When it comes to rewriting Tennessee history, at least on film, cheap production costs have succeeded where everything else failed. For An American Haunting, they bounced the Bell Witch all the way to Romania. For Cold Mountain, they relocated the Civil War to Central Europe. For the remake of Walking Tall, they kicked Sheriff Buford Pusser out of McNairy County — booted his ass to British Columbia, in fact. Indeed, if not for some heroic behind-the-scenes finagling, Johnny Cash would have walked the line somewhere in the bayous of Louisiana.
But some projects must be sacrosanct, right? Like Footloose. When the chance came to remake 1984's literal toe-tapper about a free spirit who defies small-town prudes, using rad dance moves and the thrill-crazy beat of Kenny Loggins, writer-director Craig Brewer decided to set the film in Tennessee — where the Memphis filmmaker shot his acclaimed earlier features Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan.
The higher Brewer's budgets have gotten, however, the more pressure has increased on him to relocate his films to other states where significant production incentives can shave millions of dollars off a film's costs. At a reported $25 million, Footloose would represent his biggest budget yet. Brewer wanted to keep the film and its music in Tennessee, but Georgia offered better incentives — which sources familiar with the production say came down to a matter of little more than $1.5 million. Without so much as a "Please, Louise," the production packed off to Georgia last year.
Losing a film by diehard hometown booster Brewer — the first Tennessee filmmaker to make a mainstream splash since Knoxville native Quentin Tarantino — was a painful blow to the Memphis film community. But it was only one in a string of insults mixed with injury over the past year for the state's film and TV industry. For every success story — the Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle Country Strong, or veteran Nashville filmmaker Curt Hahn's locally generated newspaper thriller Deadline — there are more sob stories to counter.
There was the TNT series Memphis Beat, executive produced by George Clooney. It has an Elvis-worshipping cop played by Jason Lee; it has liberal amounts of soul and rockabilly music; it's set in Memphis and even has Memphis in the title. The only problem: It's shot in New Orleans, whose incentives clobber Tennessee's.
There was the Robert Duvall-Bill Murray arthouse hit Get Low, based on a true Tennessee story. The producers spent years trying to make the movie here, but finally took the advice of their title: They went to Georgia, whose cost-saving measures proved too appealing.
Most galling was the ongoing success of the Oscar-winning The Blind Side, adapted from a nonfiction bestseller about a Memphis family. When time came to make the movie version, the production went to Atlanta. As Shelby County Rep. Steve McManus told the Scene, with a mirthless chuckle, "We were blindsided by The Blind Side."
The latest movie to bypass Tennessee after scouting is the upcoming Tim Burton production Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Meanwhile, Hound Dogs — a TBS pilot about a minor-league baseball team called the Nashville Hound Dogs, starring Laura Bell Bundy and written and directed by Bull Durham's Ron Shelton — will shoot in the Crescent City instead of Music City. According to the Tennessee Film, Entertainment and Music Commission, its producers decided Tennessee didn't have a deep enough crew base — i.e., enough people to fill various technical positions.
Local film workers say one reason is that Tennessee's top crew is being forced to follow the work. Scott Satterfield, a best-boy grip who worked on Walk the Line and Black Snake Moan, moved from Nashville in November back to his hometown of Savannah. Within weeks, Satterfield says, he had his choice of two projects shooting in Atlanta (where Footloose recently wrapped). He chose The Odd Life of Timothy Green, a big-budget Disney fantasy with Jennifer Garner. He went straight back home to work on a smaller-budget film shooting in Savannah.
"There's little to no work in Nashville," says Satterfield, who notes that two other people in his department relocated to Georgia as well. "Wherever there's an incentive, that's where the big companies are going to go — the Paramounts, the Universals."
According to figures cited by film-incentives proponents, 35 projects shot in Georgia in 2009 alone. During the same period, only nine shot in Tennessee. (That number rose slightly in 2010, to 11.) For Tennessee's crew base — the state film commission lists some 1,500 film and TV workers in its production directory — the choice is becoming clear. Even without personal reasons to move to Georgia, Satterfield says, the steady work was a powerful lure.
What kind of money are we talking about? In 2009, the University of Tennessee's Center for Business and Economic Research studied the economic impact of four movies that shot in Tennessee. The highest-budgeted of these was Hannah Montana: The Movie, which according to the study spent a total of $14,366,880 in the state. That expenditure generated an additional economic impact of roughly $10 million, bringing the total to just under $25 million. Not only did the production create 512 full-time-equivalent jobs, the study showed, its presence here boosted staff at nearby restaurants, hotels and other local businesses — an additional 163 jobs. What's more, the shoot generated almost $1.5 million in state and local taxes.
Small wonder that over the past decade, states such as Georgia, Michigan, New Mexico, Louisiana and North Carolina have sought bigger pieces of the film and TV production pie — one of the few industries relatively unscathed by the economic downturn, and one that can pump a lot of money into a local economy in a short time. They've done so by offering productions bigger breaks on their budgets, primarily through transferable tax credits — a system that allows out-of-state production companies to sell tax-refund credits to in-state companies for cash.
Typically, that works only in states that have their own income tax. So Tennessee has been relying for the past four years primarily on a stopgap measure — a pool of funds totaling $20 million awarded as direct rebates (on a percentage basis) for in-state spending. It helped secure productions such as the Hannah Montana movie and Country Strong, but the pool is down to $5 million and has no provision for being renewed.
To make Tennessee directly competitive, a new bill awaiting fiscal review in the state House and Senate seeks to protect the state's crew base and attract more production work — or more accurately, keep the state from losing production work. At a moment when new Gov. Bill Haslam is taking some heat for his somewhat amorphous job-creation package, it's a piece of legislation with solid particulars and easily measurable results: If more Tennessee film and TV crew members get work, it's a success.
But it comes at a time when many states are reconsidering the sometimes exorbitant measures they've ponied up. It's as if Tennessee just bellied up to the last table at the World Series of Poker with a chip and a chair. Even so, embattled local film and TV professionals are glad someone's asking the question: What price Hollywood?
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