By JACK WEATHERLY
A Mississippi tax dollar spent on incentives for filmmaking gets only 49 cents in return, according to a study by the legislative Joint Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review, or PEER.
And while that may not seem a good bet, Mississippi is faring better than many of the 38 states chasing the glamor of making movies.
Louisiana, for instance, gets 23 cents on the dollar, while North Carolina, at 46 cents, comes the closest to Mississippi, followed by Florida, at 43 cents, among states selected for the study.
“We very carefully built (the incentives package) over the last 11 or 12 years,” Ward Emling, director of the Mississippi Film Office, said in an interview. “It was good to see that we were creating a program that was operating more efficiently” than those in other Southern states.
Louisiana, which has earned the nickname “Hollywood South,” last year capped its unlimited tax credits at $180 million per year – which are transferable and often land in hands of those who have nothing to do with the film industry – and suspended its credit buyback program for one year.
It was facing a shortfall of hundreds of millions in its general budget.
To qualify for cash rebates in Mississippi, a production must spend at least $50,000 in the state. The office caps a project at $10 million and $20 million for a given year.
The rebates are as follow: 25 percent on “Mississippi spend,” 25 percent on payroll of nonresident cast and crew, 30 percent on payroll of Mississippi cast and crew and 5 percent on honorably discharged military veterans.
Mississippi does not have a pool of money for work-force training and building infrastructure, “so our incentive money has to serve those purposes,” Emling said.
Still, Mississippi is facing a shortfall of possibly $65 million for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30.
The Mississippi Legislature began its annual session on Tuesday.
Gov. Phil Bryant plans again to push for a workforce training program, using $50 million in unencumbered employment trust fund money.
Emling said some of that training money would come in handy for the industry.
However a letter accompanying the PEER report states that “this report does not recommend increased funding or additional staff.”
Emling said that Mississippi’s three sound stages, one in Gulfport/Biloxi, one in Canton and a new one in Waveland, are adequate.
Mississippi’s incentive program was established in 2004 and in the following decade the number of feature films, documentaries, commercials and other video products has grown substantially.
A high-water mark was achieved with production of 16 feature films in 2014. The industry created an average of 1,058 direct and indirect jobs for six fiscal years starting in 2010, the study says. Emling said 11 feature films were made solely in the state last year.
Mississippi native Tate Taylor, who lives near Natchez and produced and directed in the Magnolia state all of “The Help” and “Get on Up,” the James Brown biopic, has voiced the hopes of those in the state’s film industry.
“It’s my hope that young Mississippians, Mississippians of all ages, will soon be able to pursue a career in the entertainment industry, but without having to go to Los Angeles, like I did,” Taylor said in a 2013 interview.
Founded in 1973, the original purpose of the Mississippi Film Office, was to boost the economy, including tourism, “present the state’s beauty,” “support community pride and development” and “cultivate public relations opportunities.”
While it is hard to say whether those broadly defined goals have been achieved, Mississippi is in the hunt for what had been the province of Los Angeles and New York since the beginning of the industry more than a century ago.
Never mind that the glitter that is gold, amounting to billions of dollars per year at the box office, goes largely to the marquee stars, big production companies, investors and those who have distribution rights.
The decentralization of the industry was begun when Canada started making its own movies in the 1990s, which led to competition among its provinces, and ultimately to competition among states in America, the study notes.
Since then, states across the country have attracted smaller independent movies, thanks to lower costs, the mobility afforded by strides in technology – and especially incentives such as tax credits and cash rebates.
The study offers suggestions to the Film Office to further strengthen the state’s industry by:
» Creating a certification program for in-state businesses.
» Working with the State Workforce Investment Board to create a program to certify of technical specialists.
» Creating a list of potential producers.
» Producing an annual report in conjunction with the MDA.