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Spotlight: The South

By Cory Sekine-Pettite

Vista of the West Texas desert near Marfa, Texas. Agent Tom Jones (Adam Cardon) and a member of his team prepare to storm the enemy stronghold in this scene from Sons of Liberty. DP Kevin Duggin and a member of his team do the really hard work. USM campus at night.
[Clockwise from Above]
Vista of the West Texas desert near Marfa, Texas.
Agent Tom Jones (Adam Cardon) and a member of his team prepare to storm the enemy stronghold in this scene from Sons of Liberty. DP Kevin Duggin and a member of his team do the really hard work.
USM campus at night.

The South is many things to many people. To some, it is the heart of religious and political conservatism; to others, it is a growing economic force and the headquarters for many of the world’s largest companies. But to filmmakers, the South is a painterly landscape of white-sand beaches, majestic mountains, dense forests and foreboding swamplands that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. The region’s diverse scenery and generous tax incentives continue to attract filmmakers.

So, to make sure you have the latest information, we contacted several Southern film offices and asked them a series of questions about their incentive packages, their geography, and about recent productions. In response, the state film offices of Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Texas gave us a sense for what it’s like to shoot in their states.

Rick Davidson on Steady Cam with camera and sound crew following actors out of a building in this scene from Oculus.
Ackley (Mark Sheppard) and Tom Jones (Adam Cardon) are surrounded by other cast and crew as they prepare for a scene in the Sons of Liberty command center.

Alabama: Great locations. Great stories.

As the Alabama Film Office (www.alabamafilm.org) is fond of stating: Alabama is the place to be for great locations and the state offers many of its own great stories. Geographically, Alabama boasts mountains and canyons in the northern part of the state, farms and pastures in the central region, and pine woods and bayous that lead to white sand beaches along the state’s Gulf of Mexico shoreline. The film office does not exaggerate; Alabama has much to offer.

Speaking of offers, the state’s tax incentives program for filmmakers breaks down as follows: It provides for a refundable tax credit on the first $20 million of qualified production expenditures. (The minimum spending requirement is $500,000.) All qualified production expenditures, including nonresident wages, earn 25 percent, while wages and benefits for residents earn 35 percent. In order for payments made to a loan out to qualify for the incentive, the loan out must be registered to do business in Alabama. While there is not per project cap per se, Alabama only awards the incentive on the first $20 million of qualifying production expenditures.

Rick Davidson on Steady Cam with camera and sound crew following actors out of a building in this scene from Oculus.
Rick Davidson on Steady Cam with camera and sound crew following actors out of a building in this scene from Oculus.

The state’s annual cap is $15 million for fiscal years ending Sept. 30, 2013 and Sept. 30, 2014. Each fiscal year after 2014 will have a state annual cap of $20 million. A certified production spending at least $150,000 within a 12-month period may apply to be exempted from the state portion – but not the local portion – of sales, use and lodging taxes. The sales tax exemption is not available on qualified expenditures in excess of the first $20 million.

1st AD David Cluck appearing in a monitor playing in the next scene.
1st AD David Cluck appearing in a monitor playing in the next scene.

If you would like to learn more about Alabama’s great locations, but can’t make the trip in person just yet, check out some of the recent productions that filmed wholly or in part in the state:

  • Oculus, Lasser Productions, LLC (2014) – Filmed in Mobile and Baldwin County, Ala., Oculus stars Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackhoff, and Karen Gillan. The film is about a woman who tries to exonerate her brother’s murder conviction by proving that the crime was committed by a supernatural phenomenon.
  • Sons of Liberty, Home Front, LLC (2012) – Filmed in Mobile, Ala. This local movie production is a military action/adventure feature about a group of scientists and soldiers each trying desperately to keep the balance of peace in place.
  • Space Warriors, ARC Entertainment (2013) – Filmed in Huntsville, Ala. This film is about kids attending Space Camp who bond to help save the international space station. It stars Dermot Mulroney, Josh Lucas, and Mira Sorvino.
  • 2, Legendary Pictures (2013) – Filmed partially in Birmingham, Ala. A major motion picture starring Harrison Ford and Chadwick Boseman about Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball.

It’s probably best not to wait too long before seeing in person what Alabama has to offer filmmakers. One could place a safe bet that more and more film productions will be planting stakes in Alabama soil. According to the Alabama Film Office, since 2009, when the Alabama film incentives legislation passed, there has been a significant increase in filming in the state. In 2011 alone, production companies spent approximately $22.5 million in Alabama and more than $5.6 million was reimbursed to these companies through the incentives. The coming year looks even brighter.

As Agent Jan Baker (Catalina Soto-Aguilar) is getting ready for a mission in Sons of Liberty. She is surrounded by crew and equipment that will never be seen on camera. The Director, Drew Hall, seems pleased with progress at this point.
As Agent Jan Baker (Catalina Soto-Aguilar) is getting ready for a mission in Sons of Liberty. She is surrounded by crew and equipment that will never be seen on camera. The Director, Drew Hall, seems pleased with progress at this point.

Mississippi: Every production is important

Nearly two dozen new projects are scheduled to begin in Mississippi in the New Year, making the state one of the busiest in the South. In fact, during the past few years, Mississippi’s enthusiasm for TV and film, and the state’s incentives program, have attracted many productions – big and small.

According to the Mississippi Film Office (www.visitmississippi.org), every Mississippi city is supportive of the film industry. “Every one of them understands the needs and the impact of production on location,” said Mississippi Film representative Ward Emling. “In Mississippi, every production, big or small, is important. While we have developed workforce programs in Jackson and on the Gulf Coast, we are expanding film training programs into community colleges across the state to expand and deepen our crew base.”

Adventure Lake, Miss.
Adventure Lake, Miss.

At the state level, that support extends to a generous incentives program. The Mississippi film incentive is a cash rebate of 30 percent on Mississippi resident payroll, and 25 percent on local spend and on non-resident payroll. The incentive applies to feature films, television, reality television, commercials, documentaries, and shorts, the film office reports. The minimum spend is $50,000.

There is an annual rebate cap of $20 million, a per project rebate cap of $8 million, and the payroll incentives apply to the first $1 million of any individual salary, above or below the line. The qualification process is quick Mississippi Film says: A short application submission, including script and budget is submitted to the Film Office; and the Mississippi Development Authority Board meets at least once a month to consider all projects. Upon the completion of production in the state, expenditures are submitted to the Department of Revenue, who perform the audit and return the rebate in about 60 business days.

Tunica Visitor's Center
Tunica Visitor’s Center

Several local production companies are there to assist with your projects, including Red Planet Entertainment of Ridgeland, Miss.; Eyevox/Mad Genius, Ridgeland; Gonzaflex Productions, Biloxi, Miss.; and RoadTown Enterprises-Mississippi Film Studio at Canton. And in its own way, Mississippi’s geography and location possibilities can offer support as well.

Tallahatchie Flats, Miss.
Tallahatchie Flats, Miss.

According to Emling, Mississippi is marked by four, distinct geographical regions: the rolling foothills of the Appalachians to the northeast, the flatlands of the Mississippi Delta to the northwest, the Piney Woods and rivers region of the midsection of the state, and sandy beaches of the Gulf Coast and the barrier islands. There are production-friendly rivers (Mississippi, Pearl, Tennessee-Tombigbee, Pascagoula, Escatawpa) across the state, as well as the best town squares in the South (Canton, Oxford, Holly Springs, Carrollton, and Lexington). Jackson is the metropolitan center of the state, and throughout you will find supportive communities offering a variety of size and period, from depot-centered railroad towns to coastal cities.

To catch a glimpse of some of these locales on film, check out As I Lay Dying, a Nu Image/Millennium/Rabbit Bandini Production that recently wrapped. James Franco directed and starred along with Tim Blake Nelson, Jim Parrack, Ahna O’Reilly, and Logan Marshall-Green. Other recently wrapped productions include the feature films Rise Again, which filmed in Natchez, Miss.; and Haunted, which filmed in Greenville, Miss. You also can rent O, Brother Where Art Thou?, Mississippi Masala, Cookie’s Fortune, and many more.

Oklahoma: Red carpet, not red tape

In addition to its rebate program and geographic diversity, Oklahoma is known for its quality of life and the willingness of its communities to embrace film production, says Oklahoma Film & Music. “We pride ourselves on rolling out the red carpet, not the red tape,” reports Yousef Kazemi, locations coordinator.

Located just south of the geographic center of the United States, Oklahoma is equidistant from Los Angeles and New York City. The Great Plains state ranks 20th in size in the nation and exemplifies 11 distinct ecological regions, with terrain including flat, fertile plains; sand dunes; high mesas; dense forests; cypress swamps; rolling hills; and mountains covered in rock or trees.

Thunderstruck | Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.
Thunderstruck | Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Kazemi says the Oklahoma Film Enhancement Rebate offers a tax rebate up to 37 percent on Oklahoma expenditures to qualifying companies filming in the state. The rebate is capped at $5 million per year. The company must have a minimum budget of $50,000 and spend $25,000 in Oklahoma. The sunset date for the Oklahoma Film Enhancement Rebate Program is June 30, 2014, Kazemi reports. All available rebate monies have been allocated until this time. The Oklahoma Film & Music Office will work to extend this sunset date during the 2013 legislative session. More information is available at www.oklahomafilm.org.

If you are considering filming your next production in the state, Oklahoma has numerous production companies that can facilitate a project’s needs from pre- to post-production. As a state agency, Oklahoma Film & Music says it cannot highlight one particular company; however, a complete listing of production companies that have registered with the office is available on the organization’s website.

Scene from So This Is Christmas, featuring Eric Roberts, Vivica A. Fox, and Lexi Ainsworth  Photo: Foster Entertainment.
Scene from So This Is Christmas, featuring Eric Roberts, Vivica A. Fox, and Lexi Ainsworth Photo: Foster Entertainment.

Home Run is a story about a professional baseball player with a substance abuse problem. Photo: Home Run LLC
Home Run is a story about a professional baseball player
with a substance abuse problem.
Photo: Home Run LLC

As far as what’s been filming lately, Oklahoma Film & Music reports that in late September, production began on the film adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize winning play, August: Osage County. Produced by The Weinstein Company and directed by John Wells, the film – about a family that overcomes certain differences when their alcoholic patriarch goes missing – boasts an all-star cast including Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, and Sam Shepard.

Also, currently in production, are several independent films including The Jogger and Running Deer. Other recent productions include Thunderstruck with basketball star Kevin Durant, Just Crazy Enough with Chris Kattan, and Home Run with Scott Elrod, Dorian Brown and Charles Henry Wyson.

Texas: In the game a long time

From contemporary urban settings to ancient deserts, Texas locations have doubled for the American Midwest, Manhattan, Mexico, the Middle East and more. A number of recent productions are taking advantage of the state’s diverse geography and wide-open spaces. For example, the following movies and TV shows were recently filmed in the state:

  • Bernie (2011, Millennium Entertainment), with Jack Black, Matthew McConaughey, and Shirley McClaine
  • Dallas, TNT TV series starring the late Larry Hagman, and Josh Henderson and Jesse Metcalfe
  • The Lying Game, an ABC Family TV series with Alexandra Chando, Andy Buckley and Allie Gonino
  • A Night in Old Mexico (2013, VT Films), starring Robert Duvall, Jeremy Irvine and Angie Cepeda
  • Exists (2012, Spiderwood Studios), featuring Dora Madison Burge, Brian Steele and Samuel Davis
  • Prince Avalanche (2013, Muskat Filmed Properties), with Paul Rudd, Emile Hirsch and Lance LeGault
  • Top Chef, a popular reality TV series in its ninth season
  • When Angels Sing (2013, When Angels Sing), starring Harry Connick Jr., Connie Britton and Chandler Canterbury.
Cliff Barnes and Sue Ellen Ewing (Ken Kercheval and Linda Gray) at a downtown location for an episode of Dallas. Photo: TNT/Zade Rosenthal
Cliff Barnes and Sue Ellen Ewing (Ken Kercheval and
Linda Gray) at a downtown location for
an episode of Dallas.
Photo: TNT/Zade Rosenthal

The key word for Texas is “efficient,” says the Texas Film Commission. “In some states, incentives try to create a production industry where virtually none existed before,” said Carla Click, marketing director of the Commission (http://governor.state.tx.us/film). “But, Texas has been in the game a long time. Its assets include experienced crew, infrastructure, world-class support services and vendors, diverse and cost-effective locations, film friendly weather, and a tremendous track record. We see filmmakers and studios returning to Texas; and with features and televisions productions averaging 84 percent local crew hire, it means they know the quality that Texas and Texans have to offer.”

Indeed, since 1910 more than 1,800 projects have been made in Texas, including WINGS, the first film to win an Academy Award® for Best Picture, which was made in San Antonio in 1927. (A complete filmography is available from the Texas Film Commission’s website.) Perhaps this early success was the impetus for the state’s continued interest in attracting television and movie productions.

For instance, what Texas can offer financially these days is the opportunity to receive a payment of 5 percent to 25 percent for their eligible in-state spending upon completion of an audit of their Texas expenditures. Projects completing at least 25 percent of production days in underutilized or economically distressed areas of Texas are eligible to receive an additional 2.5 percent to 4.25 percent. Texas also offers up-front sales tax exemptions on most items rented or purchased for direct use in production, refunds of the 6-percent State Occupancy Tax on hotel rooms occupied for more than 30 consecutive days, and refunds on Fuel Tax paid on fuel used off-road.


January 17, 2013