Reeling Them In 

Why even films about Elvis and the Bell Witch aren’t filmed in Tennessee—and what we can do

Last year, cheap production costs did something that exorcists, spook chasers and even President Andrew Jackson failed to accomplish. They drove the Bell Witch out of Tennessee.
illustrations by Greg Cravens Last year, cheap production costs did something that exorcists, spook chasers and even President Andrew Jackson failed to accomplish. They drove the Bell Witch out of Tennessee. An upcoming Hollywood feature called An American Haunting will retell one of the most infamous stories in our state’s history: the terrorizing of the Bell family by a relentless spirit that hounded patriarch John Bell to his grave in 1820. The movie has a name cast, with Donald Sutherland as Bell and Sissy Spacek as his wife Betsy. The story will be familiar to any Tennessee schoolchild who ever stared fearfully into a mirror. Only the locations will look a bit different. For the part of Tennessee, the production went with an unusual casting choice: Romania. According to David Bennett, executive director of the Tennessee Film, Entertainment and Music Commission, the state was never in the running. It’s not even the first time Romania has stepped into the role. Although it was filming in nearby Virginia and South Carolina, when the 2003 movie version of the Civil War novel Cold Mountain needed to duplicate the Smoky Mountains, it turned to our Carpathian cousin. When you saw blue and gray locked in mortal combat, in the movie’s lavish battle scenes, you were really watching a free cameo by the Romanian army. Their services were one of many perks used to lure the production across the water. “It’s always about incentives,” Bennett says. “Free this, free that. When a movie shoots in Romania, it’s all about the money. The soundstages are free, labor is cheap—I call it ‘the land of the 4-dollar-an-hour gaffer.’ ” But Tennessee’s competition for film work is not just in the Balkans. Nor is it just in Canada, where direct rebates and other incentives have turned Vancouver and Toronto into Hollywood North. Instead, the state’s fiercest competition right now is from its neighbors—nearby states such as Georgia, Louisiana and North Carolina, which have passed packages designed to aggressively attract film and TV production. What does Tennessee offer to compete? Not much. “We’re surrounded by neighboring states that just kick our butt—it’s as simple as that—and we have to level the playing field,” said Mitchell Galin, a Nashville-based producer addressing a public hearing of concerned industry professionals last week in Memphis. But that may change. Galin, whose credits include the high-profile TV miniseries The Stand and Frank Herbert’s Dune, sits on the state’s newly created Film Production Advisory Committee. For the first time, with the backing of the governor’s office, the state will consider a comprehensive plan to stimulate film and TV production and boost long-term growth. By Feb. 1 next year, the committee will draw up a list of recommended incentives to stanch the flow of work elsewhere. If the legislature approves them, Tennessee will no longer be anybody’s Romania. “Over the past few years, we’ve seen efforts to attract the film industry more aggressively to Tennessee,” says state Rep. Rob Briley, who sponsored House Bill No. 1684 to create the committee. “Tax breaks alone are not working. This is a way to investigate and analyze the other options out there.” The abiding factor in determining where a project shoots is money. It does not matter if, like the remake of Walking Tall, the film was inspired by a true story situated in McNairy County, Tenn. When shooting in Vancouver proved cheaper, the script was changed to make the film less site-specific. (Presumably that’s the point at which Sheriff Buford Pusser turned into “Chris Vaughn” and acquired a stripper girlfriend.) Perhaps it seems unthinkable to shoot a biography of Elvis Presley anywhere but Memphis. Not so to the producers of this year’s CBS miniseries Elvis, who set up shop in Louisiana. The abiding factor in determining where a project shoots is money. It does not matter if, like the remake of Walking Tall, the film was inspired by a true story situated in McNairy County, Tenn. When shooting in Vancouver proved cheaper, the script was changed to make the film less site-specific. (Presumably that’s the point at which Sheriff Buford Pusser turned into “Chris Vaughn” and acquired a stripper girlfriend.) Perhaps it seems unthinkable to shoot a biography of Elvis Presley anywhere but Memphis. Not so to the producers of this year’s CBS miniseries Elvis, who set up shop in Louisiana. What makes Louisiana so special? It ain’t the gumbo. In 2002, the state instituted the most generous incentives package in the Southeast. Its keystone was transferable tax credits, a kind of indirect rebate. A movie company gets a percentage of tax breaks, or credits, for coming to the state and spending money. Since the movie company is not subject to state taxes, however, it sells the credits, or transfers them, at a discount to local businesses and corporations—which can apply them toward their own taxes at full value. The movie company pockets the money; the local business pays lower taxes. The impact on Louisiana’s economy was immediate and dramatic. In 2002, film production spending in the state totaled $20 million. The next year, it had risen to $335 million. The Louisiana film industry was maintaining approximately $350 million a year until Hurricane Katrina struck. States are willing to jump through hoops for visiting production companies for several reasons, from tourism to positive national exposure. Mostly, steady business can keep a state’s crew base—its gaffers, sound folks, camera operators and other technicians—in enough work to become a viable, sustainable infrastructure. In the circular logic of the entertainment industry, more business means more crew, and more crew means more business. When those people start buying cars and houses, opening bank accounts, buying groceries—the economic multipliers just fan out. This summer, Georgia and North Carolina both passed brawny incentive packages, in line with strong competitors such as Illinois and New Mexico. So how does Tennessee measure up? Early on, the Adam Sandler vehicle The Longest Yard considered shooting at the oft-used Tennessee State Prison facility. For several reasons—including interest-free loans and stout tax credits—the production ultimately chose New Mexico. Our only consolation is that we didn’t have to see Tracy Morgan in drag. More than a decade ago, under former Tennessee film commissioner Dancy Jones, Tennessee passed one of the first film incentive packages in the country. It gave out-of-state productions a tax rebate after they spent their first $500,000. It was a progressive move, David Bennett says, but because of Tennessee’s tax structure, it wasn’t the come-hither everyone hoped it would be. The rebate only covered sales tax, he explains. Since a production’s highest cost is typically labor, which isn’t taxable, the offer amounted to only a 5 percent return, supplemented by a modest motel-tax refund.   Compare this to Tennessee’s sister states. As of August, North Carolina offers a 15 percent tax credit up to $7.5 million on any production that spends more than $250,000 in the state. Georgia’s giveaway starts at 9 percent, then adds a 3 percent incentive for local hiring and an additional 2 percent for TV productions spending $20 million or more on multiple projects. In Louisiana, for productions spending $8 million or more, the tax credit can go as high as 20 percent if the producers hire local crew. “The first thing a producer asks me is, what’s your incentive package?” Bennett told an open meeting of local film and TV professionals last month at the Belcourt. “The second thing they ask me is, how is your crew base?” That cuts to the chase, in showbiz terms, in any discussion of what incentives Tennessee will offer. First, the state must find a way to compete without getting into what Bennett calls “bidding contests” with other states. Since Tennessee doesn’t have the pocketbook to afford gotchas like direct rebates, tax credits are a likelier bet. Toward that end, the committee has hired a consultant, Dama Chasle, who served as vice president of tax compliance for 20th Century Fox and assisted Louisiana and Illinois with their packages.   “Hollywood is a small town, and word gets out when a state develops a competitive mechanism for making money,” says Chasle. Anyone who cherishes the illusion that moviemaking is foremost an art form should steer clear of Chasle. For one thing, she can describe how the proudly Scot-centric Braveheart moved production from its setting of Scotland to Ireland, where extras from the Irish army could be had for a pint and a sandwich. “What people don’t understand is that studios follow the process of bills through various corridors,” Chasle observes. No sooner had North Carolina announced its new incentives package in August, she says, than the NBC series Surface and the new as-yet-untitled Will Ferrell NASCAR comedy moved to the state. During the filming of the new movie Walk the Line, Chasle saw Tennessee’s precarious position from the other side while crunching numbers for Fox. Where else would you film a movie about the life of Johnny Cash but Memphis and Nashville, right? The studio didn’t see it that way. It saw that it could save $3 million by moving to Louisiana. Tennessee would have lost the film, if not for some remarkable behind-the-scenes finagling involving Memphis’ invaluable film commissioner, Linn Sitler. The state had no way to match the $3 million difference in funds, so Sitler and Bennett began cashing in favors for what Chasle calls “soft incentives.” These ranged from use of a state plane to scout locations to free office and warehouse space secured from prominent Memphians. They came close enough that goodwill made up the difference—but barely. “If we don’t get [an incentive package] passed, we’re in trouble,” says Sitler, who as Memphis’ film commissioner for almost 19 years has helped lure big-budget studio releases such as The Firm and The People vs. Larry Flynt to the Bluff City. Memphis in particular has reason to be concerned. In January, two films shot there drew international attention at the Sundance Film Festival. Not only did native filmmaker Ira Sachs’ drama Forty Shades of Blue take the festival’s highest honor, the Grand Jury Prize, but local hero Craig Brewer walked away with the festival’s biggest deal in 10 years for his hip-hop drama Hustle & Flow. And yet when Brewer prepared to shoot his new movie Black Snake Moan, a Memphis-set drama currently filming with Samuel L. Jackson and Christina Ricci, he was reportedly pressured to shave costs by moving production out of state—or, God forbid, to Canada. “Can you imagine what a black eye that would have been?” Sitler asks, contemplating the loss of the city’s hottest emerging director to another state. In the end, more soft incentives kept the production at home, including free use of the enormous downtown Pyramid as a soundstage. The city and state used other creative incentives for Sachs, including gala receptions in New York and Los Angeles to tout the opening of Forty Shades of Blue—a boon to an independent release in need of promotion. (The film opens in Nashville next week at the Belcourt.) But if many critics have given Sachs the artistic edge, the well-reviewed Brewer represents the industry ideal, with his major-studio distribution, his production deal and his interest in bringing more work back home. “Everybody’s nurturing Craig,” Sitler says. And yet before Craig Brewer was a Sundance sensation, he was a scrappy would-be filmmaker who shot his accomplished first feature, 2000’s The Poor & Hungry, in Memphis on a used-car budget he pretty much hustled himself. (He told the audience at this year’s Nashville Film Festival that Hustle & Flow, the story of a pimp who puts all his shady resources into a rap record, is really about how he got The Poor & Hungry made.) An incentive package for out-of-state productions wouldn’t have done him a dime of good. Indeed, what’s missing from the discussion so far are support measures for independent filmmakers working within the state. While An American Haunting was riding to Romania on a broomstick, the makers of the local independent film Bell Witch: The Movie say they got no favors for keeping their production at home. “While being courted by other states for all kinds of special breaks,” say producers Steve and Doris Marr through their star, J.D. Hart, they received “zero breaks from the state of Tennessee.” “Incentives are always being discussed for large productions, but for [local] filmmakers shooting here there’s not really anything,” says Reegus Flenory, an actor who starred in the locally generated feature Dodge City: A Spaghetto Western. (Full disclosure: its writer-director, Read Ridley, is my brother.) As writer and director, Flenory is now completing two films shot simultaneously under the title Generational Curses with a primarily African American cast. More than anything, he says, local filmmakers could use a “reservoir of post-production funds for filmmakers who meet some sort of established criteria.” Andy van Roon, president of the nonprofit trade organization FilmNashville, agrees that local production incentives need to figure into the state’s long-term plans. According to van Roon, true economic stability for the state’s film industry “lies in also providing mechanisms for local productions, so that revenues earned can be funneled back into the creation of more local projects, thereby creating a self-perpetuating and truly independent filmmaking culture.” Bennett and Chasle believe that to spur growth at the local level, bringing more film and TV production to the state is crucial. Toward that end, Bennett says the committee is soliciting ideas at open meetings across the state. “They’ve come up with things we never even considered,” Bennett says. At the Nashville meeting, a local composer, Scott Hallgren, impressed the advisory group with a list of ways to attract lucrative film-scoring work to the state—including a proposal to make the new Schermerhorn Symphony Hall available for big-budget soundtrack recording. There are also proposals to deepen the state’s crew base, with talk of ambitious new educational opportunities in the works. Asked whether the state currently has a sufficient number of trained professionals at every level to support the kind of production work financial incentives might attract, Bennett says no. “But they didn’t have it in Louisiana either,” he adds, “until the work came in.” Once the committee submits its recommendations in February, one little task remains: to get a tightfisted state government to agree, especially when few understand the Byzantine methods of film and TV financing. In years past, Linn Sitler recalls, when the issue was raised from time to time, it seemed like “the farther east you went, the less excitement there was” from legislators about production incentives.   But David Bennett suggests that lawmakers consider the issue in an entirely different light. In meetings, he says, “we call film production ‘manufacturing.’ Because that’s what it is. That’s something everyone can get their heads around—that this is just like trying to attract any other business or corporation to Tennessee.” Which raises another question. As Andy van Roon reasoned last week in an email, “Any successful strategies we may derive to compete for out-of-state productions are bound to be emulated by other states and countries, thereby perpetually leveling the playing field.” Put another way: What if the push for production incentives is a big poker game, with other states raising the stakes higher and higher? Dama Chasle laughs. “In that case,” she says, “I’d say you at least have to call.”

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