Growing Mississippi Film Industry Lacks Workforce

JACKSON, Miss. – Charli Holbrook says she got mixed signals when she told people in her home state of Mississippi that she wanted to make movies for a living. Now in her second semester in the Howard University film graduate school, Holbrook recently returned home to show her short, “Perception,” at the Crossroads Film Festival in Jackson.

“I was very excited once I found that my film had been accepted,” said Holbrook, who today lives in Washington, D.C. “And when I got there, I got to meet a lot of professionals, and we networked, and it was just a good experience.”

Holbrook may move back to Mississippi someday, perhaps to start a film program at Jackson State University. She graduated from JSU with a mass communications degree emphasizing broadcast production.

She said she no longer thinks it’s absolutely necessary to leave Mississippi and attend a big school in order to succeed in film, but connections do help, and that’s an area where the state continues to lag.

Film and TV professionals say there is still a significant shortage of trained professionals to staff the projects attracted by Mississippi’s diverse locations and film incentive program, despite a growing number of higher education opportunities across the state.

The incentive program offered filmmakers a 20-percent rebate for local expenditures and non-resident payroll, and 25 percent in the case of a state resident cast and crew. In an expansion of the law pushed by Rep. Diane Peranich, D-Pass Christian, and signed by Gov. Haley Barbour on March 24, the program now increases those rebates by 5 percent each and covers both streaming video and Internet delivery as distribution methods, plus new technology areas such as animation and 3-D applications.

In addition to the incentive program, the networking opportunities at Crossroads and other film festivals are just a few of several bright spots for the industry in Mississippi.

One sign the state’s film industry is maturing is the soundstage set to open later this month in Canton.

To an industry outsider, Mississippi Film Studios just looks like an empty warehouse. But the 36,000-square-foot facility is filled with Hollywood amenities. It’s wired to handle the power demands of a studio set, has soundproofing along the 40-foot-high walls and pads outside to accommodate entertainers’ trailers.

The soundstage was originally built to shoot “A Time to Kill” in 1995, but since then it has been used for manufacturing by various companies. Recently, it was bought and upgraded by the Canton Film Office.

The state film incentive program was not used for its conversion back to a studio, but the existence of the incentives made the project more viable.

“It helped that there was a commitment by the state for the film industry and that they were willing to step up their program,”said Nick Smerigan, a partner in RoadTown Enterprises, a company that worked with the Canton Film Office to develop the soundstage.

Tupelo also has a production studio, recently converted from a furniture market.

“As far as all of the elements that a production company would need, those are there,” said Pat Rasberry, who leads the Tupelo Film Commission. “And it’s under one roof, so it allows a company to be able to keep all their people together and have lots of space.”

Rasberry said the studio, though not soundproofed, has several rooms for makeup, editing and other set needs and will soon have a screening room. Before it was transformed into a studio, the indie film “Chasing the White Dragon,” a movie about crystal methamphetamine use in a small town, used the furniture mart as a set when it was shot there in 2007 and 2008.

Though that film was the first to take advantage of the incentive program in the state, it had to bring in crew from across the country.

Lawmakers recently expanded the incentive program in order to fuel the industry’s growth, but the lack of a trained workforce holds the state back from maximizing the amount of dollars that stay here after a project wraps.

Producer Michael Barnathan ran into this challenge when hiring for “The Help,” which was filmed largely in Greenwood by a mostly out-of-state crew.

“We did hire as much local as we could,” said Barnathan, who used the state program for the project. “But there just isn’t that much crew that has that much experience, so you are limited by that. It’s not the kind of job that you can train on the job very well.”

He said the state’s rebate program will naturally grow the crew base over time, as similar programs have done in neighboring states, such as Louisiana and Georgia, which have also been aggressive in pursuing film companies.

“Without the incentives program, no one would be in Louisiana, in Michigan, in New Mexico,” Barnathan said.

Since the program began in 2004, Mississippi has issued $5,600,221 in rebates to 33 movie productions, said the state Department of Revenue. The agency doesn’t track the amount of revenue the program brings in, but industry professionals contacted said that film shoots benefit the surrounding community in a variety of ways. Crews buy meals and coffee, spend nights at hotels and buy construction materials to build sets and antique lamps or other objects to make the sets realistic.

In order to qualify for the program, productions have to spend at least $50,000 locally. That’s a relatively low number in the film world, enabling the state to attract made-for-TV movies or independent projects like the horror flick “Rites of Spring,” filmed over 18 days last year in an abandoned high school in Canton.

The production company, Red Planet Entertainment LLC, spent roughly $800,000 on the project, including on a hotel and local vendors for legal services, transportation and catering.

Spokeswoman Kathy Waterbury said the state Department of Revenue also is working to streamline the application process, but Angie Cayson, an aspiring filmmaker in Tupelo, says the process already seems pretty easy.

Cayson is the executive producer and co-writer of a Christian film that she plans to start shooting this fall. She is in the final stages of her application for the rebate.

“Just even having the incentive here, to me, is such a blessing to really help motivate people to use the gifts and talents that God put into them,” she said.

The upgraded program is expected to help attract some of the business that is currently going to surrounding states.

“Dollar for dollar, Mississippi is absolutely competitive,” said Jeremy Hariton, Smerigan’s partner in RoadTown Enterprises. “You know, the key for Mississippi is developing that business so that the ‘industry support’ things that our clients look for in the crew and the equipment and the soundstage … are all there.”

Wes Benton, president of Red Planet Entertainment, said the film incentive program is “probably the best in the country” because it’s a cash rebate, rather than a tax rebate.

“The investor gets his money back quicker,” Benton said.

Benton had to bring in some crew members from other states to work on “Rites of Spring,” but he’s currently working with partners across the state to promote the movie industry.

“Our goal is to create that workforce so that Mississippi realizes all the revenue potential of the films coming,” he said. He’s offering classes throughout the spring for aspiring lighting grips, assistant directors, production assistants and script supervisors.

In addition, Hinds Community College offers animation classes to high school students at its Rankin campus, and President Clyde Muse said the school may expand the curriculum to college-level students in a year or two. Ole Miss has recently begun offering an interdisciplinary film minor that includes coursework in cinema studies and production. And the University of Southern Mississippi offers a bachelor of arts in radio, television and film at its Gulf Park Campus in Long Beach.

Filmmakers usually have a natural incentive to use local crew, Benton said, because locals don’t need a per diem allowance for living expenses.

“Even that doesn’t always work out in Mississippi,” said Benton. “Because even if the expertise is in-state, there’s not a concentrated base of trained workers in any given place, so you’d have to bring them to wherever in the state you’re shooting.”