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Friday, 10 December 2010 19:57

The South Central Region

Written by  Johan Kharabi
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OnLoc_Alabama1338641America’s South Central Region is making a triumphant comeback to the production stage. The states of Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi all offer relatively competitive incentive packages to lure productions from across the spectrum –– and they’ve been able to do so while simultaneously deepening their crew base, with Louisiana’s most notably expanding by nearly 400 percent since 2002. And Alabama is turning heads by reestablishing its name with a brand new and robust incentive package, while Mississippi, with its diverse landscape and growing production capacity, is growing domestic talent and bringing in big-name productions like HBO’s “True Blood.”

ALABAMA

The Alabama Entertainment Industry Incentives Act offers a 25-percent rebate on production expenditures and out-of-state labor, and 35 percent on in-state labor with a $500,000 minimum spend and a $10 million cap. The state also offers an exempt on sales, use and lodging taxes on a $150,000 minimum spend. The package reflects the state’s appreciation for a growth in importance of incentives in the last 10 years. Courtney Murphy, liaison specialist with the Alabama Film Office, reports that recently things have been picking up quickly in the state. “Alabama is new to this game, but judging from the phone calls, inquiries and application requests the film office is receiving, we expect 2011 to be a big year,” she explains. The first film to take advantage of Alabama’s new incentive package was the Hunter Films production of Lifted, which shot throughout Birmingham in the summer of 2009.

The state’s crew base is approximately two deep and online crew registration is increasing steadily. Alabama saw a variety of documentaries, television commercials and reality shows throughout 2009 — an impressive slew of productions that are sure to increase with the effects of the state legislature’s recent adoption of a set of rules and regulations. The Erwin Brothers’ feature film October Baby began shooting in Mobile, Dauphin Island and Birmingham at the end of August. The production is the second film to take advantage of Alabama’s new incentive package, and is a sign of the direction Alabama has been heading since the state began its incentive program. “In the past, because of not having incentives like other states, we were keeping busy with smaller productions but not doing so many feature films,” explains Eva Golson, director of the Mobile Film Office. “With incentives, this year’s production has picked up and our telephone has been ringing a lot.”

Mobile certainly has a great deal to offer filmmakers, from the USS Alabama (there are very few places in the country where one can film a battleship at sea) to great lakes, rivers, mountains and even desert scenery. Moreover, the city can double for locations all over the world. The hope is that a newly installed incentive package will encourage more filmmakers to take advantage of all Mobile — and the rest of Alabama — has to offer, as they had before other states offered competitive incentives in recent years. “We are looking forward to reestablishing our name and reputation,” says Golson. “I feel very positive about the direction in which we are going.”

LOUISIANA

Louisiana offers motion picture productions a 30-percent transferable credit to put towards total in-state expenditures, with no cap and a minimal spending requirement of $300,000. At the same time, the state promotes the use of domestic labor through an additional 5-percent labor-tax credit on the payroll of Louisiana residents employed by a production. Chris Stelly, director of Film & Television at the Louisiana Economic Development’s Entertainment Office, says that the absence of any gray areas in the statute is a direct result of the state’s history of experience with the program. “Louisiana was one of the first states to initiate an incentive program,” he explains. “We’ve been doing this for around eight years now.” The state has also been building up its local crew base with a growth of some 400 percent since 2002 to its current range of 10 to 11 crews deep.

This growing, qualified local work force is the key to attracting more productions looking to cut costs. “At the end of the day, you have to provide the goods and services needed to maximize the benefit for productions,” says Stelly. “But you also need to provide a diverse set of locations. In Louisiana you can shoot for areas all around the country, from Alaska to New York City.” Most of the state’s productions come from feature films, but television series production is also increasing steadily. For 2010, Louisiana already appears well on its way to surpass 2009’s production expenditures, which was estimated at $495 million in-state and $705 million in total.

OnLoc_Louisiana_AftonVilla23panoramicIt’s clear that Louisiana is a busy place for production these days. In 2009, Sony Pictures and Columbia Pictures’ Battle: Los Angeles (starring Aaron Eckhart) shot in Baton Rouge, Shreveport and Bossier City, while Warner Bros.’ Green Lantern (starring Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively) filmed in Madisonville and New Orleans. Among the film productions in 2010, Director Peter Berg’s Battleship filmed in Baton Rouge; the independent Mighty Fine shot in New Orleans; Butter (starring Jennifer Garner and Hugh Jackman) shot in Shreveport; and Catch 44 recently wrapped with Bruce Willis and Forest Whitaker after shooting in Shreveport and Bossier City. Additionally, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn is expected to shoot its two film installments in Louisiana, HBO’s widely acclaimed series “Treme” will return to Louisiana for its second season, TNT’s “Memphis Beat” is currently shooting in the state, and the ABC series “The Gates” just finished production in Shreveport.

Shreveport-Bossier is an excellent example of why the state has been so popular with productions big and small. As of September 2010, the area has seen 13 movie and TV productions with a budget total of $170 million and filling 450 production days. “We are about three crews deep now and we are continuing to train and grow our local crew base,” reports Arlena Acree, director of film, media and entertainment at Shreveport’s Office of the Mayor. The Office offers a 2.5-percent sales-tax rebate based on expenditures within Shreveport’s city limits, and a 1.5-percent sales-tax rebate on expenditures outside of Shreveport in Caddo Parish, with a cap of $150,000 for first-time productions and $165,000 for subsequent productions within 12 months. These incentives come in addition to some of the state’s best studios, including StageWorks of Louisiana, Stage West, Millennium Studios, Studio Operations and the Louisiana Wave Studio.

During the 95 days of production in Shreveport for “The Gates,” Co-Producer Lampton Enochs is thrilled to report that the shoot only lost 30 minutes due to inclement weather. And great weather only adds to the locale’s strengths. “Shreveport is a very strong place to film because you have a good variety of looks, especially great housing stock [with] everything from turn-of-the-century houses,” says Enochs. “Logistically it’s also a fantastic town to shoot in. Company moves are very easy. You can be downtown and very quickly move to the woods within an hour.” The first season of “The Gates,” consisting of 13 episodes, filmed completely in Shreveport beginning on March 29 and wrapping in mid-August. Enochs’ production services office, Louisiana Production Consultants, and his animation studio, Moonbot Studios, are also based in Shreveport.

Cinematographer Óttar Guðnason worked with Cineworks and Panavision Louisiana while shooting Love, Wedding, Marriage in New Orleans. “Both were extremely accommodating and professional, and provided us with great service,” he reports. “If you have the luxury of filming in New Orleans, then you are in good shape.  The city looks amazing when it comes to architecture, texture and colors. The sky and clouds are super vivid, so there is no need for a sky replacement.”

The DP on “Treme,” Ivan Strasburg, BSC shot throughout New Orleans from October to May 2010. “New Orleans is a vibrant place to work and a great place to shoot,” he says. “When filming the French Quarter, you can leave the entire background as it is. It’s like nowhere else I’ve been.” The HBO series is shot in a lot of bars and clubs, which Strasburg says worked perfectly in New Orleans, as “all the bars in the city have very idiosyncratic interiors with interesting lighting.” And while New Orleans is busy, Strasburg had a smooth process in shooting multiple locations in one day with a big company: “We needed to film on short notice in many different locations — sometimes as many as four in one day — and the film office bent over backwards to help us out.”

MISSISSIPPI

In 2009, Mississippi’s total production spend stood at approximately $1.9 million. Recent production in the state has included features like The Dynamiter, Butterfly Rising and The Help, and television shows like “True Blood,” “Antiques Roadshow” and “Between the Lions.” Like its neighbors in the region, Mississippi has benefited greatly from a competitive incentive program that has helped to lure an increasing number of productions.

The Mississippi Motion Picture Incentive Program is a cash rebate that doesn’t require a tax return. The minimum spend is $20,000 (the lowest minimum in the country for a cash rebate) and productions can receive 20 percent back on local spend, including non-resident payroll, and 25 percent on resident payroll. Ward Emling, director of the Mississippi Film Office, says the program has attracted a great deal of production to the state while also helping local producers to get their projects off the ground. “Our 20 or 25 percent [or more, if you include tax exemptions] financial addition to a production’s funding has made many productions possible when they wouldn’t have been,” Emling explains. And a good clear incentive program has become essential to attract the industry: “Look at just about any budget today and there is a line item for anticipated credit or rebate.” Emling also points out that when you add it all up, there’s more than a billion dollars of incentive funding a year flowing from state film-incentive programs to on-location productions. “Where would the industry be without that?” he quips.

University_of_Southern_MississippiMississippi offers a wide range of locations, from cypress swamps and rolling hills to historic town squares and modern, urban downtown streets. The state itself is broken up into five geographically distinct regions: In the north, the Hills region has beautiful antebellum architecture, verdant grassland and a selection of serene lakes. The Delta is home to much of the state’s agricultural hub and offers productions vast farmlands and spectacular views of the Mississippi delta. In the east, the Pines offers breathtaking Victorian and antebellum architecture and a variety of natural settings, while the Coastal region contains some of the area’s best views of the Gulf of Mexico. Finally, the state’s Capital/River region boasts rustic mansions, modern cityscapes and spectacular 19th-century architecture.

One of Mississippi’s most cutting-edge places for production may well be Tupelo, located in the northeast and where both infrastructure and government initiative have boosted production activity. The Tupelo Furniture Market oversees two large complexes in the area that are regularly used for production, and the Tupelo Film Commission is working to encourage the development of young filmmakers through a recent plan to provide iMovie editing courses for high school and junior high students.  Another place to watch is the dynamic city of Canton, which also provides a glimpse into the future of production in Mississippi. In March, the Mississippi Development Authority and the Canton Convention and Visitors Bureau announced that the state’s first purpose-built film studio, the Mississippi Film Studios @ Canton, will come to the area. The studio is set to include a 36,000-square-foot sound stage and 3,000 square feet of production office space. It’s abundantly clear that things are changing quickly in Mississippi, and it’s expected that more productions are on the way.

Indeed, the future is bright in the South Central Region, and with growing production in each of these states, it’s only getting brighter. Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi will have no problem attracting film and TV projects in 2011 as they all cater to productions looking to cut costs with good incentives. All three states offer a proactive film office, visually stunning backdrops, capable crew base and a good bang for your buck –– a winning combination for years to come.

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