like Georgia and Louisiana, even though they offer a slew of tax credits to movie production companies that Tennessee doesn't.

Statewide effort. Down the line, Sitler imagines Tennessee legislators getting in on the act, working harder to woo more productions like "Black Snake Moan," already slated to feature actors Samuel L. Jackson, Christina Ricci and Memphian Justin Timberlake. For her, all of that would lead to a happy ending for Memphis' film industry.

"What we have to do is just have a statewide effort to convince the legislators that this is important economically," said Sitler, Memphis and Shelby County Film Commissioner. "This is not something we only turn to when we solve our other problems.

"Filmmaking is economic development. It creates jobs, it puts bread on people's tables, and once I think that is recognized across the state and we have the administration's support, we'll get it done."

Advisory committee. That could happen sooner rather than later. Gov. Phil Bredesen has created a film advisory committee to study the economic impact of film and TV in the state and has asked members to report back to him by February. The committee, which Sitler is a part of, also will weigh incentives to movie production crews offered by Tennessee and nearby areas.

Whatever recommendations the committee makes, though, won't be in time to affect "Black Snake Moan," which Sitler feared earlier this month could see the same fate as CBS' recent "Elvis" miniseries. Memphis may be the birthplace of The King, but most of the CBS miniseries was shot in New Orleans.

"Filmmaking is economic development. It creates jobs, it puts bread on people's tables, and once I think that is recognized across the state and we have the administration's support, we'll get it done."
- Linn Sitler
Memphis and Shelby County Film commissioner

"Craig wants to shoot it here - musically and location-wise it should be here - but Tennessee cannot offer the incentives that Georgia and Louisiana do," Sitler said. "What we're trying to do is creatively come up with an approach whereby it would be more attractive for them to shoot here. We're still communicating with them and sending photos of locations - that used to be the major way to recruit something, and it's taken a kind of back seat to incentives."

City's appeal. That's not to say film and small screen projects aren't being shot in Memphis. MTV just left town after shooting several promotional spots for "Hustle & Flow," Sitler said. Several movie scouts have flown in recently, Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair have made stops in town, and TV shows "Extreme Makeover" and "The Swan" have filmed here, as well as commercials for Lincoln-Mercury and Levi Strauss.

David Bennett, executive director of the state's Film, Entertainment and Music Commission, chairs the new film committee and will hold hearings in Memphis this fall. But Sitler, who has lobbied state lawmakers for the last two legislative sessions to look at movie industry incentives, hopes more is done.

"The committee by itself won't be enough," she said. "But I think we're on the road. And actually, with all the economic challenges this state has, I was told that trying to get the incentives that we wanted passed without the support of the administration would be very tough.

"But we had to try anyway. My only regret is that this didn't happen sooner."

Small disruption. Not that uphill battles have discouraged the local film commission in the past. Memphis attorney John Ryder, with Harris Shelton Hanover Walsh PLLC, represents the film commission and tells the story of how, several years ago, Sitler was upset that a motorcade carrying former President George Bush in Memphis would disrupt the shooting schedule of a TV series filming here.

She asked Ryder, chairman of the Shelby County Republican Party at the time, to see what he could do to get the motorcade re-routed.

"I get a call from Linn, and she says, 'John, we have a terrible situation,'" Ryder said. "'I've just been advised by the Memphis Police Department that the president's motorcade is going to go down Beale Street, and as a result, the production company is going to have to stand down while the motorcade goes through. It's going to totally disrupt their day and cost them thousands and thousands of dollars.'

"So I said, 'Linn, you don't understand - the Secret Service decides this,'" Ryder said. "You don't just say, 'Gee, this is causing economic concerns, would you please re-route the motorcade?'"

Great lengths. But that's exactly what he did - because "a good lawyer tries to represent his client as best he can," Ryder laughed.

"Linn was in a meeting the day before the speech with the Beale Street Merchants Association and the SWAT team for the (MPD), and the SWAT team was telling her the film crew had to vacate where they were," Ryder said. "Linn told them, 'Oh no, my lawyer's getting it changed.'

"Later the Secret Service came in and said the motorcade would be re-routed. So they moved it a block over, and as a result, the film crew didn't have to stand down. And it just shows we will go to great lengths for production companies to shoot here in Memphis."

RECORD TOTALS DAY WEEK YEAR
PROPERTY SALES 51 223 1,152
MORTGAGES 55 189 861
FORECLOSURE NOTICES 25 45 144
BUILDING PERMITS 149 541 2,593
BANKRUPTCIES 24 120 581
BUSINESS LICENSES 14 65 264
UTILITY CONNECTIONS 0 0 0
MARRIAGE LICENSES 0 0 0