Look out Georgia and Louisiana.
The Mississippi Film Office, the Mississippi Development Authority’s extended economic hand to Hollywood, is celebrating its 40th year of operations and many premier film festivals are ready for another summer of marketing the state to the inner echelons of the film industry.
In the last two decades alone, producers, location scouts and film crews have flocked to Mississippi to tell many stories. Critically-acclaimed thrillers like “A Time to Kill” and “Ghosts of Mississippi” recounted Mississippi’s dark past of violence and racism while “My Dog Skip” and “O, Brother Where Art Thou” explored themes of family and friendship with lighter strokes.
The Best Picture-nominated film “The Help” directed by Mississippian Tate Taylor was filmed in Greenwood and Jackson in 2011 and last fall Oscar-nominated actor James Franco directed his unreleased adaptation of William Faulkner’s novel “As I Lay Dying” at Mississippi Film Studios in Canton.
Actor-turned Mississippi Film Office executive director Ward Emling says recently passed legislation will increase the effectiveness of his agency’s incentive programs that target the film industry and could lead to larger budget films with higher-profile actors in the coming years.
“We’ve been very methodically improving it as we see how the industry works,” Emling says. “We are constantly looking at what other states and countries are doing with their film programs and trying to adapt and improve.”
A bill that would raise to $5 million the amount of production payroll that can be applied to the agency’s motion picture rebate program awaits Gov. Phil Bryant’s signature. Emling says Mississippi already has a cash equivalent to rivals Georgia and Louisiana; states that have had great success with films and television, ranging from the church-based Sherwood Pictures family film “Fireproof” to HBO’s popular vampire series “True Blood.”
Emling calls himself an “industrial developer” and keeps a packed schedule of trade show and film festival dates from Robert Redford’s Sundance Film Festival in Utah to Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. It’s a good way to match a face and handshake with a state that’s ripening for more Tinseltown dollars.
“Everybody that comes to Mississippi whether its directors Rob Reiner or Joel and Ethan Coen — they all like it here and love the people and the respect they get shown,” Emling says. “I think just about everybody has remarked on the hospitality and graciousness of the people.”
Mississippi has its own slew of film festivals (see sidebar) and while they may not get the draw or press of Berlin, Toronto or Cannes, they are just as attractive to the industry and a boon for the state’s own filmmakers.
Film festivals usually payout in three ways for their respective communities. They preserve the cultural heritage of filmmaking especially documentary and independently produced projects. They also foster competition among local and regional filmmakers who enter to win prize money or accolades. Finally, film festivals are a good way to create networking opportunities between Mississippi’s film community and some of the industry’s best and brightest stars.
“I think it’s important for local artists to have a venue and not one that’s super critical,” says Edward St. Pe. The Jackson meteorologist, filmmaker and B-movie collector is currently organizing his fourth-annual Mississippi International Film Festival.
Last year the event was held at the Davis Planetarium and showed films from China, Japan, Iran and Iraq. St. Pe says film festivals are an important part of preserving the filmmaking culture while inspiring young filmmakers to pursue their own projects.
“I think that if a guy or girl is taking the time to direct, write, shoot, act- then it’s my responsibility to make sure that film is represented in my festival,” he says.
Crossroads Film Festival in Jackson celebrated fourteen years this year with the world premier of “Crafting a Nation,” a documentary that features the country’s growing micro-brewing industry. Other films that screened included “Gideon’s Army” which features Jackson attorney June Hardwick and “Mud” a film that was shot on location on the Mississippi River.
Crossroads organizer and Film Office deputy director Nina Parikh says Mississippi has had a nice run of films at festivals like Sundance in recent years including “Prom Night in Mississippi” and “Mississippi Damned.”
“The Mississippi festivals really help in promoting the state,” Parikh says. “(Filmmakers) see that it’s a really nurturing environment and the locations are unique and a great place to shoot.”
Tupelo-born rock and roll king Elvis Presley starred in more than 30 feature films and Tupelo Film Festival organizer Pat Rasberry says the event has shown plenty of Elvis movies in years past. It also heavily promotes independent films that are outside the mainstream.
“We work that angle of films that people may have never seen,” Rasberry says. The event is not only useful for connecting the community with visiting producers and crew but is an important stepping stone for young filmmakers.
“They want the exposure,” Rasberry says. “They want to win awards and be picked up by a distributor and make it big.” Past competing filmmakers at the festival have had documentaries air on the PBS and History channels.
The Sun & Sand Mississippi Film & Music Festival held its inaugural event last year on the Gulf Coast. The trade show and competition included more than 100 screenings and was a star-studded event with Hollywood VIPs like Kevin Costner, Dan Aykroyd and Jim Belushi making appearances.
Veteran Hollywood producer Wes Benton helped start the event and says it has a year-round impact of bringing Hollywood to Mississippi. “Twilight” producer Mark Morgan and Benton’s company Red Planet Entertainment have since signed a three-picture deal that will be filmed in Mississippi.
“This isn’t the only place in the world that you can go see films on the beach and have the casinos and all part of it,” Benton says. “The other one is Cannes.”