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Q&A: Wes Benton, owner, Red Planet Entertainment

Lord of the manor

Jackson native brings film business back home

A film industry veteran of nearly three decades, Wes Benton owns production company Red Planet Entertainment. He has worked on movies like “The Polar Express”, “I Am Legend” and “Avatar.”

A Jackson native, Benton studied communications at Mississippi State University before heading out of state to work in film industry. Now he’s back for good and passionate about growing the film industry in Mississippi. Benton, 54, has a wife, Ellen, who is Red Planet’s unsung hero.

Q —  How did you get into film?
A — Always interested in it. My dad has an eight-millimeter camera. We used to play with it and make our own home movies. In 1982, I moved to Atlanta. We just couldn’t find the support here that we wanted to go forward. I freelanced in sports at Turner — was a steady cam operator. It grew into that’s what I knew what I wanted to do.
Q —  Your filmography?
A — Lot of visual effects. “I Am Legend”, “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian,” “Incredible Hulk,” “The Mummy 3.” That was my start. A good friend of mine owns a motion capture company, and she needed someone who was a liaison between production and motion capture, where you capture the motion of people wearing suits with markers on them.
Q —  Do you live in Mississippi now?
A — I still have a place in Atlanta, or Sewanee (Georgia), but I’m spending all my time here now. In the past year and a half, I’ve probably spent about two weeks in Atlanta. It’s mostly between here (Madison) and Atlanta.
Q —  What work are you doing in Mississippi?
A — I’ve been working with Ward Emling and Nina Parikh at the Mississippi Film Commission. The passing of the new tax incentive was really good. It boosted up everything to make it competitive with Louisiana and Georgia, which are to me the big markets we have to compete with here. Bringing in production — the down side here has been there is no infrastructure whereas Louisiana and Georgia have a strong infrastructure. People are reluctant to come here, but what we’ve been able to do is bring in some infrastructure, work with Jo Ann Gordon up in Canton with the new sound stage and Pat Rasberry up in Tupelo. They have an old furniture market up there they’re trying to convert into a sound stage and production offices. John McFarland on the Mississippi Gulf Coast has started a Gulf Coast Film Commission.
What people don’t understand, for the film industry to work in Mississippi, it has to be the entire state. It can’t be Jackson, it can’t be Gulfport, Biloxi. It can’t be Tupelo. We’ve all got to work together.
What we’ve tried to do is bring in the infrastructure. We’ve got a bunch of generators, trucks, portable bathrooms, portable RV’s that are offices and dressing rooms. All the equipment needed to make the film, so that when someone comes here, they don’t need to bring in equipment from outside the state.
Q —  Do you have aspirations for making films here in Mississippi?
A — We already have. “Rites of Spring” was our first film we shot here last year. We have a completed film now. We take it to a private showing next week in L.A. to some distributors and hopefully we’ll pick up our distribution there. We think we’re going to get into theaters. We’re pushing for that and not straight to DVD. It’s about a kidnapping gone horribly wrong.
Q —  What do you think about Mississippi’s economic development potential through the film industry?
A — I think it’s great. 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.
If you look at Louisiana and Georgia, both of them this year are going to do about $1 billion. Mississippi’s going to do $40 million. Georgia’s rebate is not as good as Mississippi’s but the infrastructure is in place. Theirs  are both tax credits. So when you get to 30 percent you have to find somebody to buy the credit. But once you sell off those credits, you’re kind of stuck if you can’t find somebody to buy them. Louisiana is buying them back at 85 cents on the dollar.
Film could be the largest employer and biggest revenue generator in the State of Mississippi. 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.
The only thing Georgia has that is not here is the infrastructure and Atlanta; the beaches are pretty much the same. If you look at Louisiana, it’s got New Orleans and Shreveport. And the only reason Shreveport is a viable production facility right now is Katrina. Shreveport became the largest production facility in the South at that time. California is No. 1. Louisiana has passed New York as No. 2 (for places people are choosing to go film).
Q —  Why is Louisiana the No. 2 go-to place for filming in the United States?
A — Tax incentives. Sound stages. It’s production; that’s where it’s going.
Q —  What advice do you have for people wanting to get into film?
A — Do it. Just be prepared. Most people have the vision that it’s this glamorous lifestyle. It’s a great lifestyle. I wouldn’t trade it for the world, but all the glamour’s not on the production side. When we went to New Zealand to do “The Chronicles of Narnia,” I flew in, landed. I saw the airplane, the airport. We went to set. Was on set 18 hours a day. Worked six days a week. Travel is nice, but you don’t get to see a lot of stuff. I’ve seen the world on somebody else’s dime, but a lot of that travel is spent working. I cannot think of anything else in the world that I’d rather be doing. There’s not a day that I go to work that I’m not happy to be going to work.
Q —  What kind of films are you interested in making?
A — To me, it doesn’t really matter what the film is. But If I had my choices, I think it would be all action-adventure type deals.  We have a couple we’re working on right now that we’re trying to get funded that are Mississippi stories. They’re based on characters in Mississippi. One is kind of a bluesy “Bucket List,” and the other one is a “Sixth Sense”-type thriller.
Q —  Do you think there are limitations in Mississippi for the types of movies that can be made here?
A — Obviously you can’t shoot something New York City here. Yes, there are limitations. Is there a limitation as to what you can go out and find to shoot here? Absolutely not.  The locations are tremendous. It’s not a jaded place yet for film. People are happy to see you come and shoot. The problem with Mississippi is when you ask for direction they don’t say let me tell you they say, Let me show you. We’ve never had one bad experience shooting here. If you go to LA or Toronto or even in Atlanta some now, people have gotten to where they don’t want you there …. Mississippi is intrigued by the new part of the industry.
More on Benton:
Favorite book: Vince Flynn political thrillers
Favorite movie: “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”
Favorite food: Sushi

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About Amy McCullough