In the same way the best-selling Mississippi author Kathryn Stockett persevered through 60 rejections before getting her book “The Help” published, a band of folks responsible for bringing the movie of “The Help” to Mississippi wouldn’t take no for an answer.
The DreamWorks Studios film, which had a $27-million budget and starred break-out actress Emma Stone, wrapped in Greenwood in October and will show in theaters August 12. “The Help” is about unlikely friendships between a white girl and black maids in the 1960s segregated South.
In addition to having an approximate $15-million economic impact on Mississippi, “The Help” was used to give Mississippi another economic benefit: an additional 5 percent for the Mississippi Motion Picture Incentive Act, which should result in a significant amount of more film production work in the state.
Most of the film’s Mississippi money was spent in Greenwood, where the bulk of the shooting was done in July and August. A minimal amount of work took place in Jackson and Clarksdale.
Although they were not all present for the whole six-month period that began in March 2010 for pre-production and filming, according to the Mississippi Film Office, 240 crew members came to Mississippi to make “The Help.” That doesn’t include cast.
Getting “The Help” to Greenwood
“Help” director, Jackson native Tate Taylor, calls the process of getting the movie to Greenwood “serendipitous.”
“It was good people coming together with egos in check just wanting to make a good product,” he said.
Taylor had bought the rights to Stockett’s book and adapted it into a screenplay. Growing up visiting Greenwood, he knew the town had the look he wanted and needed for what he thought was going to be an independent film, not one produced by a major studio.
Taylor and others came to scope out Greenwood in spite of the fact they had no funding for the film. For help with location scouting, Taylor was referred to Bill Crump, director of governmental affairs for Viking Range Corp. and the chair of the local economic development foundation.
After making a film called “Chicken Party” that received some recognition, Taylor had made a connection with well-known director/producer Chris Columbus. Through that connection, California’s DreamWorks Studios learned of the project and decided to back the film.
Because the Mississippi film incentives at that time were not as attractive, “The Help” was almost lost to Louisiana. Crump worked with the state to get additional funding and also obtained money from the Greenwood-Leflore Carroll Economic Development Foundation, Entergy Mississippi and AT&T. About $40,000 was offered to DreamWorks to alleviate warehouse and office space costs.
Former Mississippi Development Authority Director Gray Swoope toured DreamWorks with Taylor. Ward Emling and Nina Parikh, of MDA’s Mississippi Film Office, were also key players.
After the director of photography, Stephen Goldblatt, was convinced to visit Greenwood and fell in love with the location, the deal was done.
Getting the additional film incentive
In its most recent session the state Legislature approved an additional 5 percent for the Mississippi Motion Picture Incentive Act.
Previously, filmmakers got a 20 percent rebate for all qualified money spent in Mississippi and a 25 percent rebate for in-state cast and crew payroll. Now, the program includes 25 percent and 30 percent rebates, respectively.
Additionally, prior to the new incentive per diems for cast and crew could not be counted as part of qualified money spent in the state. Now they can be.
“One of the real holes in the Mississippi incentive program up until that point in time … was that the state Tax Commission had never been convinced that the per diems (to cast and crew) were being spent in the state,” Crump said.
When he learned that per diems ranged from $50 to $150 daily and were paid in $50 bills, which are rarely used, Crump got an idea of a way to track the money. Crump asked a local bank how many $50 bills it had taken out of circulation prior to the beginning of “The Help” production as opposed to after. In January, February, March and April, one bank had bundled a total of only $10,000 in 50s. In May alone, after some movie crew arrivals, they had bundled $30,000 in 50s.
Emling said the data Crump found enabled per diems to be included in the new incentive legislation.
“In most states, the per diem and housing allowances are included as qualified spend. (Tracking the $50 bills) allowed us to include that in our new legislation. What the 50-dollar thing did was prove that indeed the cash money, which of course is hard to track, was spent in the community in a big way,” Emling said.
“We finally had some data. I think what was so important about the filming of the ‘The Help’ was it was all right here, 95 percent of the filming. Almost 100 percent of the lodging, eating, all that was done in Greenwood. We had come out with a little microcosm. None of the other films in Mississippi – like ‘The Chamber’ was filmed in Oxford, in Indianola, in Greenwood. ‘A Time to Kill’ — was filmed in Canton, but they stayed in Jackson. But here in this one little area, we were able to track it. I also went around to all the local restaurants and got figures on their sales,” Crump said.
Taylor was able to use Greenwood’s data in a meeting with Gov. Haley Barbour, which a friend from college who had worked for the governor’s office helped facilitate. Taylor told Barbour of his intentions to bring projects to Mississippi. He explained his first film job was in 1996, working on “A Time to Kill” in Canton. Fifteen years later he was able to return to Mississippi from Los Angeles with a $27-million film project for Greenwood.
Barbour “understood that a lot of things on paper didn’t show the economic benefit to a town,” Taylor said. “That is what the incentive programs will do. You can’t look at it as just bringing jobs and what it creates on paper. It’s what happens in the minds of Mississippians.”
Future Plans for Mississippi
Although “The Help” didn’t benefit from the additional 5 percent rebate, now that it is in place, Taylor said he and Stockett want to start a mentorship program for aspiring novelists and screenwriters in Mississippi. Taylor recently bought a home in Natchez. “We want to keep Mississippi talent here. Here the talent is so rich, but people don’t have a touchstone to the business,” he said. “Anything I can do, if I can do it in Mississippi, I plan to bring it here.”
Taylor sees the importance of workforce development.
“If we’re going to compete with Louisiana, Louisiana has crew that already lives there. A crew has to have steady income or they can’t stay there. If we can start getting back-to-back projects, they can stay here and make a living,” he said.