Local filmmakers aim to boost film industry in Mississippi

Published 12:01 am Monday, February 19, 2018

NATCHEZ — A local filmmaker said he is spending hundreds of thousands of extra dollars just to film in Natchez rather than going right across the Mississippi River.

As the film crew of the upcoming Blumhouse Productions horror film “Ma” shot a scene earlier this week inside Bowie’s Tavern, producer John Norris spoke on he and director Tate Taylor’s hopes to build up the film industry in their home state of Mississippi.

As part of that effort, they brought this film to Natchez despite the extra cost incurred due to a state legislative change last year.

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The new legislation eliminated a cash rebate on 25 percent of salaries paid to non-Mississippi residents on projects with a budget of more than $50,000, with a cap at $10 million. On July 1, 2017, that incentive disappeared.

The reason for the change cited by Lt. Governor Tate Reeves and others was that some indications pointed toward a low return on taxpayer investment in the film industry.

A study conducted by the Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review (PEER) contended that the film industry returned 49 cents on the dollar.

Norris said those who supported nixing the incentive had a valid argument for their concern about taxpayer money flowing out of the state, but he said the lack of this incentive makes filming in the state more costly.

“The most expensive portion of any movie is the crew,” Norris said. “And it’s really expensive if you have to bring people in, because you have to travel them, you have to pay them per diems — all of this.

“It’s three times as expensive to shoot a movie in any location where you have to bring the crew in.”

And without the non-resident incentive, Norris said he and Taylor had to take a hit to film in Natchez rather than just taking a trip across the Mississippi River bridge.

“It costs me $400,000 more to shoot the movie in Natchez than it does in Vidalia,” Norris said. “But we’re still here.”

Norris said bearing that cost is possible for this relatively low-budget film, but likely not so much for a high-tier film with a budget in the millions.

A bill to resurrect the non-resident incentive for films currently sits on the desk of the state Senate Finance Committee. An amended version of House Bill 1132 passed the House on Feb. 8 by a vote of 89 yeas to 24 nays. Norris commended Gov. Phil Bryant and House Speaker Phillip Gunn for their “instrumental role” in bringing the bill to this point.

Norris added that he, Taylor and the Mississippi Film and Video Alliance have worked to implement safeguards that would prevent Mississippi tax dollars leaving the state going forward.

The producer said he sees the legislation as crucial to bolstering the film industry in Mississippi to the point where the state can become the site of filming for a television series.

“That’s been the goal,” Norris said. “We’re trying to bring a TV show here and get Mississippi to a place where the industry exists enough that we can have a television show here.

“That’s the goal, and we’re ready to do it. We were ready to do it this year, but this incentive is crucial.”

Norris encouraged those in support of the bill to call their state lawmakers and voice their opinions.