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VOL. 36 | NO. 52 | Friday, December 28, 2012

More spotlight, please

A tweak in incentives sparks an increase in Tennessee filming

By Tom Wood

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Before the legislature boosted funding for Tennessee’s state film incentive program in early May, a number of movies with stories rooted in locations throughout Middle Tennessee were shot elsewhere.

Most often, high production costs and inadequate state incentives were cited as reasons why major film projects set in Tennessee were filmed elsewhere.

“Walk The Line,” the 2005 Johnny Cash biopic starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, was one exceptions, but only because Witherspoon pushed then-Gov. Phil Bredesen to get it made in Tennessee.

The Nashville film scene hasn’t been completely dead in recent years. Oscar winner and Franklin resident Nicole Kidman made the movie “Stoker’’ in Nashville, Murfreesboro and Sewanee, in 2011 (it will be released in February), while another Academy Award winning actress Gwyneth Paltrow filmed “Country Strong’’ in Nashville in 2010.

What the May repeal of the refundable tax credit to film productions, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), did was open the door to an additional $2 million annually for the Tennessee Film/TV Incentive Fund.

Film companies are now required to have a total production value of $200,000 or more instead of $1 million in order to qualify for state incentives.

It’s a coincidence of timing – film productions take months to plan – that since May the state has been in something of a production spotlight with two movies being filmed here, one in Chattanooga with Harrison Ford, the other in the Midstate with Ashley Judd. And then there’s the TV show “Nashville..

Filmmakers and state officials say they see a culture change at the Tennessee Film, Entertainment and Music Commission and predict the less-is-more approach to earn state incentives will improve the health of the film business here.

‘One-stop shop for film projects’

Since the state law changed, projects meeting the $200K budget requirement can receive grants equaling 25 percent of qualified Tennessee expenditures. Under old statutes, only productions budgeted over $1 million received a 17 percent grant and 15 percent refundable tax credit.

“What we’re trying to do is restructure the incentives so that local companies, independent filmmakers and television production companies can qualify for incentives for their projects here in the state in the hopes that those companies then will grow and that we can build more permanent film and television jobs here by helping local companies with independent or smaller productions grow,” says Clint Brewer, assistant commissioner and creative services for the state Department of Economic and Community Development.

The state’s move has been well received by those in the industry, especially those connected with “The Identical,” the first effort from Nashville’s City of Peace Films. An independent production, it is being executive produced by Yochanan Marcellino. Dustin Marcellino is making his directorial debut, and Howie Klausner (“Space Cowboys”) is the writer/producer.

“The Identical” stars Judd, Ray Liotta, Seth Green, Joe Pantoliano and Blake Ryane in a music drama spanning four decades. It was filmed in 2012 across Middle Tennessee (notably Dickson, Nashville, Lebanon and Watertown) from October through mid-November. It is expected to be released in 2013, as is “42,” a movie starring Ford.

“The climate (for making movies here) has changed so much,” says Klausner, who lives in Franklin. “It has been an extremely positive experience working with the film commission.”

Nashville’s Hillsboro High School was transformed into "Middlebend High" during the 2011 filming of "Stoker," starring Nicole Kidman.

-- Fox Searchlight Pictures

So much so that Klausner plans to direct an inspirational basketball-themed movie, based on the miraculous recovery of Illinois high school player Eric “Hoovey” Elliott from a massive brain tumor, here next spring and have all post-production done in the state. Most post-production work for “The Identical,” which has a $5 million to $10 million budget, is being done in Los Angeles.

“(Nashville) has become a real one-stop shop for film projects,” Klausner says. “There has been a shift in Hollywood to the $100 million, $200 million and $300 million films, and there are only so many of those projects. It’s way different than when I broke into the business.”

'Nashville' gets full run

The TV show “Nashville’’ was recently picked up for the full 22-episode season by the ABC network, and that’s, well, music to the ears of “Nashville” producers and city officials, not to mention local actors, crew members and businesses.

Created by Callie Khouri, “Nashville” had an original run of just 13 episodes. Audiences averaged just over six million for the first five shows, and the story lines and characterization improved with each show, leading to ABC’s decision, announced on Nov. 12, to renew for a full season.

“We’re very pleased with how it’s going. Ultimately, it’s the public that determines our success, and we have to have a national viewer base. And we’re hopeful that viewership will grow and ultimately (the show) can air for years to come,” Steve Buchanan, executive producer of “Nashville” along with Khouri and R.J. Cutler, said in an interview before the renewal was announced.

Butch Spyridon, president of the Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau, hopes ABC’s decision to renew for a full first season translates into a long run for the show and additional publicity for the city.

“The city is absolutely one of the stars of the show, kind of like the Bluebird (Café) is and like Connie and Hayden are. The nice thing is, we’re getting top billing,” Spyridon says. “In all the promos, it comes up with ‘Nashville.’ So if I had to look at it, leading into the show, the city has never had more publicity and the hospitality industry has never been stronger.”

A city ‘built on dreams’

Nashville has drawn praise for its realistic showing of the music industry, warts and all.

“In pursuing this project, it’s always important to me that we portray Nashville in a very current, contemporary sense,” Buchanan says. “(In the past) a lot of people felt like there were all the stereotypes or really an outdated perception. So it’s really important to us that we’re telling a more authentic story that merges the world of music, politics and family.”

That feeling of authenticity comes from many directions – from the actors like Britton, Hayden Panettiere and Esten, who have blended smoothly into the local music scene, to the cameos by real Grand Ole Opry stars Little Jimmy Dickens, Jimmy C. Newman, Jeannie Seely and Del McCoury as well as “Good Morning America” co-host Robin Roberts, to the city of Nashville and the many distinct businesses and music venues featured weekly on the show.

The cast and crew of "Nashville" set up a shoot at the Music Rown roundabout. The show spends about $460,000 locally per episode, according to producer Loucas George.

-- © 2012 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

“The city is really a character as well, in the sense that we are really highlighting many of the things that are unique to Nashville and we’re highlighting an industry, the music industry, that is very much a part of the city,” Buchanan says.

“There’s an amazing amount of talent here, not just country, but Gospel and indie. “Nashville” has done a good job of capturing the intricacies of the city, even clubs like the 5 Spot. It’s well-written and well-done. The music is authentic; you can’t get anyone better than (Nashville music producer) T-Bone Burnett,” says songwriter Kerry Graul of Brentwood, another background character actor.

Along with the glamorous lifestyle the public sees, the real country music industry has its share of in-fighting, back-stabbing and personal problems, all deliciously portrayed by the cast.

“This city is built on the dreams of other people. There are a lot of people living off the dreams of others. A lot of great talents and great music are missed,” says singer/actor/podcast radio host Bobby Pizazz, who has been an extra on productions dating all the way back to 1985’s “Sweet Dreams” biopic of Patsy Cline.

‘Charm and mystique’

Hendersonville native Laray Mayfield, now a Los Angeles-based casting director who has worked with films like “The Social Network,” “Footloose” and “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” is glad to see a rejuvenated film industry in her home state.

“They needed to do that. What they were doing didn’t work very well,” she says. “My son (Sabyn Mayfield) produced a movie (“After” in 2006) that was shot in Birmingham because its budget was too small. So it’s a good step in the right direction.

“Right now, there’s a nice little spotlight shining on Tennessee with “Country Strong” from a few years ago, and “Nashville” and some other projects. There is a real charm and mystique there. Nashville is a special city and with good incentives in place, people like to go there. It feels like home. It’s a win-win to me.”

That is the same message Brewer and others with the state’s film commission are preaching. Brewer says the state is not pursuing the bigger-budgeted projects, which in this region are more likely to land in Georgia, Louisiana or the Carolinas. But he is quick to defend the quality of work being done here.

“Tennessee is an entertainment state more than any other state, probably, except California or New York, in terms of the number of entertainment companies of all kinds that we have here, and in terms of the amount of commerce and business tied to entertainment,” he says.

“We have a thriving music industry, obviously in Nashville. It’s Music City. East Tennessee is home to an incredibly active and vibrant and profitable television production community centered around Knoxville. And then Memphis has got a very healthy film industry, which Nashville also plays a part in. And Memphis has its own long legacy.

“The most aggressive states in this region are Georgia and Louisiana. And we just don’t, from a program standpoint, have the funds to compete with them. “Nashville” is a special situation, but we are not going to be chasing these kinds of major, huge productions. Again, if they have some kind of inherent marketing value, or branding value, for the state, we certainly would consider those on a case by case basis.”

No Metro funds for “Nashville”

“Nashville” received no money or incentives from Metro government, although the production has given Music City a major boost in terms of national exposure and economic growth.

The ECD approved a reimbursable grant of up to $7.5 million for the TV production in June 2012. Brewer says that money was for one season, based on $44 million qualified spending in the state and 22 episodes.

Asked if there is a sliding scale to provide further inducements if the show is renewed beyond its first season, Brewer says, “There is no sliding scale. Commission incentives are dictated under state statute.’’

Jan Austin, founder and executive director of the Association for the Future of Film and Television in Tennessee, says the state is on the right track with its new incentive program and hopes Dean will do everything to keep “Nashville” in Nashville.

She is concerned that “Nashville” production could move to Los Angeles or – even worse – Atlanta, the way TNT’s “Memphis Beat” shot exteriors in Memphis while filming in New Orleans. The “Nashville” production company, Lionsgate, has a strong relationship with actor/producer Tyler Perry and recently filmed “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” in the Atlanta area.

“People are so excited, not just here but across the state, about the success of “Nashville.” There’s not a state in the union that doesn’t want to be showcased like that,” Austin says. “It keeps people working year-round and everyone is keeping their fingers crossed that it is picked up for a second season.”

Keep ‘Nashville,’ in Nashville

The decision to renew for a full season may allay concerns over whether the future of “Nashville,’’ will remain in Nashville.

“It certainly would be a disappointment,” Spyridon says of suggestions that the show will end up being filmed elsewhere. “My personal opinion is they can’t shoot this show in L.A. When I say they can’t, they can’t capture the authenticity of the show in L.A. And if they keep it here, I think it’s got legs. So there’s a bit of bias in that answer, but I’d be willing to put a little wager on my answer.

“There’s something about how they’re doing it and where they’re doing it and using the city as one of the stars. It becomes a fabrication in L.A., and in Nashville it has more authenticity to it. And to truly do a story like this, you’ve got to have the authentic piece.”

The loss of “Nashville” would filter down from direct loss of local production crew jobs to auxiliary services like catering and the music industry and mean a loss of acting opportunities here.

Nashville singer-songwriter LaLa Deaton, who has worked on both “Nashville” and “The Identical,” welcomes more opportunities to showcase her talents.

“You’ve got so many of us here living the dream that they are talking about in the show,” says Deaton, who went to Belmont with Tricia Yearwood and Lee Ann Womack. “Basically, it’s my life for the last eight years. It’s interesting to see the story of Nashville unfold.”

Economic impact of 'Nashville'

Appearing with Dean at a recent Nashville Business Breakfast at Lipscomb University, “Nashville” producer Loucas George revealed some of the production’s economic impact in Nashville and expressed his appreciation for filming here.

He says a typical month of the show’s expenditures include about $200,000 on cast/crew housing, $80,000 on catering, $45,000 on vehicle rental and $55,000 for fuel. He put camera equipment rental figures at approximately $1.6 million for the season and says about $460,000 per episode goes to local vendors.

“The city benefits tremendously from the filming and production of the show “Nashville” in so many ways,” Dean says. “Economically, the production of the show has employed hundreds of Tennesseans and injected millions into the economy.

“There is an excitement and energy from having the actors here in our city, and the show’s writers have made an effort to understand our city. It’s nice to see that shooting is occurring all over the city and showcasing the beauty and diversity of Nashville.

“We’ve heard that they’ve had a great experience shooting here and have found Nashville to be a welcoming place when it comes to doing business. We’ve also heard that the show has captured some of the authentic places and moments that make Nashville the city that it is.”

George agrees.

“Nashville has been so welcoming,” he says. “It’s such a dynamic, vibrant city. I enjoy shooting the show here because it gives it such authenticity.”

Speaking of authenticity, someone at a recent citizen forum recently asked Gov. Bill Haslam why he hadn’t yet made a cameo on Nashville. Laughing, Haslam was quick with a response.

“It hurt my feelings that I have not been asked yet,” Haslam says. “Maybe they heard me sing one time.”

Maybe producers will ask him and Mayor Dean, who watches the show, to do a duet at the wrap party for the first season.

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