Film incentives can mean big gains for Mississippi towns

By Laura Tillman/The Associated Press

GREENWOOD — In 2009, a group of filmmakers descended on Greenwood, looking for potential locations for their adaptation of the bestselling novel “The Help.” As they drove through the Mississippi town, they watched the homes and haunts of the book’s characters spring up before them.

Thanks to the determination of the filmmakers, the project was eventually filmed in the Delta town. But first, Mississippi had to beat out neighboring Louisiana for the business. That state has one of the country’s most aggressive film incentive programs, an approach that’s spawned a deep infrastructure of production crews, equipment suppliers, studios and actors.

Studio films cost millions to make and create a tizzy of purchases, from construction supplies to caterers to hotel rooms. It’s no wonder states around the country use tax incentives to tempt studios, hoping the influx of cash will ultimately reward their investment. Mississippi has slowly worked to expand its incentives over the past decade. Now, a new bill would allow the state to offer more money to individual productions and give back more cash for salaries. Supporters hope the legislation will ultimately lure bigger-budget films to the state and make it more competitive with Louisiana and other states that offer incentives.

Mississippi offers up to $20 million in cash rebates to motion picture productions per year, a maximum that would remain the same under the new bill. But rebates toward salaries would be raised from $1 million to $5 million, and the total rebate for a production would be raised from $8 million to $10 million.

The rebates are calculated as a percentage of production costs, including the salaries of production staff. The salaries of Mississippi residents are eligible for a 30 percent rebate, while non-residents are eligible for a 25 percent rebate. The new bill would give back an additional 5 percent if the employee is a veteran. A production must spend at least $50,000 in base investment or payroll to qualify.

The efficacy of the incentives is contested. Studies pile up on the desk of Mississippi Film Office Director Ward Emling. Some argue that the rewards of incentives are fickle and fleeting, the money disappearing as soon as a production leaves town. Others, like a 2012 report by accounting firm Ernst & Young, argue that the incentives must be studied over a period of many years, looking at the indirect ways films benefit communities through tourism and job creation.

“I would think that, just like any industry, you have to take the long view,” Emling said.

“The Help,” the biggest-budget film to shoot in Mississippi since incentive programs came en vogue, was shot in Greenwood thanks largely to the efforts of a few determined natives. Director Tate Taylor and producer Brunson Green are both Mississippians, as is author Kathryn Stockett. Bill Crump, the chair of Greenwood’s economic development nonprofit, raised $50,000 to lure the film to town. That money paled in comparison to the savings in Louisiana, but it was a good-faith gesture that gave the city a boost.

Emling and Taylor hope that by raising the salary reimbursement cap from $1 million to $5 million, Mississippi would attract larger films, since Hollywood stars earn bigger paychecks.

“Mississippi has a great chance to do something with this legislation,” said Taylor, “so people don’t have to struggle the way I did.”

The impact of “The Help” is clear in Greenwood. The cast and crew ate daily at local restaurants, including the Delta Bistro, where sales nearly doubled. They stayed in hotels like the Alluvian, and frequented local bars and grocery stores. They bought set supplies at antique shops and home improvement stores. They also employed local people for jobs in catering, sign-making and as extras.

Even those who didn’t receive money directly from the hands of the cast and crew benefited from the sudden influx of cash, symbolized by the ubiquity of the $50 bills used to pay per diems.

“There was just money floating around,” said Cale Ainsworth, owner of Ainsworth Sign Co. “If it hadn’t been for the movie, 2010 was not going to be a banner year.” Ainsworth said he made around 100 signs for the movie, including several that continue to hang in the Fondren neighborhood of Jackson, where a few of the film’s scenes were shot.

Over the course of the shoot, Crump estimates Greenwood reaped $13 million of the film’s $25 million budget. The city still gets many visitors who take tours of the locations and enroll in “The Help” themed cooking classes at the Viking Cooking School.

At the end of the production, the Economic Development Council raised $30,000 from the cast and crew to help the historically black neighborhood of Baptist Town, where the scenes featuring the homes of the maids were filmed. An additional $150,000 was raised for the cause during a premiere in Madison, Miss, which will go toward the construction of a new community center. Baptist Town remains the impoverished neighborhood it appears to be on film. The house that served as the main character Abilene’s home is boarded over and covered with graffiti.

Crump said that if states look at the economic impact of a film on a macro-level, they may be hard-pressed to find a bump. It’s the local story that’s evident.

The filmmakers behind “The Help” aren’t alone in their appreciation of Mississippi’s potential. Film festivals are mushrooming around the state, and in recent years the incentives have drawn a number of films with smaller but substantial budgets, like James Franco’s adaptation of “As I Lay Dying,” based on the book by William Faulkner. Director Wes Benton recently committed to shooting three films here in the next two years. Director Daniel Zirilli, who completed the forthcoming “Blunt Force” last year, plans to return to shoot in Mississippi again.

“In New Orleans, people are kind of sick of film production. They tend to jack the prices up because they can. I want to pay a fair price for what I get,” Zirilli said.

Zirilli and other filmmakers marveled at the freshness of Mississippi’s locations. Directors accustomed to shooting in California and New Orleans are excited to find locations that have never been shot before. This is especially evident in “The Help,” where the inimitable landscape and characters’ homes take center stage.

Emling said none of this would be possible without the incentives. Even the producers of “The Help,” who were incredibly committed to filming in Mississippi, said they would not have shot the movie here without the state’s incentive program.

“Not a chance,” Taylor said.