Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, July 7, 2023

We oughta be in more pictures

Why Tennessee trails Georgia, other states in film productions

On the surface, serving as executive director of the Tennessee Entertainment Commission sounds like a glamorous job. Rubbing elbows with famous musicians and actors, attending red-carpet galas and such.

Those are the perks, but take it from Bob Raines, who holds the high-profile state-level position, it’s work. A career he loves but it’s work nonetheless. Raines sees his job as simply helping secure jobs for those in Tennessee’s booming entertainment industry.

“I tell people all the time (when) they say ‘wow, that is a great job’ that I get to work with this community because I love this community,” Raines says. “I really do have a passion for it or I wouldn’t have stayed if I did not see the value, did not have the passion for working with this community.

“But it is no way glamorous. And it is thankless because nobody’s ever happy with what you’re doing. So it’s not glamorous at all.”

On the positive side, it does produce glamorous numbers. In 2021, the statewide entertainment industry delivered an estimated $751 million in gross state product and produced more than $483 million in new earnings for Tennesseans, TEC report from September reveals.

Raines offers more eye-opening figures that his office helped create for the state’s entertainment industry.

For 2022, he says, the total economic output was $367 million with a direct impact of 4,151 new production days in all areas of statewide entertainment. And in the 12 years that he’s helmed the TEC, Raines says his office produced over $1 billion in economic output and supported over 2,000 projects in that span.

Raines then adds another job description word.

“At the end of the day, I know that it’s purposeful and I know that it has value and that’s why I do it – just because it’s purposeful. It has value and I know that we have this amazing creative class here and I don’t want to see them have to go to other places to do their work,” he states. “That’s what I strive for and try to accomplish.”

Creating jobs top priority

Yet for all those financial achievements, people wonder why Tennessee isn’t landing tentpole film projects like Georgia (412 projects in 2022), North Carolina, Louisiana, Oklahoma and other states. You know, all those big-budget Marvel movies that are filmed in Atlanta. Maybe an Academy Award contender.

And questions come not only from the public but also industry insiders.

“I think there’s a misunderstanding within the entertainment community about what we do at times,” Raines says. “Our main mission, what our goal is, is that we really strive to increase high-quality job opportunities for Tennessee’s creative class here in the state. We work through the Department of Economic and Community Development. Their agendas and priorities are job creation. We, of course, work in the entertainment sector of a much larger, diverse economic landscape across our state.

“We’re here to help promote and implement any programmatic initiatives through our office that really help to reinforce the state as a relevant market for production and development of multimedia entertainment properties here for the state. Our key focus is always going to be on how we are retaining and developing our creative class.”

That strategy’s working. That 2022 report states that from 2014-2022, Tennessee’s employment in motion picture and video production grew 82%, ranking No. 1 nationally in music employment and No. 5 in entertainment production behind California, New York, Georgia and Florida.

Following an April visit to the new Worldwide Stages production facility in Spring Hill, TNECD commissioner Stuart McWhorter noted that “Tennessee is home to a thriving entertainment industry and we support companies such as Worldwide Stages that invest in growing our state’s footprint in entertainment.”

McWhorter, Raines and other state officials were there during Nashville-area production of the Nicole Kidman thriller “Holland, Michigan” for Amazon’s Prime Video, due out in mid-September.

Raines says he wants state officials to see for themselves “what kind of impact (film production) has, how many jobs it creates and give them the visuals.

“These are Tennesseans and they are working just like any other industry. They are trying to cultivate careers just like any other industry. It’s no different than any other industry that we service and invest in here in our state. That’s part of my job … to say this is worth investing in.

“Keeping our creative talent and our creative class in our state is worth investing in because it diversifies our economic landscape. And the more diversified economic landscape you have within your ecosystem, the better and more stable you are as a community.”

Made in Tennessee

They may not be tentpole projects, but you’ve probably seen or at least heard of some of the TV ahows and films shot in Tennessee. Memphis and Knoxville have been hotbeds in recent years, partly because both of those cities have film offices working alongside TEC to recruit projects.

The NBC show “Young Rock,” recently canceled after its third season, starred Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson. Its first two seasons filmed in Australia, but the final season was shot in Memphis thanks to a combination of not only state incentives but also a $1.25 million incentives package from the Economic Development Growth Engine (EDGE) for Memphis and Shelby County for parent company NBCUniversal.

Knoxville’s film office has stayed busy, with the faith-based movie “Nothing Is Impossible” that premiered on Pure Flix last October. A number of thrillers shot in the Knoxville area the past few years, plus shows like “Chopped” and “Kids Baking Championship” that air on Warner Bros. Discovery channel Food Network.

“Those were produced here, and we brought those from California, Louisiana and we brought one from New York, I think,” Raines says. “With Paramount, we did ‘A Nashville Country Christmas.’ We brought (‘Young Rock’) from Australia. These are all shows that we were bringing from other places and utilizing the tax credit as a method to attract them here.”

Raines’ office worked with Apple Studios to land “My Kind of Country,” a country music competition that taped primarily in Nashville with Kacey Musgraves and Reese Witherspoon as executive producers. It’s available on Apple TV+.

Those are the type projects that Nashville is seeking after Mayor John Cooper signed off on creation of the Nashville Music, Film and Entertainment Commission. Fifteen industry leaders have been appointed, and the search for a director is underway.

District 15 Metro Councilman Jeff Syracuse hopes Nashville’s film office will be as successful as those in Knoxville and Memphis.

“(Raines has) kind of served as the de facto Nashville representative, if you will, of film projects that come through his office at the state level,” says Syracuse, who is running for an at-large council seat in the August election. “Having this office at a local level will hopefully be a little more conducive of him having a direct connection here and being able to work more closely together.”

Raines says he expects the Nashville Music, Film, and Entertainment Commission “to be a great, additional asset to our state in developing the workforce here and developing projects here.

“We have partners in Memphis, we have partners in Knoxville. Now this office – when it opens up – it’ll help sort of fulfill all three grand divisions of our state to where we have people and boots on the ground that can help us to distribute information quickly and be able to enhance our recruitment abilities as we move forward.

“I look at this (Nashville) office the same way that I work with my other offices regionally. I look at (Nashville) as partners. We need to work together on production recruitment and that can mean incentives … and whether or not Nashville – the city – wants to cultivate additional incentives to help them compete against Memphis or Knoxville, or to enhance the competitiveness against other states to bring stuff here. And that could be through one element that we will partner on, is the incentives.”

Over the decades, a number of high-profile movies and TV projects have filmed across the state, often in multiple cities. Memphis stood tall in “The Firm” and “Walk the Line.” Curiously, the 2022 movie about Memphis’ most famous citizen, Elvis, was filmed in Australia.

There was both the “Nashville” movie and “Nashville” TV series, and “The Last Castle,” “Last Dance” and “The Green Mile” all used the old Tennessee State prison for its setting. “The Last Movie Star” shot in Knoxville, and the Jackie Robinson biopic “42” shot in Chattanooga and border states.

MovieMaker magazine’s list of “Best Places to Live and Work as a MovieMaker” has included Knoxville and Memphis in multiple years.

“We are so proud of the thriving local film and television community and are looking forward to continuing to support them,” Curt Willis, director of the Visit Knoxville Film Office said in 2020.

Memphis has made that list 14 times.

“It’s no surprise that time and time again, Memphis is winning kudos as a film-friendly, top choice for production,” Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said in January about the “Young Rock” project.

Raines says the future looks bright for more top-shelf projects in Tennessee.

“My insight is that things will continue to move once the writers’ strike has been resolved, which we hope will be resolved very soon. Then I think a lot of these productions will start to immediately come back online,” Raines says, adding that while he can’t reveal future projects, they are being produced “by well-known studios. They have good casts attached to them and they will provide us a very significant economic impact to our state once they arrive.”

How the incentives work

Raines explains how Tennessee’s tax structure “is just different” than other states that bring in tentpole projects.

“All these tax credits are all based on what your state’s tax system has in place. We don’t have a transferable system. So there is no transferable system that exists in the state,” Raines says, noting that the incentives program was upgraded significantly in 2019 with a two-tier system designed to attract bigger projects while supporting local projects with smaller budgets.

Tier 1 projects typically have a budget of between $500,000 and $2 million. Raines says 27 independent projects qualified for the TEC’s 25% grant in 2022.

“We put that in place and looked at focusing that on recruitment and retaining local and competitive independent projects,” Raines explains. “That’s what that grant is basically focused on, is helping develop local independent producers here in the state – that they have access to these types of grants so they can develop and do their project here.

“We see locally developed productions that originate or are associated with producers here, they help create more IP ownership here. They also help to encourage entry level opportunities. We usually see a higher percentage of locals that are hired for getting independent productions that are developed here and are offered more on-the-job training.”

The Tier 2 incentive program – a 40% jobs tax credit enabled by the Franchise & Excise Tax – has opened Tennessee’s door to major studio projects.

“We took a look at maybe another direction that we could go that might have the same outcomes but be structured within our current tax system. And that’s Tier 2, our tax credit which is really focused on attracting high-impact production,” Raines notes.

“And how we do this is a 40% to 50% credit on payroll expenses for a production. That can be above the line, that can be below the line, (but) the productions have to hire at least 70% Tennesseans (as crew).”

That strategy has attracted media conglomerates like Comcast (which owns NBCUniversal), Amazon, Apple, Warner Bros. Discovery and Paramount to Tennessee.

“Over the last five years, a lot of major conglomerates have bought content creation companies,” Raines says. “So, for example, Comcast owns NBCUniversal. Amazon owns Amazon Studios. These companies have a presence here in our state and they produce something called a franchise and excise tax liability here in our state. And some of the companies produced tens of millions of dollars in these franchise excise tax liabilities.

“What the new law that we created two years ago, the law that we created enabled a company like NBCUniversal to generate the 40% tax credit. “It’s a 10% additional uplift (to 50%) if they hire residents only from (economically distressed) counties.

“It allows them to … generate very generous incentives for their payroll and then they basically pass it to Comcast. And the company, which is the company here, uses it for their franchise excise tax liability. The tax credit is very appealing to companies that exist here in this state, have a tax liability here in the state and have a subsidiary that creates content.”

Constantly explaining incentives

Asked how many times he’s had to explain the incentives program, Raines laughs.

“Oh gosh. Thousands.” He laughs again. “Every conversation I have. Every conversation I’ll have today. So, five days a week for 52 weeks a year over 12 years. That’ll give you probably a good estimate of how many times I’ve actually done that because I hear them every day.”

Appointees to the new Nashville Music, Film and Entertainment Commission are encouraged by what the state incentives bring.

“There are lots of states that don’t have income tax that get really good production work happening – Texas, for instance,” says Stephanie Silverman, executive director of Nashville’s Belcourt Theater. “It’s a matter of looking nationally at the model, working collaboratively with the state. And Bob’s going to be a great partner.”

Ken Levitan, founder and co-president of Vector Management, says attracting projects to the state “takes incentives, which is an important thing. That’s how a lot of these places have really developed. Nashville has a step up on it because they do have services here because a lot of videos and some TV work that is done here. That’s a natural plus in that.

“But a lot of these Hollywood companies and other companies look for what the incentives are. And you’re competing off that because budgets are tight. If you look at what’s happening with GSP’s (Gross State Products) right now, they’ve really cut their budgets. They’re looking for as much of that incentive-wise as they can.”

Hazel Joyner-Smith, founder/CEO of the International Black Film Festival, says Raines “has done a great job in pushing the incentive packages and showing us what can happen for the city and surrounding areas when we take full advantage of what film, TV and other forms of media bring to the city.”

Academy Award-winning screenwriter Tom Schulman, a Nashville native, says his hometown can someday be a player for major projects with the right incentives and facilities in place.

“Absolutely. More than anything, it’s the tax incentives that lure people to these states. But Nashville’s big enough,” says Schulman, who won the 1989 Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for “Dead Poets Society.” “You need caterers, production facilities and things like that but that infrastructure will come if movies come.

“I think movies will come if Tennessee were to put in a tax incentive that was at least close to what Georgia or North Carolina or New Mexico have. The production companies look at that first, really. Then they figure out how to massage the locations based on that. But yeah, Tennessee’s got everything that it would need to be a hub,” adds Schulman, a member of the WGA’s strike negotiating committee.

From Raines’ point of view, it seems Tennessee is already an entertainment hub.

“The entertainment industry – film, television and music – it produces $6.3 billion across the state in economic output. That’s jobs and investment into our state and it generates $365 million a year in tax revenue, which goes to all Tennesseans,” Raines says.

“And so, it’s not just this thing centered in Nashville, Tennessee. This thing does impact our greater Tennessee economy.”