The South on the Prowl

Why are productions like "The Hunger Games," Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" and Showtime's "Homeland" all heading south? At the AFCI Locations Show, states like Louisiana, North Carolina and Virginia are raising the competitive bar.

Among the 40 states with incentive programs, contingents from the South will be promoting themselves especially aggressively at the Association of Film Commissioners International Locations Show, taking place at the Los Angeles Convention Center on June 15 and 16. Following on the success of films such as The Help and The Hunger Games, states from Mississippi to North Carolina are in Hollywood to make sure they maximize awareness of programs designed to bring shoots home.

Acknowledging a Southern strategy, Aaron Syrett, director of the film office in North Carolina, where The Hunger Games was shot, says, "They believe in the motion picture industry, and they go out aggressively."

After a decade of intense work, Louisiana is the leader in the South -- and the U.S. -- in offering a basket of incentives that has helped bring a steady flow of films, resulting in a trained workforce and the construction of studios and soundstages. Big-budget movies like Battleship, Green Lantern and the upcoming Tom Cruise sci-fi tale Oblivion all have set up camp there.

Florida and Georgia rank second and third in the region, with Mississippi, Alabama and others working to be more competitive.

"Suddenly, the South went from being a nice also-ran to being one of the top places to film," says AFCI executive director Martin Cuff. "I hear repeatedly when I am in Los Angeles about crewmembers moving their families there because they can sustain themselves in a meaningful way."

North Carolina has had an active industry since the 1980s -- partially because it is a right-to-work state that can offer lower labor costs -- but it was one of many states that had a slump in the late 1990s, when Canada and other countries began to offer bigger incentives and cheaper currencies.

About two years ago, North Carolina began to get its mojo back. In 2007, the state passed legislation to make its incentives more competitive. And, says Syrett, by 2010, the effects were apparent: Film and TV productions spent $70 million in the state that year. In 2011, that jumped to $242 million. And for 2012, which is only half over, the number is already more than $275 million, thanks to movies like Iron Man 3, which has just begun filming, and the Showtime series Homeland.

Before the revamp, movies earned a 15 percent tax credit in North Carolina and had to pay state income tax. Now, the incentive is 25 percent with no income tax. The credit cap on individual projects also was raised from $7.5 million to $20 million. "It really changed the behavior of filmmakers," says Syrett.

Mississippi, riding high after the surprise success of The Help in summer 2011, has raised its annual cap for movie and TV incentives to $20 million and opened its first full-service studio. On May 25, the governor signed a law expanding workforce training for the film industry from one community college to four throughout the state.

"We've been moving forward on a steady, measured basis, improving incentives and creating other options," says Ward Emling, film commissioner for Mississippi, which has attracted a lot of smaller indie pics. "The Southern states have always been strong locations. … Now, we are looking to do everything we can to make those jobs as permanent as you can in this industry."

In May, Tennessee raised the percentage of tax credits on budgets above $1 million from about 15 percent to 25 percent, streamlining its program.

Virginia's film industry for years has focused on commercials and industrials (especially military work) in addition to movies and TV. It also has promoted the many historical sites within its borders, attracting projects like HBO's John Adams.

Even though other states offer larger tax incentives, Steven Spielberg chose to shoot his movie Lincoln -- set for release in December -- in Virginia because of its Civil War battlefields. "Spielberg, who loves authenticity, was able to set some things in or around places where they actually happened," says Mary Nelson, communications manager at the Virginia Film Office and AFCI president. "So it was sort of a magical quality that brought him here."

The various states will be competing for attention at this year's Locations Show, which has added about 50 panel discussions dedicated to film commissions and locations.

The show also is making a move. Although it was incorporated into the Producer's Guild's Produced By Conference in 2011, the two sides decided it wasn't a good fit. At Produced By, commission clients who were not producers didn't want to pay the cost or couldn't get in because the event was sold out.

This year, the Locations Show is free to anyone in the industry, and Cuff predicts it will draw about 3,000 attendees.

AFCI also has found a new partner in Film Independent and its Los Angeles Film Festival, which runs concurrently with the Locations Show. Filmmakers who come to downtown Los Angeles to see movies at L.A. Live's Regal Cinemas will be encouraged to trek to the nearby Convention Center.

"A lot of filmmakers aren't as knowledgeable about incentives as they should be," says Josh Welsh, co-president of Film Independent. "This is a great opportunity to offer value to the filmmakers at the festival and to bring more of the international community to our festival."

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AFCI Locations Show
WHEN:
June 15 and 16
WHERE: Los Angeles Convention Center

DON'T-MISS PANELS

  • L.A. Film Fest/AFCI Keynote: Cinedigm CEO Chris McGurk will argue that digital creates new avenues of distribution and offers new ways to monetize movies.
  • The Future of Film Finance: THR's Alex Ben Block will moderate a discussion with attorney Allan Kassirer, financial adviser Hal Sadoff and others about new developments in venture capital, crowd sourcing and foreign presales.
  • Getting the Most Out of Your Creative Team: The Location Managers Guild brings together craftspeople from such films as X-Men, Hugo and The Bourne Legacy to discuss how to create value on the screen, moderated by THR film editor Gregg Kilday.
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