Getting Memphis Before the Cameras
By: Mick Wright
Why does Tennessee keep losing film and television projects to neighboring states? And more importantly, can anything be done to entice video production crews to bring their operations here?
These questions weigh heavily on the mind of Linn Sitler, the longtime executive director of the Memphis and Shelby County Film Commission. Under her watch, several major studio projects have been filmed in Memphis, such as Cast Away, Walk the Line, 21 Grams and the John Grisham adaptations The Client, The Firm and The Rainmaker.
But recently, Sitler regrets, movies with local settings, connections and themes have been produced elsewhere.
The film Get Low, starring Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek and Bill Murray, is based on a true story that took place in Roane County, Tennessee. The Blind Side, starring Sandra Bullock, Tim McGraw and Kathy Bates, is based on the story of Michael Oher and the Tuohy family in Memphis. Both movies were filmed in Georgia, where Memphis director Craig Brewer just finished shooting a remake of Footloose, starring Andie MacDowell and Dennis Quaid.
More egregiously, the new TNT television series Memphis Beat is being filmed on location in … New Orleans.
Speaking recently to the local chapter of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), Sitler said she is encouraged by one recent development, which could turn Memphis into a headquarters for faith-themed filmmaking.
The Grace Card, a Christian movie now playing in six Mid-South theaters and showing in about 100 other cities around the country, was written, filmed and produced in Memphis, using local talent.
Dr. David Evans, a Memphis optometrist and the owner of Total Eye Care, wrote the original screenplay in his spare time. Evans said he was inspired to write his own movie after seeing other recent, successful Christian films such as Fireproof and Facing the Giants.
Evans’ story was picked up by Provident Films, a subsidiary of Sony Pictures, and the resulting product frames Memphis as a place of hope and reconciliation.
“I’d be surprised if most people could name 10 Christian films. There’s such a big need for movies like this,” Evans recently told a group of adults and children from the Boys and Girls Club meeting at the Sycamore View Church of Christ in Bartlett.
Dr. Evans says he was able to finance the movie with personal savings and revenue from his eye practice, hiring the best crew in Memphis he could find. There were no set location costs, he says, and all of the food was donated. The Grace Card also benefitted from the attention of Academy Award winning actor Louis Gossett, Jr., who agreed to play a key role in the film.
Not all Memphis film projects are that fortunate, however. The advantages offered by surrounding states have been too strong for production companies to pass up. While the State of Tennessee did implement a package of special tax incentives in 2006, Sitler says the process took so long that other states had jumped ahead in the meantime.
That’s why several state lawmakers are supporting a new piece of legislation meant to sweeten the deal and boost Tennessee’s entertainment industry. Several legislators from Shelby County are sponsoring the bill (HB 555, SB 345), including Sen. Mark Norris, Sen. Brian Kelsey, Rep. Steve McManus and Rep. Antonio Parkinson.
Sitler also appreciates the support the local film community receives from the Future of Film and Television in Tennessee (AFFT), a lobbying group that backs larger incentives for the industry.
But why should the movie industry receive special tax breaks, particularly when the state is in such a budget crunch? Wouldn’t that simply benefit Hollywood at the expense of Tennessee taxpayers?
Sitler doesn’t see it that way. She cites examples of how ancillary businesses — such as hotels, restaurants, supply stores and even rental car companies — greatly benefit from an economic ripple effect, one that can continue to benefit the community as tourists come to visit the places where their favorite movies were filmed. And complaints that the jobs movies create are only temporary, she says, ignore the possibility of a constantly developing industry, developing new projects and providing new avenues of growth for Tennessee’s established, world-famous music and arts community.