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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Since it was established in 2006, Tennessee’s film-incentive fund has been steadily diminishing, whittled down from its initial $20 million funding level to $2 million in annual guaranteed funding. By comparison, Mississippi offers up to $20 million each year in film incentives. Georgia and Louisiana have no annual cap on the amount of film incentives they can distribute. All three states are considered highly competitive by the film industry.
“To give you some perspective, I made Hustle & Flow. It came out in 2005, and Atlanta was nowhere on the map. No one was thinking about Atlanta,” Brewer says, remembering a time before Georgia’s incentive program became one of the top programs in the country. “But a lot of people who worked on Footloose with me never went back to Los Angeles. My crew went from Footloose to Fast Five and then immediately to another movie. Some of them are still [in Atlanta]. Somebody made the right decision, and that city is making money because the industry is there.”
And while Louisiana, Georgia, and Mississippi benefit from incentivizing out-of-state workers whose wages can be taxed by the state, Tennessee has no state income tax. But with a 5 percent sales tax on food and a 7 percent tax on everything else, the state stands to gain revenue nonetheless.
Other states with no income tax have found ways to stay competitive. In 2010, Florida put aside $296 million worth of film-incentive tax credits through June 30, 2016, much of which was used to lure television shows such as The Glades and Burn Notice. Extra incentives were made available for productions that shoot in the off-season or take place in an “underutilized region.”
“It’s our view that the way we’ve got the [incentive] program set now is acceptable,” Clint Brewer says. “I do not believe you will see Tennessee move toward the kind of large film funds that Georgia and Louisiana and states like that have. We think there’s a better return on investment trying to invest in the local industry.”
Craig Brewer can point to myriad ways filming in Tennessee boosts the local economy and film industry, whether or not out-of-state workers receive incentives.
“If [the state] had incentivized [The Blind Side], we would have had teamsters, builders, electricians, local crew, actors, actresses. Plus the movie took place in Memphis, Tennessee,” he says. “It was a Memphis story. If the movie was shot here in town, Memphians would have had work.”
“They would have been spending money on accommodations, groceries for catering, office equipment and furniture, construction supplies, rental cars, gasoline, airline tickets from local travel agencies, production equipment, and wardrobe supplies,” Sitler adds.
Without a change to the state’s incentive program, north Mississippi will likely continue to get the projects Memphis cannot afford. The halcyon days of Memphis-based films such as The Firm and The People vs Larry Flynt will fade further from memory. And while the Quarry pilot continued production just across the state line and production of the second season of Nashville, fueled by around $12.5 million in new state incentives, heads into full swing in Middle Tennessee, Memphis is left looking for something bigger than a bit part.
A version of this story originally appeared in MBQ’s sister publication, the Memphis Flyer.