The first Hollywood movie production to use the new tax incentives for the Mississippi film industry was the blockbuster, “Walk the Line,” a biopic featuring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon as the late Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash.
Both lead actors — and the movie itself — have generated plenty of buzz, yet few moviegoers know that one-third of the scenes were shot in the Magnolia State during the summer of 2004.
Johnny Cash’s old home place?
A plank house in the tiny Delta community of Eudora, also the site of a 40-acre cotton field filmed in the movie.
Las Vegas show scenes?
That’s Sam’s Town in Tunica.
Cash’s home, the one he eyed after waking from a drunken stupor?
A lake house near Hernando.
“It was a great movie to be the first one to participate in the rebate program,” said Mississippi film commissioner Ward Emling. “The film crew spent 12 to 13 days filming the scenes here. With our increased movie production in Mississippi, we’re growing another tourism attraction.”
Last year, state lawmakers passed The Motion Picture Incentive Act, which includes incentives for a rebate on local expenses, reduction on machinery used, tax credit on local payroll and tax exemption of the component materials used.
“The best thing the incentives have done for us so far is, it gets us into the conversation as a film location,” Emling said. “In the old days — about 10 years ago — the first question was about locations, then local crews. Now it’s incentives. That helps us get to the other two questions — locations and local crew support.”
Part of the plan
Those incentives represent one piece of a three-part plan to grow the film industry in Mississippi, said Emling.
“We’re also developing local crew talent through workforce training, and trying to find funding for local filmmakers, which is a tough one,” he admitted.
Groundbreaking for a training center for film crew trades in Canton, known as “the Film Capital of Mississippi,” should happen early this year, said Emling.
“We don’t have a deep crew base like Atlanta, Dallas, New Orleans and Wilmington, N.C.,” he said. “A large percentage of the film crew is vagabondish. Sometimes they settle in a place and sometimes they don’t. Lately, there’s been a lot of work in Memphis, and they’re rebuilding their crew base from 10 to 15 years ago. We want to build up ours so they’ll stay here. When everyone has incentives, it’ll come back to crew. And we plan to use the incentives to help train our crews.”
In the classroom, too
Even though Hurricane Katrina postponed plans to move the University of Southern Mississippi’s Radio Television and Film (RTF) curriculum to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the program’s two professors have been encouraged “to think bigger rather than smaller, and perhaps envision an entertainment art center that would have filmmaking, recording studios and things that could be used for education, professional production and also as an economic development tool for the recovery after Katrina,” said Southern Miss mass communications and journalism professor Scott Dixon McDowell.
“We haven’t started asking anybody for cash, because we don’t have a clear picture of what it’s going to look like yet,” he said. “Our steering committee is creating that vision. We’ll show it to people for feedback and then start asking for financial support to carry it off.”
For now, Southern Miss students in the RTF program complete film projects by shooting in area homes and businesses. “The plan was to put us into a space where we had a small production area for exercises and so that students could shoot scenes in-house,” said McDowell. “That major improvement was to come with the move.”
Plans to add another professor to the Southern Miss RTF program are still in place, said McDowell.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at Lynne.Jeter@gmail.com.