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VOL. 127 | NO. 137 | Monday, July 16, 2012

Lights, Camera, Action

State’s film industry gets much-needed financial boost

By Andy Meek

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The pot of state money available to spur film production in Tennessee got a couple million dollars richer a few months ago.

Drew Fleming (standing) and Ryan Goble of Running Pony Productions shoot an educational video at a local fire station for the Memphis Fire Museum. (Image courtesy of Running Pony Productions)

Thanks to a measure sponsored this past legislative session by state Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville, an additional $2 million is now available to incentivize film production in the state. But the good news goes deeper than that seven-figure sum for Tennessee’s film industry.

That money represents a recurring stream of revenue for the Tennessee Film and TV Incentive Fund.

“When producers would look at Tennessee, they saw a $10 million fund that had been drawn down,” Norris said. “Investors want to know this money is a recurring prospect. This is something I’ve always been passionate about. The film industry is a wealth of economic opportunity for Tennessee, and (this incentive) is as important as any that we provide.”

Filmmakers and industry representatives from around the state have for several years lamented a lopsided playing field tilted away from Tennessee and in favor of states like Georgia and Louisiana that have comparatively showered filmmakers and production companies with gobs of money.

Memphis director Craig Brewer’s 2011 movie “Footloose” – starring Julianne Hough and Dennis Quaid and with a production budget of $24 million – had to be shot in Georgia even though Brewer tried to keep it in his home state.

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. lamented that fact to the Memphis City Council in 2010, saying during one meeting, “We worked around the clock trying to keep that movie here. Everybody else had something to put on the table. What did this big city have? We lost that.”

Lawmakers and economic development officials, along with film industry representatives, have been slowly working to change that dynamic.

As part of a larger economic development strategy for the region, for example, according to a booklet prepared by Memphis Fast Forward, between 2007 and 2011 the Memphis & Shelby County Film and Television Commission recruited or assisted 22 feature films; 57 network TV program; 42 TV commercials; 17 corporate and promotional videos; 11 Web-based projects; 40 documentaries; 27 music videos; 28 still photography shoots; and 15 short films.

The commission also began a “work exchange” program through the Berlin-Brandenburg Film Commission and through a Wage Refund Program provided on-the-job training for 56 local crew members and training workshops that attracted 400 trainees.

Memphis & Shelby County Film and Television Commissioner Linn Sitler said one thing that puts Tennessee at a disadvantage is the state’s revenue structure. States that offer bigger film incentives, she explained, also sometimes have state income taxes that allow them to tax the stars and crew members of film productions to recoup some of those incentive dollars.

“There’s no way we can compete for big studio pictures with states like Georgia and Louisiana, because we don’t have the coffers that they have,” Sitler said. “Tennessee doesn’t have the same way to get the incentive money back penny for penny that those states have.”

Norris’ legislation, meanwhile, has been greeted as a welcome sign, as emblematic of Nashville at least getting the state one step closer to parity with the cash-waving competition – even if the field is still lopsided.

“The thing about the most recent round of incentives we have – it’s a good start,” said David Merrill, who’s been deeply involved for years in Memphis in film production work. “But the thing is, incentives between the states is essentially a giant poker game. It’s not enough when somebody bets $50 and you say, ‘Oh, you bet $50? Well, I’ll bet … $45.’ It doesn’t really work that way.”

Sitler said the legislation passed this last session allows the state to hopefully land more productions with budgets of $5 million and under, plus TV series productions.

“That’s opposed to a $20 million or $30 million project, which would break the fund every year,” Sitler said. “By keeping the fund replenished, though, we can become a home for lots of smaller budgeted projects. And the beauty of those is they’ll hire more local crew members.

“Another thing I’ll say: the fact that (Sen. Norris) could do this in this economic climate is impressive.”

The new state incentive will be administered by the Tennessee Film Entertainment and Music Commission (TFEMC). The legislation ends what had been a complicated system of incentivizing productions through a combination of TFEMC grants and refundable tax credits issued by the state Department of Revenue.

Other recent news surrounding the film industry and Memphis includes “The Grace Card,” a Memphis-made feature film that was released on DVD late last year. The movie is about two Memphis police officers and how their religious faith is tested by each other, and it features Academy Award-winning actor Louis Gossett Jr. (Image courtesy of Graceworks Pictures)

The changes effectively make the TFEMC a “one-stop shop” for state-level film incentives.

Under the new legislation, projects with budgets of more than $200,000 now are eligible for grants equal to 25 percent of their qualified Tennessee expenses. The prior system awarded a 17 percent grant and 15 percent refundable tax credit only to productions with budgets of more than $1 million.

“As part of Gov. (Bill) Haslam’s Jobs4TN economic development plan, the entertainment industry was identified as one of the key industries in which the state has a clear competitive advantage,” said Bill Hagerty, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, of which TFEMC is one part.

Norris agreed the legislative changes should provide a boon especially to smaller and independent filmmakers – the likes of which Memphis alone has plenty.

Some of them likely will be on hand in September for FuelFilm: Expo, an annual gathering of filmmakers, directors, producers, screenwriters, editors, cinematographers, actors, agents and more. The expo, which includes events like workshops, screenings, seminars, clinics and networking, is scheduled for Sept. 28-30 at Southwest Tennessee Community College.

It’s an initiative of FuelFilm: Memphis, a nonprofit group founded in 2009 that promotes the growth of the Memphis film industry. Among FuelFilm’s other initiatives is its annual 48 Hour Film Launch, an event in which filmmakers attempt to create short films in just 48 hours.

Paper Moon Films is a Memphis-based independent film production company. One of its latest productions is “The Motels of Route 66,” a combination interactive film and book project. Fueled with crowd-sourced fundraising, the project explores the famed “Route 66” via stories of motel owners and travelers along the road.

The project is about capturing vintage motels in film, photography and via day-in-the-life glimpses of some of the unique people who run the establishments along the road as well as the travelers who stay the night. Another Paper Moon production – “Pilgrim Song,” about a music teacher who decides to hike Kentucky’s Sheltowee Trace Trail – has been recently screening around the country. The company’s inaugural film “Open Five” by Kentucker Audley won the Best Narrative Feature award at the 2010 Indie Memphis Film Festival and made the Top 25 Films of 2010 list by The New Yorker.

Beyond Memphis, Hagerty’s department announced last month it’s approved a grant of up to $7.5 million for the television show “Nashville” that will film there and premiere on ABC this fall.

“We need to incentivize not just film projects but bricks and mortar – a film production industry here,” Merrill said. “Already at LaunchMemphis and Seed Hatchery, they’re doing this kind of thing with technology firms. That’s really what we need to see with the film industry here.

“It’s not just that we need to throw money at the problem. We also need a strategy, and we need a plan.”

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