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Mississippi’s film industry hosting international journalists

Mississippi’s film industry put itself in line for some international exposure when a group of British journalists came to visit the state December 4-9. A tour of movie locations throughout Central, Southwest and North Mississippi topped the itinerary.

The 30-year-old Mississippi Film Office (MFO) got involved in the Movie Media Tour as the result of a request from David Nicholson, the Mississippi Development Authority’s tourism representative to the United Kingdom and European market.

“Our UK rep wanted to put together a tour for UK journalists for film locations in Mississippi,” said Ward Emling, MFO director.

MDA’s Division of Tourism brings writers and TV producers to the state on a regular basis to showcase Mississippi’s various recreational opportunities, such as outdoor sports, blues hotspots or music tours, but Emling said this week-long trip was the first one for movie locations.

United Kingdom publications sending writers include The Guardian, Essentially American, Motoring and Leisure and The Mail on Sunday.

“Film tourism is getting to be a big business,” said Emling, pointing to the success of New Zealand in marketing itself among fans of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, which was filmed over 18 months in that country.

The visiting UK journalists began their trip in Jackson last Thursday and end up in Memphis on Wednesday. Stops are scheduled for Canton, Edwards, Port Gibson, Natchez, Vicksburg, Yazoo City, Greenwood, Clarksdale, Oxford and Holly Springs.

Central Mississippi takes up two nights on the tour, with sites from “The Chamber,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” “A Time to Kill,” “Thieves Like Us,” “My Dog Skip,” “Miss Firecracker” and “The Ponder Heart.” Set locations in Natchez for “The North and the South” and “Beulah Land” showcase that city’s history of filming TV shows, while towns in the Delta and North Mississippi served as backdrops for “Crossroads,” “The Reivers,” “Mississippi Marsala,” “Intruder in the Dust,” “Big Bad Love,” “The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag” and “Cookie’s Fortune.”
“The films are the link, but they’re going to see a lot of Mississippi,” said Emling.

One of the projects Emling spearheaded as a part of the MFO’s recent anniversary celebration was a map, circulated to chambers of commerce and convention and visitors bureaus (CVBs), of all the sites and set locations of movies filmed in Mississippi. The map was used to plan this tour, and Emling would like to see local communities use the resource to take up the opportunity to lure film and movie buffs to the state with their own self-guided or locally-run tours.

“It’s one of the things I’ve been pushing to local CVBs to do for years for their own counties,” said Emling.

One location that has forged ahead in luring tourism with its film history is Canton, home to the Canton Film Museum. Jo Ann Gordon, executive director of the Canton Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the city made its first foray into film tourism after Joel Schumacher’s adaptation of John Grisham’s “A Time to Kill” came to Canton in 1995.
The heart of the museum is the original sets for various scenes in the blockbuster film, including the coffee shop, the law firm offices and the courthouse square.

“Never in the history of Warner Brothers had they ever left the sets from a movie,” said Gordon.

Guided tours illustrate how Canton worked with the film company, showcasing its architecture, commerce, personnel, equipment and other resources to make the project a success.

“Every time a film came to Canton, we were able to keep the sets or a position of the sets from all the movies filmed in Canton,” said Gordon.

Other exhibits include sets from filming Willie Morris’ “My Dog Skip,” filmed in Canton during the summer of 1998, including Willie’s birthday party scene and the actual Witch’s Crypt. Portions of sets used in the PBS production of an adaptation of Eudora Welty’s “Ponder Heart” also remain at the facility.

Gordon, while not citing specific attendance figures for the Canton Film Museum, said that the facility sees a steady stream of individual visitors on all days of the week, with various church, corporate, group and school tours making regular rounds of the attraction as well. Field trips to the museum are especially popular with classes studying Mississippi’s literary heritage as exemplified by Grisham, Morris and Welty, said Gordon.

Emling said that tours such as Canton’s and the publicity from the articles that should appear overseas are just another ripple effect from Mississippi’s long history of film production.
“This is the residual effect of what films can do for an area,” said Emling.

Contact MBJ contributing writer at Julie Whitehead at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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