Despite Arkansas’ tax incentives and abundant natural resources, many big-budget Hollywood films are being made elsewhere. Now, the state is looking to a new grass-roots approach in attracting filmmakers.
Photographs courtesy of Arkansas Economic Development Commission and Arkansas Secretary of State
One evening in March, the lights came up at the Riverdale 10 Cinema in Little Rock. A red carpet unfurled and the movie God’s Not Dead 2 premiered, weeks ahead of wide release. Local television news covered the event. Actress Melissa Joan Hart, director Harold Cronk and many others attended. The film had been shot in Little Rock over the prior summer and included many locals as extras. As the sequel to a surprise hit that grossed more than $60 million, the film and its Arkansas scenery are sure to gain attention worldwide.
This, no doubt, was the kind of thing anticipated in 2009, when the state Legislature passed a bill approving a state rebate of 15 percent (raised to 20 percent in 2013) of qualified expenses to making a movie in Arkansas. An extra 10 percent is available to projects using local crews.
But, other than God’s Not Dead 2 and 2012’s Mud (which was made by native son Jeff Nichols), Hollywood has not exactly beaten down our door to make movies in Arkansas. A study by FilmL.A. Inc., a nonprofit industry group, showed that of the 106 “big-budget” movies released in 2014, none were made in Arkansas. Louisiana, by comparison, had five. This raises an important question: What exactly are the incentive’s goals, and is it meeting them?
Pay to Play
In the spring and summer of 2015, Arkansas-based screenwriter Graham Gordy drove long, lonely miles in his pickup truck. The commute between his North Little Rock home and New Orleans, where his new television series, Quarry, was being made, was at least eight hours each way. He listened to music, podcasts, anything to make the clock tick. But, it was still exhausting, and there had been a time when he thought it wouldn’t be necessary at all.
“When we were looking for a place to shoot the pilot…we came to Tennessee and to Arkansas and to Louisiana and took a van around to look for the best locations, and really kind of settled on Arkansas,” Gordy said. Subsequent talks between HBO and the state on an incentive package for the series seemed to go well. A Little Rock base for the project looked like it was going to happen.
“We were really, really hoping,” Gordy said. “My wife’s here, my family’s here, my kids go to school here. And I want to be home…as much as possible and do as much work here as possible.”
He acknowledged a selfish angle to his motives, to the extent that wanting to work near your family can be called selfish. But it’s also more than that.
“We looked at Quarry as a really solid opportunity,” he added, “because it would be an opportunity to build a structure. You would have a network funneling literally tens of millions of dollars into the state every year, building a sound stage…building a crew base here, giving local crew opportunities to train on the job. And then, all of a sudden, you would see what you have now in places like New Orleans and Atlanta…where you have people that are practicing the crew jobs that they want to do, and they’re in key positions and they don’t have to leave home.
“Because right now, most of the [Arkansas] young people that are interested in film, a huge percentage of them, if they want to work on film sets, they go to Louisiana or they go to Georgia, if they don’t go to LA.”
There’s a counterargument to that: the cost to taxpayers. Arkansas might like to have the number of Hollywood projects that, for instance, Louisiana attracts with a lavish tax credit that reimburses film productions up to 40 percent of their costs. But, faced with a state budget severely in the red, Louisiana has had to re-evaluate those programs, and has already imposed an annual cap on redeeming the credits.
Furthermore, in Louisiana, much of the argument for subsidizing film rested on a theory that having the state on the silver screen would inspire more tourism. But, where a film is set and where it is produced are not the same. And, the FilmL.A. study found that in 2013 and 2014, out of $260 million Louisiana incentives given, $223 million went to films not even set in the Bayou State.
In 1983, Arkansas became one of the first states to offer a financial incentive for films. The “nickel rebate” gave filmmakers with a budget of $1 million or more a state rebate of 5 cents for every dollar spent in the state. It worked, with the acclaimed 1984 film A Soldier’s Story being made here. But, it also helped kick off a national bidding war.
States began competing to offer Hollywood the best financial deal in exchange for film projects. Soon Arkansas’ nickel rebate was no longer competitive. States that passed the most generous incentives, such as Louisiana, drew the most projects. Whether those projects are worth the cost to taxpayers is debatable. But, the incentives are driven by more than financial considerations. The glamour factor plays a role. After all, who doesn’t get excited knowing a future Hollywood blockbuster is being made close to home?
At any rate, in 2009 and 2013, Arkansas upped its incentive. But, getting Hollywood’s attention today has become a pay-to-play game. You need something to offer just to get in the conversation. That does not, however, guarantee that your state will win projects, as the loss of Quarry shows.
As Arkansas film commissioner, Christopher Crane is the state’s point man for nurturing film and television projects. He said that, on balance, the current incentive package is having an impact.
“We’ve had, certainly, growth in the industry as a whole,” he said. “We get more and more inquiries now every day. We’ve had some really good films made here because of the incentive program. And, we’ve had some films that have gone other places because of the incentive program…we have some surrounding states that offer more incentives. And, if [filmmakers] can get away without our lovely topography, they go for the money.”
That’s what happened with Quarry. “We actually had that here,” Crane said of the series, set to air this summer on HBO’s Cinemax. “We scouted, we did everything. It was ours.”
He and others fought “tooth and nail” to craft an incentive package that HBO could accept. Unfortunately, HBO also wanted the incentive structure to be guaranteed out for several years, in case the series continued. With an outgoing administration — that of Gov. Mike Beebe — and a state fiscal process that prioritizes and funds spending each year as revenues allow, it was more than Crane could do. The deal collapsed.
The loss of Quarry, Crane said, broke his heart. But, he has bounced back, and is now focusing efforts on a more manageable size of fish.
“I’ll be really honest with you,” he said. “Studios aren’t where our game is right now…. We chase independent producers. And I’m in talks with independent producers all of the time…. I think that really is the model that we can afford to play in right now. The studios crank out those huge-budget features, [but] we would do one picture and be done for a couple of years, just because it would cost so much [in incentives].”
He added that another drawback of major productions is that most of their teams come in from Los Angeles. Whereas with smaller-budget features like God’s Not Dead 2, locals get more work.
“And so, it really is better, right now, for our crew base and our artisans, to work in that independent model so that they can get the credits, and also so that they can get the work that they deserve,” Crane said. “And, that’s not saying we wouldn’t look at a big-budget [project], but that’s like using a 10-pound test line to catch a marlin.”
In other words, a budget-minded approach to the film incentives game cannot be expected to land huge Hollywood projects, as long as there are states that are willing, in Crane’s words, to “shell it out.”
But, that needn’t stop Arkansas from nurturing its film industry with more of a grass-roots, rather than top-down, approach.
A Grass-Roots Approach
Larry Foley is a documentary filmmaker and journalism professor at the University of Arkansas. He has won five Emmy awards, and his recent film The First Boys of Spring, about the history of baseball spring training in Hot Springs, premiered at the 2015 Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival. It has now aired on public television and the Major League Baseball Network. While state incentives don’t play a big role in his world — where grants from philanthropic organizations are more common — Foley said that Arkansas has plenty of features that make it fertile ground for film.
“The great thing about being here in Arkansas and doing a film is that we have rich cultures,” he said. “It’s not one culture. We have everything from urban populations, to people who live on the Delta, to folks who people in other places in the world might call hillbillies. We have farm families — small farms and big farms…. And, the geography is diverse here, from the mountains to the plains to the prairies to the pine belt. We don’t have oceans, but we have rivers and lakes. And, we have four seasons.”
Because of these “built in” advantages, Foley said that nonfiction filmmaking in Arkansas is “vibrant,” if a little under the radar compared to Hollywood productions.
“You may not see us out there because we typically travel in small groups, and we’re not bringing in tons and tons of equipment,” he explained. “But, if you watch AETN or go to [film festivals around the state], you’ll see that there are filmmakers working out there, sometimes in total obscurity, until they come out with their films.”
This idea of local, organic filmmaking has also occurred to Gordy. He has a new plan that he hopes will allow him to work closer to home in the future. It involves a smaller-budget (under $1 million) feature titled Antiquities, a comedy that Gordy co-wrote with Daniel Campbell. They have been bringing on investors in hopes of going into production — in Arkansas, of course — by this fall.
Gordy said it’s the kind of movie that, if successful, could earn investors a return on their money. At that point, it would become what he called “the first brick” in an Arkansas-based production company, “where we start doing as many films as we can.”
“We have all the talent in the world here in the state,” he said. “And we could, with the exception of just a couple of keys, crew the entire film with Arkansans. So that’s really the goal now…. If I get an opportunity to get another TV show or something like that in Arkansas, then I’m sure gonna try. But, for the moment, because of what the incentive is, I feel like that’s the best way to go about it.”
In Louisiana, the film industry is known as “Hollywood South,” for its incentive-driven pipeline to Tinseltown. By way of comparison, the path now being explored in the Natural State by people like Gordy, Foley and Crane might be termed “Arkansas-Centric.” In the short run, it may not generate as much glitz and flash. But, in the long run, it might nurture a film industry that is more authentically our own.