State leaders, industry professionals talk Mississippi Film Industry

Canton, Miss. (WJTV) — A local sound stage used to film high profile movies in Canton has closed its doors. This after the state Legislature failed to pass a law to give out of state production companies more tax rebates.

No lights, no camera, no action. “I’d be a little embarrassed to say exactly how much money I lost on it,” says Rick Moore, President of Mississippi Film Studios. “So I’m not going to say that.”

Moore, a producer with many credits to his name, leased the sound stage on Watford Parkway Drive in Canton. Three years after taking ownership, the 36,000 foot sound stage closed its doors at the end of September.

“The sound stage was a great investment at the time,” says Moore. “There was a lot of support from the government as well as private.”

But that changed in March when the Senate failed to pass House Bill 711 to extend an existing 25% tax rebate to filmmakers from out of state through 2020.

Moore says of the film industry in Mississippi, “We’re still in what we consider the startup phase of the industry and there’s a lot of expenses that come with a startup and that’s what the legislature was seeing, some of the expenses that were perhaps being incurred.”

But Senator Joey Fillingane, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, has a different perspective. While he had, in the past, supported the rebate, he didn’t this year because of state budget constraints.

Fillingane says, “We found that every dollar we were spending in the film tax rebate credit incentive package we were only getting 49 cents of that dollar back.”

He believes the money could be better spent, “It’s to do some workforce development in our community colleges to train folks to do actual technical film making and film production.”

Moore fears that without the incentive, big budget films are less likely to come to Mississippi.

“Matter of fact, I have crew right now that decided not to shoot in Mississippi because they couldn’t get enough incentives. They’re going to shoot in…I’m sending them to Serbia for a month and a half.”

The now shuttered sound stage is a sharp contrast to what we see happening in surrounding states. In Georgia, for instance, there is a 20% tax rebate that you get when you spend $500,000. There’s also tax credits for residents and non-residents of the state on payroll.

Similarly, in Louisiana, there’s a 40% incentive on productions that spend $300,000 in the state. You get an extra 15% when you hire Louisiana Residents.

“We were actually a cash rebate here which was more attractive than Louisiana in a lot of ways because they have tax credits,” says Moore. “Unfortunately, unless we were to bring the non-resident part of it back there’s just no catching up right now.”

There are other rebates for filmmakers. There’s a 25% rebate on any money you spend with Mississippi vendors and 30% for salaries for Mississippians. You get an extra 5% back for anyone you hire that’s a veteran. Those rebates apply to any production that spends at least $50,000 in the state.

Nina Parikh with the Mississippi Development Authority says MDA is focusing on local people.

“So that’s been a growing part of our market is seeing our local storytellers really having this opportunity because equipment is affordable. They’re getting their stories out there.”

MDA is also working to make sure Mississippians are hired for film jobs.

“I actually think the best indicator of how our industry has done over the years is our Mississippi salaries,” says Parikh. “In 2012, we estimated $600,000 in salaries spent with Mississippians and by 2016 it was $6.6 million.”

Earlier this month, Governor Phil Bryant walked the red carpet at the premiere of ‘Same Kind of Different As Me.’ The movie was filmed in Mississippi, shot on the sound stage in Canton and stars Renee Zellweger.

“It’s just like a can breathe when I land in Jackson. I never want to leave,” said Zellweger at the movie premiere.

“Last year we made about 15 movies, the year before that about 19,” says Governor Bryant. “So we incentivize movies to come here and they have the perfect state. There’s everything from an ocean to the Mississippi Delta to Jackson, where you can come and help do this.”

While we wait to see how many people come from other places without the rebate in place, there’s a confidence that Mississippians, at least, will continue to create.

Two films, one in the Delta and one on the coast, just wrapped production. Two TV shows are currently filming in Mississippi.

The sound stage may be used again someday and Rick Moore will move on, “Now I can get back to what I really want to do which is make movies myself. That’s what I got in the business for. Not just to cater to the masses but to create content that gets people excited and I think we’re in a really good place to do that.”

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