Tinseltown, Tennessee

Wednesday, July 20, 2005 at 1:00am

Although Johnny Cash built most of his career in Tennessee, the Hollywood biopic of the late country music star was almost filmed in Louisiana.

Twentieth Century Fox stood to shave $3 million off its reportedly $30 million budget for Walk the Line by filming in Louisiana rather than Tennessee.

But in the end, Louisiana's economic incentive package - the strongest in the United States - proved to be no match for the grit and determination of Tennessee's film champions.

Working together, Shelby County Film Commissioner Linn Sitler and David Bennett, executive director of the Tennessee Film, Entertainment and Music Commission, wooed film and production crews to Memphis last fall with a carrot of "soft" incentives, including free use of government facilities.

"We had to do everything we could to cobble together a soft and hard incentive deal to bring Walk the Line here," Bennett said. "They were just about to take the movie to Louisiana. I can't tell you how close it was."

As the Louisiana near-miss illustrates, geography is often trumped by the bottom line when a major motion picture studio selects its filming location.

"It wasn't because people didn't want to film in Tennessee; it's because it was less expensive to go somewhere else, and the profit margin in our business is really being squeezed," said Dama Chasle, a former vice president of tax for Twentieth Century Fox.

Although Tennessee was one of the first states in the mid-1990s to package economic incentives for film studios, Bennett said, it has lagged behind many other states that are getting very aggressive with their enticements.

Bennett is elated by a new law signed by Gov. Phil Bredesen in May that establishes a Film Production Advisory Committee to reevaluate Tennessee's economic incentive program.

"This is the most important thing that has happened since Gov. Bredesen appointed me to this office [three years ago]," Bennett said. "It's huge news for our industry and our film commission."

Bennett said the benefits of luring film and TV productions to the state are substantial; the industry generated about $178 million in direct expenditures in Tennessee in 2003.

Since 1929, more than 200 movies and TV shows have been shot in Tennessee, including, recently in Nashville, the feature films Ernest Goes to Jail, The Green Mile and The Last Castle, and TV shows from Nashville Star to the CMA Music Festival.

Aside from the exposure and boost to tourism, a major film production is said to generate a local economic impact that is triple the studio's direct spending inside the state.

"It's local businesses that make a lot of cash money from productions being there: hotels, restaurants, building supply houses, pharmacies, dry cleaners," Bennett said.

To help lure new business to Tennessee, Bennett said the new advisory committee is authorized to hire an expert to draft a new incentive plan that is competitive with other states but right for Tennessee.

He said he will recommend the committee hire Chasle, the former Fox official who also has negotiated tax deals for other movie studios, including Warner Bros., Paramount Pictures and Universal Pictures.

Chasle, now a full-time consultant, contends that as states such as Louisiana, Georgia, New Mexico, Illinois, New York and South Carolina begin to up the ante on tax incentive plans, Tennessee has sunk lower in the minds of studio executives looking for budget breaks.

"It's very hard to make a budget work in Tennessee," she said.

Tennessee rebates all sales and uses taxes incurred by out-of-state production companies that spend more than $500,000 on a film project in Tennessee within a 12-month period. For instance, for Walk the Line, the studio received a $93,764 rebate on the roughly $12 million it spent in Tennessee.

But Chasle said the sales tax rebate is not an effective enough incentive compared to what Tennessee's closest competitors, Georgia and Louisiana, are offering.

Those states have multifaceted incentive packages that provide outright exemptions from sales and use taxes. But they also offer income tax credits, which an out-of-state studio can't use itself, but can sell to in-state companies.

Boiling down the complex incentive packages to a comparison basis, Bennett said that the Louisiana package amounts to saving about 25 percent of a studio's film budget, with Georgia's generating about 14 percent savings, and Tennessee's a 5 percent reduction.

He realizes, however, that Tennessee is constrained by its limited resources, particularly its lack of an income tax.

"What I want to do and what Gov. Bredesen wants to do is look at the size of the business in the state and attempt to figure out a way that we can [provide an incentive for] the business in a manner that's right for Tennessee and its citizens and right for Hollywood, too."

Chasle said Tennessee has a lot to offer film studios, including a diverse topography as well as its talent.

"An asset that should never be discounted is, you have a great labor team there in Tennessee, so you have the infrastructure and qualified people. And you have an established music industry" that can score films, she said.

Indeed, Tennessee boasts a healthy film community that not only provides labor and equipment for the big studios but also churns out homegrown films and TV shows.

"There is an enormous amount of filmmaking power in our environment," said Andy van Roon, president of FilmNashville, an association of local film and TV interests. "We have writers, directors, producers, production crews, actors, composers, equipment houses, post-production facilities, soundstages and virtually everything else necessary to make quality indie properties that can be distributed to both domestic and foreign markets and earn a decent return on investment."

One of the most recent success stories is Craig Brewer of Memphis, who directed and wrote Hustle and Flow, an independent hip-hop movie that was picked up at the Sundance Film Festival by Paramount Pictures and is planned for release to theaters nationwide this month.

In addition, a Nashville production company, Film House, has just completed filming on Two Weeks, an independent movie starring Sally Field. It's the second movie for Transcendent, a feature film unit of Film House, which previously produced No Regrets.

Two Weeks writer and director Steve Stockman brought in Film House as a co-producer because Film House had the equipment and facilities, said Film House's chief executive officer, Curt Hahn.

"With our involvement, they were able to make the whole package come together and shoot it here in Nashville," he said.

While he lauds Tennessee's incentive program, and particularly Bennett's influence, Hahn bemoans the fact that there are no such deals for in-state companies, who sometimes must take their cameras outside the state to make the economics work.

"That discourages the very kind of indigenous production that we're trying to establish and says we don't care about our own local filmmakers; we just want to attract the big Hollywood movie who's going to come in once every five years," he said.

FilmNashville's van Roon agrees that the local film industry could use more tax breaks and incentives, including help in lining up seed funding for development of local projects.

"Both state and city film offices have been very helpful in scouting locations, securing permits and providing some free government-controlled locations," he said. "The strategy for local filmmakers is very different, however, from what is required to attract major projects from out of state."

Bennett said the commission by law cannot endorse projects for financing. He added that the out-of-state incentive package is like any other economic development program the state offers to lure new business to Tennessee.

"I want to help indigenous business so much. My heart is in Tennessee," he said. "But also I know that the macro picture on this is we have to bring more business here to keep that economic churn occurring in the production community."

"Even though a production company in Tennessee that's corporately located here does not realize any bottom-line effect from Walk the Line being filmed in Tennessee," Bennett added, "there is an implied effect that transfers back to them by the business being healthier, by the business growing stronger."

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