“I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.”
It’s the punch line to a hoary joke, but it has special meaning to Memphians with ambitions for their city to become a film capital. Things seemed to be working well until state government decided to help out.
It wasn’t too many years ago when Memphis was named as one of the top 10 locations for film productions in the U.S. and city boosters had realistic visions of our city becoming the site for more and more film productions. It wasn’t to be, because of the benign neglect by the Tennessee Film, Entertainment and Music Commission since 2007 when Governor Phil Bredesen essentially fired its executive director for taking his responsibilities too seriously. Then executive director David Bennett made the fatal mistake of helping film officials from across Tennessee lobby the legislature for a special incentive fund to encourage film production.
For political appointees in government, there’s often a choice – doing what’s right or doing what you’re told. In addition, there’s the frequently repeated axiom by appointees – loyalty flows up, not down. As a result, those who risk doing what’s right in the face of orders to the contrary often receive a professional death penalty.
That’s exactly what happened when aides to Governor Phil Bredesen took a sledge hammer to Bennett’s career. Bredesen consiglieri did their best to block the funding, but local film commissioners like Linn Sitler of Memphis already had the momentum and succeeded in getting a $10 million incentive fund set up by the Tennessee Legislature despite the efforts of the University of Tennessee to snatch the money.
Sitler and her colleagues foresaw a future when incentives being offered by Louisiana and Georgia would become pivotal in luring film companies that once considered Memphis. It’s an irony of economic development that the film industry gets more rhetoric than resources, whether it’s the Bredesen Administration’s setting film production as a priority but giving it no money or the Memphis ED plan that set film production as a growth industry for our city but gave it no money. It’s too bad, because there’s no agency that can point to a better return on investment than our local Film and Television Commission.
Operating on a shoestring and with a fulltime staff of two people, it has returned millions of dollars to the local economy. In the decade before Bredesen fired Bennett, almost 30 films were produced in Memphis, and there was the feeling that our city was poised for even greater things. The problem is that although the $10 million incentive fund was set up, the Bredesen Administration, as punishment, simply resisted spending it.
Bennett was the first state film commissioner in years that seemed to understand what his job really was all about. The job has been routinely filled by dilettantes and the kind of people who want the job to meet celebrities or get politically connected friends onto film sets. His successor returned to the traditional role and she seemed to define success in not giving out incentives. That brings us to Memphis film director Craig Brewer’s remake of Footloose. The film’s budget was $25 million, and as an unabashed Memphis booster, Brewer wanted to film the remake in his hometown and feature his hometown’s music.
The problem was that in 2008, Georgia created film incentives that gave it a leg up over Tennessee. Undeterred, Brewer worked hard to put together a matching package from Tennessee, and despite being treated shabbily by Tennessee Film Commission Executive Director Perry Gibson, he fought to keep the project in Memphis. Ultimately, Gibson refused to match Georgia’s offer. In the end, Brewer’s film took up residence near Atlanta for lack of about $1.6 million although the balance in Tennessee Film Commission was $5-7 million. It was a coup for Brewer to be selected by the film’s award-winning producers as director of the remake. Sadly, it was not to be a coup for Memphis to be the site for the film production.
Footloose is scheduled to premiere October 14. Hopefully, by then, new Tennessee governor Bill Haslam will have appointed a new Film Commission executive director who knows how to close a deal. Traditionally, Memphis gets a token member or two in the governor’s cabinet. It’s possible that an effective state film commissioner could in the long run prove more important to our city than former Shelby County Attorney General Bill Gibbons as the czar of homeland security.
Previously printed as the City Journal column in Memphis magazine.