This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Mississippi Film Office, created by Gov. Bill Waller in 1973 to promote the industry in the state.
As 2013 winds down, there is a movie about James Brown (Get on Up) being filming in Natchez, and another, The Sound and the Fury directed by James Franco, is on hiatus until after the first of the year.
“We’ve been very busy,” said Ward Emling, who’s worked in the film office for 24 years. And there are more projects to come, based on the state incentives awarded already to planned productions.
The incentives are key to attracting the makers of movies, television shows and commercials. Companies receive a 25 percent rebate on what’s spent in the state and on salaries of non-Mississippi residents. The rebate for salaries for residents is 30 percent. “Earlier this year we added a five percent bonus on salaries of honorably discharged veterans,” Emling said. “That’s something we’re doing that nobody else does.”
Emling said the rebates helped make last fiscal year a success. “We had 11 productions of various sizes and they were spread out in Tupelo, two in Hattiesburg, three on the Coast and three in the Jackson area. They were small independents for the most part, all budgets were under a couple million each and some as low as $500,000. We love smaller productions, they hire a lot of local crew.”
Last year for the first time the film office obligated its $20 million annual cap on the amount of rebates it can award in any fiscal year.
“That’s how good the incentive has been working,” Emling said. “We obligated all of that money last year and not all of those productions have filmed yet. If they all film then we’re looking at $80 million to $90 million in local production spend.”
Already this fiscal year, which began July 1, about $15 million of the rebate has been earmarked. “So we know there’s a lot of production out there that’s looking at us,” Emling said.
Some of last year’s incentives went to the pilot of a Cinemax series and the first season of The Shed’s barbeque-based reality show on Food Network. “Our incentive program is pretty broad,” Emling said. “We qualify television and feature film productions but also documentaries and commercials.” He said The Shed has finished production and is awaiting word on whether there will be a second season.
Emling has headed the film office for 24 years, since 1990, and he was there when the office was created. “That summer I worked on my first film. I was an extra and wardrobe assistant in Natchez for The Musical Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It was my summer job after my freshman year at Millsaps.”
Last week he was attending the 2nd annual Sun & Sand Film and Music thing on the Coast, one of several such festivals now held annually throughout the state. It’s one sign of how the industry has matured in Mississippi.
Another sign that the state is serious about film making is that the incentive program matches that of competing nearby states. “Our incentive now is pretty much the cash equivalent with Louisiana and Georgia and other states,” he said.
The competitive edge is more about locations these days, Emling said. “Locations are back in play. For a long time it was all about incentives, and it still is, but with incentives being equal, we’re now competing with locations.”
Emling said the film office is scouting locations they never had to scout before, including high tech places and urban spaces.
The Coast and Natchez are rejoining the list of popular locations like Oxford, Canton and the Delta, he said, “because they offer more than a producer might be able to find somewhere else.”
The film office is part of the state Division of Tourism in the Mississippi Development Authority. The four-person staff works with a network throughout the state consisting mostly of Convention and Visitor Bureaus. “We also have a dedicated person on the Gulf Coast now, Bill Webb. We see that as a specifically strong growth area for us. It’s a big area with a lot of variety and incredible water locations.”
The Coast now also has a professional coalition similar to ones in Jackson, Tupelo and Oxford made up of people involved in all aspects of the film industry.
With incentives in place and college and university film study curriculum growing, “The next step is something we have been talking about for a while: workforce training for production crews.
“Like any industry in the state, workforce training is a prime focus whether you’re buildings cars or solar panels or making films,” Emling said.