Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown of the Tennessee Film, Entertainment and Music Commission's executive director — or it should, given how much turnover and flux the position has seen over the past 20 years. Word came Good Friday afternoon that Perry Gibson, the TFEMC executive director hired by Gov. Phil Bredesen in 2007 after the ugly ouster of former commissioner David Bennett, is being transitioned out of the job over the next two months.
Reached by email, Gibson said she would assist the state film office in moving out from under the auspices of TFEMC into the umbrella of the Department of Economic and Community Development. She also said her post may be eliminated altogether. If it remains, though — at least three candidates are said to have expressed interest in the job since Gov. Bill Haslam took office in January — Gibson's example shows how thankless the position may be, as long as Tennessee lacks a large-scale incentives program to compete for lucrative film and TV production work with other states.
Gibson's tenure was marked by a number of high-profile films — none more difficult to secure than the Hannah Montana movie, which required running a gauntlet of Disney demands. But the losses were stinging. When the state lost Memphis filmmaker Craig Brewer's $25 million remake of Footloose last year to neighboring Georgia, many (especially in West Tennessee's film community) blamed Gibson and the state film office for not hustling up more cash or working harder to accommodate hometown hero Brewer.
"Footloose is scheduled to premiere October 14th," wrote Tom Jones in a blistering Memphis magazine piece that caught the prevailing mood in Shelby County. "Hopefully, by then, new Tennessee governor Bill Haslam will have appointed a new Film Commission executive director who knows how to close a deal."
But Gibson's defenders (among them West Coast producers who said they would not have considered Tennessee for their projects if not for her) say that she was put in an impossible position against Georgia's aggressive, well-established film incentives. Despite her best efforts, two sources familiar with the negotiations say, there were only so many rabbits she could pull out of a hat given Tennessee's dwindling incentives fund (which at present is unrenewable).
"My personal opinion is she's going to be a scapegoat for not much feature work going on," says Peter Kurland, the Oscar-nominated sound mixer and IATSE Local 492 president, from the set of Men in Black III in New York.
What Kurland fears most, though, is echoed even by Gibson's detractors: that the film commissioner's job will fall prey to political whim, and someone else will waste years climbing the learning curve of connections and resources and industry knowledge and political savvy the post demands — and then they too will get the boot with the next administration, thus hobbling Tennessee all over again. (Gibson, Kurland says, was an unusually fast learner.)
Meanwhile, the question of what form an incentives package should take remains a matter of great debate within the state film industry, between those throwing their support behind AFFT's proposed plan in the legislature and others calling for caution. Stay tuned.