State hopes incentives sustain production gains

In the increasingly competitive market of film-hungry states maneuvering to host Hollywood productions, the fertile region of Tennessee is making a pronounced bid for the showbiz green.

The Volunteer State has long been the filming locale for John Grisham epics, and Memphis native Craig Brewer’s “Hustle & Flow” and “Black Snake Moan” were local productions, as was Johnny Cash biopic “Walk the Line.”

But, thanks to dual incentive programs courtesy of the Tennessee Film Commission and the Dept. of Revenue that were enacted a year and a half ago, 2008 has seen efforts such as Disney’s upcoming “Hannah Montana: The Movie,” director Rod Lurie’s “Nothing but the Truth” and indie Billy Graham biopic “Billy: The Early Years” hunkered down in Tennessee.

The incentive package was fostered by competition, says film commission project manager Bob Raines. “Tennessee was falling behind other states that were rolling out incentive programs, some of which are not as conservative as ours, but we’re trying to build something that is long term and sustainable.”

The dual program offers up to 17% refund from the Film Commission with an additional 15% distributed by the Dept. of Revenue. Productions coming to Tennessee get an immediate 13% rebate with 2% added for Tennessee music acquisition, and another 2% can be had if at least 25% of the production’s crew is hired locally.

“It’s important to know that these are cash rebates,” Raines stresses. “Louisiana offers tax credits, where you lose money up front. With us, productions get a check straight from the government.”

From the state side, 15% “is for film companies that establish a permanent headquarters in Tennessee and incur a minimum of $1 million in qualified Tennessee expenses,” explains Dept. of Revenue spokesperson Sara Jo Houghland. “If a production company doesn’t have a headquarters in state but spends $1 million, then a company’s investor can receive the refund, as long as they’re headquartered here. Also, other states require you to submit all of your receipts, where we’ll look at a spreadsheet and take a statistical sample, which gets the rebate check into the producers‘ hands quicker.”

And, while the Film Commission currently has $20 million to spend, the Dept. of Revenue’s incentive budget is unlimited due to a law pushed through by Gov. Phil Bredesen. The state’s low cost of living and lack of state income tax are also major pluses for visiting productions.

Terra firma attractions are “the three distinct topographies,” Raines explains. “We’re mountainous in the east with the Appalachians, middle Tennessee has urban Nashville and the rolling-hills look, and then there’s Memphis, which is delta.”

Knoxville is a savvy, multibillion-dollar cable hub, home to Scripps, River Media and Jupiter Entertainment, an area well versed in low-budget, high-quality HD, reality and musicvideo creation.

Tennessee projects slated for ’09 include a music-based Paramount effort, an unnamed Screen Gems feature and a Nashville-based Craig Brewer film.

“Our goal is not to be a Michigan or a Louisiana with 80 productions happening,” clarifies Raines of his state, which currently can crew two and a half deep. “We want to have five or six productions, and we want them to be perfect. And having a studio here in the state will make us more competitive. It’s a great thing that we look forward to.”

The wait may not be long, thanks to the proposed Browns Creek Media Village: a multiuse studio complex, retail space, hotel, 5,000-seat entertainment venue and film school potentially located at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds, a 117-acre site in Nashville.

The project is a combined effort of local 821 Entertainment and Tower Investments.

“Our goal is to become an independent mini-major and have the ability to greenlight our own films and bring at least half the financing to the table,” says 821 co-founder Eric Geadelmann, partnered with Nashville music supervisor Anastasia Brown. “That combination becomes the anchor tenant necessary to create a viable film industry in Nashville that goes beyond recruiting Hollywood productions.”

“We’ve had extensive discussions with everybody in the business here, and they are open arms to it,” says Tower senior VP Alex Marks. “They understand what it would do to the economy and the city, and for their kids going to Vanderbilt or Lipscomb or Belmont for management degrees in entertainment. They won’t have to move to get a job.”

Founded in 2004, 821 has some 30 projects in development with combined budgets of $250 million, according to Geadelmann, all within the “heartland” brand that is 821’s focus.

“Heartland is everything from Billy Graham to Lynyrd Skynyrd, and there are commonalities and core values across that board of fantasy adventure, inspirational sports and redneck comedy.”

Despite being the capital of country music, “Up to this point, there hasn’t been much of a production industry here,” says Geadelmann. “This will take it to another level that benefits Nashville and the state. … Hollywood is the icing on the cake.”

REGIONAL FILM COMMISSIONS

Nashville Mayor’s Office of Film

(615) 862-4700

nashville.gov/ecdev/film.htm

Memphis Film Commission

(901) 527-8300

memphisfilmcomm.org

East Tennessee Film and Television Commission

(865) 637-4550

ettfc.com

Chattanooga Film Commission

(423) 425-3456

chattanooga.gov/eac

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