Out of the Picture

When it comes to state film-incentive funds, Nashville writes the script and Memphis is left scrambling for bit parts.

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Scenes from Mystery Train, directed by Jim Jarmusch, were filmed on South Main  Street. The 1989 movie was an important piece of Memphis’ filmmaking Renaissance.

Getting turned down for features and network television series is not a new phenomenon in this corner of the state. Since the incentive program began in 2006, Memphis has watched as films and series set in Memphis, such as The Blind Side and Memphis Beat, filmed in Georgia or Louisiana, invoking the name and history of Memphis without actually setting up a camera here.

“We’re on our third show that is going to be filmed somewhere else that’s supposed to take place in Memphis, Tennessee. One of which was called Memphis Beat,” says Craig Brewer, longtime advocate for Memphis’ film industry and the filmmaker behind Hustle & Flow, Black Snake Moan, and, most recently, Footloose.

Another — Hellcats — was a 2010 CW comedy-drama about cheerleaders set in Memphis and filmed in Vancouver. In one particularly painful scene, two characters sit on the dock of what is supposed to be the Mississippi River — with a mountain range looming in the background.

Even more startling is how Tennessee’s film incentives have been distributed. Since 2006, about $23 million has been doled out or committed to productions across the state. Projects in East Tennessee have received roughly $2,500,000. Projects in West Tennessee have received $1,080,000. Middle Tennessee projects have received around $19,400,000.

“It’s really no different than companies that apply for incentives to create jobs,” says Clint Brewer of the ECD, whose grants and loans committee determines which projects receive incentives. “The private sector dictates where they want to locate. We don’t favor one town or city or region over another.”

Craig Brewer (no relation to Clint Brewer), an advisory board member for the Tennessee Film, Entertainment, and Music Commission, who is quick to confirm his support for the Nashville series, nevertheless questions the disparity between Middle Tennessee’s incentive funding versus that of the rest of the state.

“Nashville’s a big city. It’s a big show-biz town. If nobody was coming [to Memphis] to ask to do their shows here in town, I wouldn’t be complaining,” Craig Brewer says. “But it seems like every one of our shows doesn’t get incentivized and every one of theirs does. Is it because of luck? I don’t know. But somehow, someone is deciding to work with producers to get [Nashville’s] shows going.”

If this sounds like sour grapes, perhaps Brewer’s struggle to get Footloose filmed in Memphis could explain the hard feelings. When Paramount greenlighted Brewer’s pitch to remake the 1984 classic, Brewer presented three stipulations for taking on the project. The first two involved selecting certain members of his team, and the third requirement was that it be filmed in Memphis.

“The studio said, ‘If you can keep the budget at $25 million, we’ll meet all those parameters,’” Brewer says. So he set about working with then-state film commissioner Perry Gibson to create a package of film incentives that would keep Paramount happy and bring the production of Footloose to Memphis.

“Gibson had the discretion to go into the fund to procure a production coming here,” Brewer says. “When the budget came in on Footloose, it was over $25 million, and the studio was not interested in cutting the script. [The studio] said, ‘Wait a minute. [We’re] looking at a budget that puts this in Atlanta, Georgia, for under $25 million.’”

Brewer looked to Gibson to negotiate with Paramount. Under former governor Phil Bredesen’s administration, the film-incentive fund had been stocked with $20 million for luring in just such large studio productions. Gibson had agreed to a certain amount of incentives, but, according to Brewer, was about $1.8 million short of what Georgia was offering.  

The Tennessee Film, Entertainment, and Music Commission would not negotiate any further. Footloose went to Atlanta, and the film commission ended the year with a hefty surplus, which later, according to sources close to the state commission, went to fund the pilot and first season of Nashville.

“The money was there to make Footloose. But someone decided, ‘No, we’re not going to cave. Those parameters can’t be met. We’ve been flexible here and there, but we can’t be flexible anymore,’” Brewer says.

“Then I found out the numbers on the Hannah Montana movie.”

Hannah Montana: The Movie, partially filmed in Nashville in 2008 and starring Miley Cyrus, was a highly publicized feather in the cap of the Tennessee Film, Entertainment, and Music Commission, which lobbied hard for the $28 million Walt Disney Pictures production to be filmed in-state. In fact, the state seemed to bend over backward to keep the production from going to Louisiana, according to a June 2008 article in The Tennessean.

For Hannah Montana, Gibson agreed to incentivize non-Tennessee crew, a sensitive practice for which Gibson was later blasted in a 2013 “Performance Audit” by the Tennessee Treasury. Incentivizing out-of-state cast and crew and playing fast and loose with in-state headquarters requirements is, according to the ECD, verboten in their incentive rules. At the time, however, such allowances were used as bargaining chips, at the discretion of the film commissioner. Gibson took full advantage, incentivizing out-of-state hires as well as the wages for the Cyrus family, despite their questionable status as Tennessee residents.

In addition to mismanagement and poor administrative oversight of the film-incentive program, the 2013 audit of the Tennessee Film, Entertainment, and Music Commission found that Gibson had not disclosed that her husband, entertainment lawyer Kenneth Kraus, was affiliated with a law firm involved with at least three productions that received incentive payments. “This represents a serious concern about the proper disclosure of conflicts of interest by film commission staff,” the audit read. Gibson was ousted as film commissioner in 2011 and replaced with Bob Raines. At the same time, decision-making power was shifted away from the film commissioner to the ECD.

“Gibson was criticized for going above and beyond to get [Hannah Montana], which I don’t fault her for,” Craig Brewer says. “The problem for me is that Memphis mayor A C Wharton called up [about Footloose] and said, ‘We need this movie. We haven’t had a movie in so long. It’s our filmmaker; he wrote it specifically to be here. But there was really no one being an advocate for us in the circles that could move that.”


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