Now is the time to call for support of Tennessee's film/TV/music incentive fund. It has suffered the last six years from being too little, too late, and too confusing. However, the stars seem to have aligned for action. Consider the following:
First, the Haslam administration has focused on streamlining the fund and attempting to support it financially. It is laudable that the administration has reached out to Tennessee's most famous filmmaker, Memphis' Craig Brewer, for guidance in developing the current program.
Shelby County state senator Mark Norris has done much as Senate majority leader to garner financial support for the fund. Thanks to the efforts of all, the program's confusing former structure of two incentives with differing criteria has been overhauled. Recurring funds, although relatively small, are available for the first time.
Second, since April 2012, Nashville has played host to a hit network primetime series, ABC's Nashville, which is providing millions in free advertising for the city and its country music industry.
The entertainment community in Nashville has benefited from hundreds of well-paying union crew, cast, and music jobs. The state's power structure is witnessing firsthand the big bucks paid to diverse Nashville vendors — for accommodations, catering, rental cars, location fees, production assistance, equipment rentals, music-licensing fees, construction supplies ... the list goes on and on.
In 1989-1990, Memphis also hosted a network primetime series, ABC's Elvis: Good Rockin' Tonight!. It was said at the time to be the most expensive TV series on the air, at $1 million per episode. Other big spenders followed. In 1996, Milos Forman's The People vs. Larry Flynt left $7,642,000 in documented direct spending in the local economy and created 128 local full-time union jobs.
The Firm, Hollywood's postcard of Memphis, left $6,545,000 in documented direct spending in 1993 and created 122 local full-time union jobs ... and changed Memphis tourism forever. Even Walk the Line, with a much smaller budget of $24 million, left $3,698,519 in 2004 and created 192 local full-time union jobs.
However, in recent years, most remembered have been Memphis' losses to states with more aggressive film incentives. Losses such as the TNT series Memphis Beat; the Academy Award-winning film The Blind Side; and Craig Brewer's remake of the classic Footloose, which also could have been set and shot in Memphis.
How do Tennessee's state film incentives stack up against those of other states? Tennessee's film/TV/music incentive comes in the form of a cash refund, a grant. Although Tennessee's strongest competitors, Georgia and Louisiana, offer even larger refunds of up to 35 percent, their refunds come in the form of tax credits, which have the added hassle of being bartered and sold, often at a discount.
Unlike its competitors, Tennessee's film/TV/music incentive program generally does not count payments to out-of-state hires and out-of-state vendors. Although Tennessee's $200,000 minimum in-state spending is discouraging to Memphis' independent film and music community (famous for making art on a budget), no one can accuse Tennessee's film/TV/music incentive program of being a giveaway program.
Our program requires a relatively low investment in tax dollars for a high return, compared to other states. But here's the hitch, a major one: Tennessee's film/TV/music incentive fund is almost out of money. It has less than $1 million left. What if Nashville is picked up for another season on ABC? That's at least another $7 million needed in incentives.
Molly Smith and Alcon Entertainment are bringing the Broadway hit Memphis the Musical to the big screen. Smith wants to shoot it in Memphis. Although the budget's not been finalized, it's reasonable to expect another $7 million may be needed to bring this production home.
And what about Craig Brewer's next project? Memphian David Evans (The Grace Card) is contemplating another film, as is Memphis filmmaker Julius Lewis (N-Secure). Will there be funds to help them? Right now, filmmakers can only count on $2 million in recurring funds each year.
Although incentivizing the state's entertainment industry offers a tremendous payback in dollars, jobs, and tourism, the business — like all big business — obviously requires an investment from the state. And that's what this is all about: investment.
So now is the time to call for support of Tennessee's film/TV/music incentive fund and the creative, hard-working Tennesseans who've made the industry their life's work.
Linn Sitler is director of the Memphis and Shelby County Film and Television Commission.