Film: Mississippi’s new multi-million dollar industry?
by Amy McCullough
Published: May 8,2011
Tags: Amile Wilson, Hapax Creative, Jeremy Hariton, Jo Ann Gordon, John McFarland, Mississippi Film Office, Mississippi’s film industry, Nick Smerigan, Nina Parikh, Pat Rasberry, RoadTown Enterprises, The Mississippi Motion Picture Incentive, Ward Emling, Wes Benton
All over the state, Mississippi’s film industry infrastructure is getting a boost: The Mississippi Motion Picture Incentive just got a 5 percent increase, a new Tupelo production facility is open for business, Canton has a new purpose-built stage and a Gulf Coast Film Office is forming.
The state Film Office and local producers believe Mississippi is now in the position to steal business from neighboring states, creating a positive multi-billion-dollar economic impact. Mississippi’s only weak spot now is a lack of skilled labor.
The additional 5 percent incentive approved by the state Legislature “puts us on cash-equal footing with Louisiana,” said Ward Emling, director of the Mississippi Film Office. “The phones are already ringing. As we look at the big picture of building an industry here, a crew base is essential. This is where Louisiana is up on us. They’ve been attracting the industry consistently over the last several years.”
Film producers don’t come to an area looking for writers, directors or cinematographers.
“They look for actors, grips, electric, production assistants, craft services, caterers, assistant directors, location scouts and managers, camera assistants, people to do special effects. Those are all areas where we plan on doing some training,” said Nina Parikh, deputy Film Office director.
Mississippi’s incentive program gives producers a 25 percent cash rebate on money spent in Mississippi, along with other benefits. Instead of rebates, states like Louisiana and Georgia have incentive programs offering tax credits, which then must be sold. Georgia has a lot of unsold tax credits on the market right now, Emling said.
The Film Office has been talking to Hinds Community College about a film production curriculum, and a series of seminars and workshops — many of them night and weekend classes — will be advertised in the coming months. A Mississippi Film Summit, which would bring producers, bankers and CPAs together to discuss workforce development and funding, is scheduled for July.
The most recent film shot in Mississippi that used the state’s rebate program was “The Help,” based on a book about African American maids living in Jackson in the 1960s as the civil rights movement is taking shape. The DreamWorks Studios movie starred actress Emma Stone.
Investing in Film and Making Money
Many films shot in Mississippi have been set in the past and focused on race relations. Producers like Wes Benton are more interested in making action- or character-based films with a modern, mainstream appeal and money-making potential.
Benton, a Jackson native, has worked in the film industry for three decades doing visual effects and production work for movies like “The Polar Express,” “I Am Legend,” “The Chronicles of Narnia” and “Avatar.” He recently made a feature in Mississippi called “Rites of Spring,” which is “about a kidnapping gone horribly wrong.” His production company, Red Planet Entertainment, took advantage of the state’s rebate program.
“You get a 25 percent rebate on your spend in Mississippi, and it’s cash 45 days after you file your rebate. ‘Rites of Spring’ had about a $1-million budget. We spent about $700,000 in the state — a $140,000 rebate. We hired all locator catering, used local services. I think the benefits from the film coming far outweigh what the rebate is,” Benton said.
Benton’s team had to hire crew members from outside Mississippi, but he hopes that workforce development efforts will change that for future projects.
“Lighting and grips are the two key people on the set. They do all the hard labor. When we shot ‘Rites of Spring’ here, we were able to find some people to work here, but some we had to bring in. My goal is to be able to come to Mississippi and be able to spend 100 percent of the funds here.”
Benton thinks “film could be the largest employer and biggest revenue generator in the State of Mississippi.”
Louisiana and Georgia are predicted to have a $1-billion economic impact this year from film, while Mississippi will have an estimated $40 million, Benton said. “I don’t want to try to take everything from Louisiana and Georgia, because you’re not going to. But if we could take 25 percent from each one, that’s $500 million a year of new industry.”
Amile Wilson, executive producer at Jackson-based Hapax Creative, agrees with Benton and shares his vision.
Wilson recently finished shooting a pilot for HBO in April and was also contracted to shoot a Bravo show on life coaching.
“There’s a lot of stuff that gets shot here that people never know about. A lot of projects require nondisclosure agreements to be signed,” he said.
Wilson filmed “The Dynamiter” in 2009, in Glen Allen on a $300,000 budget with local actors and some local crew members. The film, about two boys growing up on rural poverty and overcoming circumstances, just premiered at Berlin Film Festival, one of top three festivals in world. They already have offers for distribution and sales agents in Europe and Canada who are interested, Wilson said.
Hapax Creative is working with local and California-based inventors to build a Chimneyville Films Fund, which would be used to make seven films shot preferably in Mississippi.
“The fact is film investment is a good deal. It is just like any other investment and with a producer who knows and understands business and is proposing a slate of multiple films each one with a high likelihood of financial success, film investment can be very profitable financially,” Wilson said. “Mississippi investors have over and over again gotten burned by people when they come in and say, ‘I have this one idea for a film, and I think it’ll make money.’ It’s sort of like saying I have a bull’s-eye down there and one bullet.
“When investors come with a slate of films, as Wes Benton has done, and as we’re doing, it’s like saying, ‘We have a bull’s-eye. Here is your magazine of 10 rounds.’ Risk can be minimized in film with diversification of production, the use of rebate money and an experienced production team capable of seeing a project through to distribution.”
The City of Tupelo has converted a 50,000-square-foot furniture market trade show area into a sound stage and production office complex. The facility is open for business, said Pat Rasberry, director of the Tupelo Film Commission, which falls under the city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau umbrella.
“I think any production company would be extremely happy to have the opportunity to have all their crew, cast and makeup people under one roof in our facility,” Rasberry said. In addition to stage and office areas, the building has kitchen facilities and a loading dock area. A screening room is in the process of being added.
This week the eighth-annual Tupelo Film Festival is underway, with about 800 attendees expected, she said.
A feature with a $50,000 budget about an interracial dating relationship will begin filming this month. Tupelo teacher John Wee is the cinematographer. Produce Wendy Keeling of Nashville, Tenn., said she is impressed with film talent in the South and the state’s incentive program.
Several episodes of the online TV show “The Traveling Twosome” will be shot in Tupelo in July.
Canton has a new, purpose-built sound stage that is also ready for business.
“The studio is a Mississippi tool,” said Jo Ann Gordon, director of the Canton Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB), which houses the city’s film office. “It’s not just for Canton. It’s the only purpose-built stage, really, from New Mexico to the East coast.”
The CVB is leasing the stage from Madison County, and the facility is being managed by California-based RoadTown Enterprises.
Nick Smerigan, a principal in RoadTown, said his company, which professionally builds and markets stages, was approached by Gordon three years ago.
“We resisted until we got on a place, went down there and saw how lovely Mississippi was. You guys have a lovely state,“ he said.
The sound studio was originally built as a sound studio for the 1995 movie “A Time to Kill” based on the John Grisham novel of the same name. It had fallen into use by an auto parts manufacturer. Now remodeled, the 36,000-square-foot stage includes production office space and sits on an expanded 31-acre site.
Smerigan said people are already taking an interested in the facility. “Everybody has a preconceived notion (of Mississippi) before learning anything about it. We don’t know anybody who has made the trip and hasn’t liked what they’ve seen,” he said.
Jeremy Hariton, a managing partner for the stage, echoed his comments:
“One of the really good factors is that outside of having a professional stage facility, the locations in Mississippi show so well. There are so many different locations and looks, from the city of Jackson — which can double for a multitude of locations — to the Delta. There’s just great architecture, lakes and water ways. Mississippi shows really well. But the most important part is getting people to visit and understand Mississippi is open for business.”
John McFarland, marketing services director for Sun Herald MultiMedia, is one of the leaders creating a Gulf Coast Film Office.
The Coast has lost several major movies over the years due to a lack of coordination and cooperation between Coast cities and entities, McFarland said.
The film version of John Grisham novel “The Runaway Jury,” that starred John Cusack and was released in 2003, was set in Biloxi but ended up being filmed in New Orleans. When production people came in for background work, they found it would be easier to go shoot in New Orleans, McFarland said.
Additionally, “The Ladykillers” — a 2004 casino robbery film by Joel and Ethan Coen that starred Tom Hanks — was supposed to film in Biloxi but also left the Coast due to the inconvenience factor.
The Gulf Coast Film Office is working on pre-production now with some producers and is raising money for an interactive website, McFarland said. The group, like the state’s other film offices, will work in conjunction with the Mississippi Film Office, which is part of the Mississippi Development Authority.
“What we want to do is be the feet on the ground locally,” he said.
Another Coast film asset is the University of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Park campus, the only location where communications majors can do coursework for a Radio, Television & Film emphasis.
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