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Regaining Focus

We need to get Memphis back in the film-industry picture.

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I have been a member of the Memphis film community for the past 20 years. From Mystery Train to The Firm to Hustle & Flow to Walk the Line, the diversity of our locations, the availability of crew and resources, the ease of transportation, the low cost of living, and the unique Memphis "vibe" were more than adequate to attract such projects. As recently as 2009, we were named by MovieMaker magazine as one of the top 10 places to film in the country.

But over the past few years, the nature of location filming for feature films has changed dramatically. To lure film projects, several states have begun offering tax incentives — rebates based on the amount of money a film company will spend in the state. Louisiana and New Mexico were among the first to pass such incentives. Many other states have followed suit.

In response to this trend, our state passed the Visual Content Act in 2006, which was intended to make us competitive with other states in this arena. However, our incentives only covered local hires as opposed to covering all expenses in other states and typically do not add up to the returns companies can get by shooting elsewhere. Because of the disparity, we are no longer a viable player in the competition for large, studio-backed productions. 

Consider the following: The Blind Side ($25 million budget), a film set in Memphis and produced by Molly Smith, FedEx CEO Fred Smith's daughter, was filmed in Georgia. Local filmmaker Craig Brewer's remake of Footloose ($25 million) was also filmed in Georgia. The Help ($30 million), recently filmed in north Mississippi, could easily have been based here.

Right now, there are more than a half-dozen projects filming in the New Orleans area, including, ironically, a TV series that is set in our city, TNT's Memphis Beat ($11 million annually). Likewise, the CW Network's Hellcats is set in Memphis.

All this is an indication that our brand, at least for the film and TV industry, is strong.

It is hard to argue against the potential financial benefits of projects like these. They would not only bring in revenue for local goods and services through purchases and sales tax, they would provide a vehicle to train and maintain a crew and talent base, lure new businesses, and, in some cases, provide infrastructure improvements. Film studios have been built in Shreveport and Santa Fe as a result of such incentives. Not to mention that the exposure provided by showcasing Tennessee would help support tourism, the number-one industry in the state.

So, why have we not followed suit with other states? As is typical in these situations, it's a matter of funding — and as usual, the solution is not a simple one. As of the start of Tennessee's legislative session this January, the incentive plan is in limbo. Currently, bills have been presented to both the House and Senate that would create competitive incentives in our state.

There are stumbling blocks, however: State income taxes (which we do not have in Tennessee) are a large part of how these benefits are funded in most states. Combine that with the fact that our state has a budget deficit, and, frankly, it does not bode well for the current effort. We need your support.

Recently, our city and state political leaders, along with the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce, put together an outstanding incentive to lure Electrolux to our city. This included a cash outlay to Electrolux of approximately $40 million from the city and county, as well as $90 million from the state — and years of tax deferments. If we can come up with that kind of money for Electrolux, why is it so hard to convince our leaders to come up with some funding to lure film projects?

Find out more about these efforts and show your support by contacting the Memphis Film Commission (527-8300, ext. 3) or by visiting the Association for the Future of Film & Television/TN at affttennessee.org.           

As Ray Kinsella said in Field of Dreams: "If we build it, they will come." But if we don't build a plan to be more competitive in the film industry, this "local resource," and a lot of others like me, will be looking for somewhere else to ply our trade.

Martin Lane is a freelance producer/location manager based in Memphis.

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