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Swooning film industry awaits outcome of incentive revival effort

By JACK WEATHERLY

The movie industry in Mississippi has dropped precipitously since a key incentive was allowed to sunset on July 1, 2017.

But legislation to restore that incentive – a cash rebate of 25 percent of the payroll for out-of-state cast and crew members – has made it to the final stages of approval with strong support in both houses of the Legislature.

Passage “looks good. It’s the best it’s looked in a couple of years,” said Ward Emling, former longtime director of the Mississippi Film Office.

Emling, who retired two years ago but is still active in the industry, said that he is “cautiously optimistic.”

The payroll for Mississippians in the industry rose to a high of $6.6 million in 2016, but last year it fell to $1.3 million, Emling said,

Work-force numbers fell 32 percent in that period, he said.

“A lot of crew members have moved to Atlanta and Louisiana for work,” he said.

One business that fell victim to the elimination of the incentive was the 40,000-square-foot purpose-built Mississippi Film Studios,which closed its doors in September 2017.

What precipitated the elimination of that particular incentive?

A legislative Performance and Evaluation and Expenditure Committee report of 2015 stated that for every one dollar spent in taxpayer money on the industry, only 49 cents was seen in return.

In a tight budgetary year, legislative leaders and Gov. Phil Bryant allowed the rebate for out-of-state crew members to “sunset.”

This year, two bills have passed their respective chambers. Senate Bill 2603 would reestablish the incentive till July 1, 2021, the end of the fiscal year. House bill 1128 would expire on July 1, 2024.

The next step is a conference committee to hammer out the details. An effort to ask the governor how he is leaning was not successful.

Likewise, a call to Nina Parikh, current director the Film Office, was not returned. The office is part of the Mississippi Development Authority, which is under the control of the governor.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, president of the Senate, and Philip Gunn, speaker of the House, who let the old provision sunset. They are still in those legislative positions.

As Emling said when the PEER report was released in 2015, he again stated that it was based on “incomplete and inaccurate information.”

“To determine the impact of a nontraditional [e.g., filmmaking] industry by using traditional economic models” is flawed, Emling said.

“The Help,” which was released in 2011 and made in Mississippi, served the office as a study for movie making in the state before the state’s film infrastructure had matured under the incentives program, which was established in 2004.

The return on every dollar invested in that movie realized a return of 56 cents on the dollar. Emling said. And that does not include the ripple effect of spending by cast and crew in the communities, as well as impact on tourism.

Meantime, however, the number of feature films made in the state fell from 15 in 2016 to nine in 2017, to four last year, according to a study by the Institutions of Higher Learning for the Film Office.

Crew and cast participation by Mississippi residents dropped to about 600 in 2018 from about 900 in 2016, according to the study.

A follow-up report by PEER in May 2018 stated: “The fact that the Mississippi Film Office was able to obtain direct causal evidence that specific production companies decided not to film in Mississippi after the elimination of the out-of-state rebate supports PEER’s conclusion that incentive programs are a primary driver of the competitive environment of the film industry.”

There are film incentive programs in 36 states, and 29 of those include non-resident payroll, according to the IHL study says.

Emling says that with burgeoning technology, the future holds “so many screens to fill with entertainment” and that Mississippi needs to position itself to take advantage of that.

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About Jack Weatherly