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On Location

Statewide coalition lobbies for $19 million in film incentives.

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Drawing on the local film scene's unparalleled success, a coalition of officials is trying to enact state legislation to attract an array of visual media projects.

"The legislators were primed to do something," says David Bennett, executive director of the state's Film, Entertainment & Music Commission. "We just felt like it was imprudent to walk away this year with all the momentum we had."

Last year, a group of lawmakers worked on a proposal that would reward production companies with a transferable tax credit similar to the successful model used in Louisiana, a form familiar to Hollywood. But the idea faced stiff competition from the State Revenue Commission, in large part because Tennessee has no state income tax.

The Memphis & Shelby County Film and Television Commission and the Memphis Music Foundation commissioned a study -- released last week -- to study possible film incentives. The study projected that the new incentives could mean an economic impact of $400 million statewide and create over 6,000 jobs.

"We decided, let's start fresh," says Linn Sitler, Memphis & Shelby County Film Commissioner.

Members of the Tennessee film and television coalition -- including Sitler, Bennett, and East Tennessee film commissioner Mike Barnes -- decided to push for a 16-month pilot program. The program, which would use $19 million in one-time funds approved by the state, would be the first of its kind in the nation.

"These are incentives at the same level we originally discussed, just not funded through the revenue department," says Bennett.

Not all the details are set, but Bennett says the proposed legislation will include criteria for both local and national projects.

"There would be, for out-of-state projects, a minimum $500,000 expenditure in Tennessee. There would be additional funding given for using Tennessee music, cast and crew, and for a minority interest in the movies, which is unique to our program," he says.

The affirmative action component is designed to combat the cronyism and vestiges of institutional bias in the entertainment industry.

"I've talked to a lot of minority workers, especially in the technical fields, who have a lot of trouble making it through the doors. This is an effort to help change that," Bennett says.

The group is working on considerations for local projects as well.

"This is serious money, not with the key goal of funding the arts but rather of creating jobs and cranking the economic engine," says Bennett. "The resulting product, of course, is film and television, which is a good way for commerce and art to get together."

A possible addition to the bill would allow private local investors to add to the pilot program as a nonprofit and receive a tax credit, thus enabling them to fund local/independent projects.

The bill, which is sponsored by John DeBerry in the House and Mark Norris in the Senate, will begin in committees this week.

"We've gone light years ahead in the process this year," says Bennett. "We're living in the middle of seismic change in the way people take their entertainment and media, and we want to make sure Tennessee is part of that. This bill will encourage local production of everything from film, to music videos, to what you watch on your cell phone."

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