State Sen. Mark Norris doesn’t do entertainment law. He’s a defense attorney who specializes in tort litigation.
But Adams Reese, the powerful, blue-chip firm that employs him in Memphis, has a lucrative entertainment law business in Louisiana that represents several film industry heavies, including 20th Century Fox and New Regency Productions. Adams Reese was also a major lobbying force in the creation of the Louisiana Motion Picture Incentive Program.
The program gives tax incentives—among other things—to film studios that shoot pictures in Louisiana and hire local crew. According to the Louisiana Department of Economic Development, the program has created a $355 million industry virtually from scratch and put $84 million in wages in the pockets of Louisiana workers. It’s unclear how much money the program has put in the pockets of the lawyers at Adams Reese, but chances are it more than covers dry cleaning for their silk stockings.
So it probably didn’t hurt Norris’ chances for job retention when he introduced legislation in the state House this session to bring similar incentives to filmmakers who shoot right here in Tennessee. The legislation creates the Tennessee Motion Picture and Television Grant. The grant, which goes by the not-so-catchy handle “T-incentive grant,” will give money to any production that spends 50 percent of its total costs and shoots 50 percent of principal photography in this state.
The legislation passed, creating the Tennessee Film Incentive Board, which will dole out the $10 million that the state government has allocated. The original bill that Norris introduced asked for an annual $19 million, but the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee clearly wasn’t star-struck. It’s a far cry from Louisiana film production fire-sale pricing, but it ain’t chump change.
The bill is uncontroversial, has bipartisan support, and Gov. Bredesen’s office has no objections. Some of the bill’s more passionate boosters claim that there are over $100 million worth of Tinsel Town projects waiting at the state line, chomping at the bit for a chance to shout “Action!” at a street corner near you.
Suppose these cheerleaders are correct and a windfall of movie production cash settles on the land like so much manna from Los Angeles. Who stands to benefit? Well, naturally, the soon-to-be hard working actors, gaffers, grips, camera operators and best boys of Tennessee. And the government will get a nice taste of that money too, by taxing the incomes of the aforementioned crew. Homegrown filmmakers like Craig Brewer, who wrote and directed Hustle & Flow, also will benefit and will be sure to stay local when considering their first big-budget studio flick.
It’s a solid piece of legislation that helps everybody—not least, the lawyers of Adams Reese. Why, just last year its principals opened a branch right here on Music Row. So when the post-production, editing and cinema sound studios that are sure to flourish in our area need representation, they won’t have to look far.
Norris of course denies there was any connection between his sponsorship of the legislation and his law firm’s penchant for entertainment dollars. He’s quick to point out that he didn’t even work for Adams Reese until last month, when the Louisiana company acquired his Memphis employer, Armstrong Allen.
“It was serendipitous,” the senator says with a straight face at a booth in the legislative cafeteria. “[Adams Reese] isn’t even lobbying this bill. They’re not involved in this bill at all.”
Gif Thornton, Adams Reese’s lobbyist, confirms this, though he concedes that the firm “had some communication” with the study group that researched potential benefits of a film incentive program for the legislature.
“We have no dog in this hunt,” he says.
But according to Dama Chasel, a former Fox studio executive who worked as an independent consultant with Adams Reese and others to craft legislation in both Louisiana and Tennessee, Adams Reese was practically drooling at the chance to expand its entertainment law business into the Volunteer State.
“They came [to Tennessee] with the film industry on their mind,” Chasel says from her office in Los Angeles.
In fact, the head office of Adams Reese sent Robert Vosbein—the firm’s point man on entertainment law and legislation—to Memphis to personally seal the deal on the takeover of the firm that Norris worked for.
“He was very excited about the Tennessee opportunity in film,” Chasel says.
She tells of a meeting that she attended with Vosbein and the head of the Adams Reese firm here in Nashville six months ago. They discussed the legislation that would hopefully give a boost to the film business in Tennessee and consequently the law business of Adams Reese. Vosbein did not return calls for comment.
Not long after that meeting, Mark Norris introduced the Tennessee film incentive legislation. A few months later, Adams Reese acquired Norris’ Memphis law firm.
Shortly after introducing the bill, Norris substituted Sen. Tim Burchett to be the lead sponsor because Norris says he had his hands full as the chairman of the transportation committee. But he remained as a regular legislative sponsor.
Some insiders think that Norris took his name out of the bill’s pole position to lessen any whiff of conflict of interest. Norris just shakes his head.
“I was consumed with getting $43.8 million of highway money restored to the road fund,” he says. “Frankly, I couldn’t do both.”
Given the over $12,000 in contributions that road builders and other transportation heavies made to his last campaign, it’s no surprise that Norris is concerned with getting his hands on that money.
Hey, state legislators are part-time lawmakers. When they’re not at the Capitol trying to spend our money, they’re businessmen and women, lawyers, restaurateurs and, in at least one case, firefighters. At some point in a state legislators’ tenure, it’s understandable that he or she will be asked to vote on a bill that may help or hurt business or professional interests.
That’s why there’s Rule 13. When the rule is invoked, legislators with conflicts of interest can still vote on the bill at hand; it just goes on the record that they have an interest in the matter that is beyond legislative. No harm, no foul.
When the time came to vote for the film incentives bill, Norris voted for its passage. He chose not to invoke Rule 13, saying that if the bill passed, it wouldn’t impact him. “I try to be very judicious in my use of Rule 13,” he says.