Every Saturday night at the BellSouth Acuff Theatre, where an elaborate set houses the USA Network’s heavily hyped Nashville Star series, a fist-pumping crowd of 1,500 shrieks and stamps its approval as another fledgling hat act gets the ax. No one is happier about this spectacle than David Bennett. “The energy is palpable,” Bennett enthuses, describing the smoke, the noise and the lights. “You almost wait for James Caan to come skating around the roomit’s got that Rollerball vibe.”
But it’s the offstage action that really has Bennett pumped. While shooting in Nashville (the run concludes in early May), Nashville Star will spend an estimated $8 million in the area. To get the full economic impact, multiply that number by threean equation that approximates the trickle-down effect in the local community. Pay a crew member or local supplier a dollar, the theory goes, and he might decide he can afford to spend two more bucks on a Fat Mo’s burger. As far as Nashville Star’s content goes, Bennett may be pulling for some spiky-haired hunk to become the next Chris Cagle. But as the new head of the Tennessee Film, Entertainment and Music Commission (TFEMC), he’s more interested in a producer who will sock $8 million into the state economy.
As well he should. In January, when Gov. Phil Bredesen took office, Bennett became the fifth person in eight years to head the state commission. In the past, the post had often been awarded to political loyalists with little or no experience. By the time they made the necessary contacts and learned the job, they were gone. The process then started over from scratch, a liability in a business where a fat Rolodex is power.
Bennett, by contrast, hit the ground running. He comes to the job after a 29-year career in film and television, the past seven spent as manager of the Music Row post-production house Filmworker’s Club. “The [film] community sees this as a major improvement,” says a Nashville producer who has complained frequently about Bennett’s predecessors. “He knows the industry, and he speaks the language.”
Now all David Bennett has to do is allay the entire industry’s revenue-depletion fears about downloading and file-sharing; combat the dirt-cheap working conditions that have siphoned film work off to Canada; sell the advantages of a leaner, sharper (but more expensive) production workforce; and build coalitions within the state’s notoriously fractious legislature. Oh yeah, and get more work.
“The whole thrust of what we’re trying to do is grow business within the state of Tennessee,” says Bennett, settling into his high corner office in the old American General building downtown. The decor includes Tennessee-related movie posters, a South Park snowglobe and framed diplomas that attest to Bennett’s karate skills. “The goal is retentionretention of production, retention of camera people. I’ve got to help create work for them so they don’t go away. The most important thing for me during this period is to make sure the local people are working and feeding their families.”
The affable, boyish Nashville native assumes control of a hydra whose three heads often pull in different directions. Created some 25 years ago, the Tennessee Film, Entertainment and Music Commission was designed to attract and boost business in all areas of the state’s entertainment industry. The word “entertainment” in TFEMC’s title may seem redundant, but it refers to attractions not covered by film or music, like the now-defunct Opryland.
Today, the commission’s sprawling concerns range from Dollywood to Hollywood, with the billion-dollar country music industry as its fulcrum. Yet there are many other elements scattered around the state like puzzle pieces: Dickson’s visionary Renaissance Center for art and technology, budding regional filmmakers like Memphis director Craig Brewer (The Poor & Hungry), showcases like next week’s Nashville Film Festival that bring together local and national talent. Under his tenure, Bennett wants to see these elements reinforce and build off each other.
“That’s why it’s so important for Nashville Star to succeed,” Bennett says. In Nashville Star, he explains, Tennessee has national exposure, a launching pad for new talent, and a generator of endless revenue streams (albums, DVDs, concert tours, merchandise). There’s also the matter of that cool $8 million. Looking eastward toward the HGTV studios near Knoxvillea cable juggernaut that provides the Food Network, the Learning Channel and other holdings with a whopping 1,900 hours of programming each year, to the tune of $265 million annuallyBennett is convinced that Tennessee’s future lies more in episodic television than major-studio features.
“When somebody comes in who’s totally unfamiliar with the business,” Bennett explains, “they think the first thing they have to do is bring movies in from Hollywood. I want to see Tennesseans making projects, living here and working here.” Especially since budget-busted Tennessee is in no position to offer outside film companies the tax breaks given by neighboring North Carolina, let alone Canada. Recently, Bennett courted some producers remaking the Buford Pusser biopic Walking Tall, which takes place in McNairy County, Tenn. The producers told him they’d be willing to shoot in Tennessee instead of Vancouverif Bennett could make up the $1.8 million it would add to their budget. Bye bye, Buford.
To fight Canada’s low costs and cheap dollar, Bennett says Tennessee should promote its strengthsprimarily a crew base that he believes can work better, more efficiently and in fewer numbers. It’s an uphill struggle, but hardly insurmountable. In February, the crime drama 21 Grams wrapped in Memphis, directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu (Amores Perros) and starring Sean Penn and Benicio del Toro. An indie feature called The Girl Who Beat Babe Ruth will shoot in Chattanooga this summer.
Just as encouraging, Bennett says, is the world premiere of two locally generated features at next week’s Nashville Film Festival: David Abbott’s period piece Charlie’s War, with Olympia Dukakis, Diane Ladd and a roster of Nashville actors; and A.W. Vidmer’s Stuey, with The Sopranos’ Michael Imperioli as high-stakes poker legend Stu Unger. “These people didn’t turn their back on their local ties,” the commissioner says. “Someday we may look back on the spring 2003 festival and say, 'Something important happened here.’ ”
And if not? The answer’s there in David Bennett’s South Park snowglobe: Blame Canada.
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