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Mississippi holds film summit

July 14, 2011

Oxford Town – The unveiling of the new Canton facility for filmmaking last week along with a day-long summit on the business of film in Mississippi brought a lot of promise of a spotlight on the industry in this state.

I had the opportunity to take part in the panel sitting on the Mississippi Production Case Studies to discuss filming “Where I Begin” in Oxford last year on an ultra-low budget. More interesting to me was those on my panel and what they had to say: Sonya Lunsford, producer of “The Help,” Wes Benton, producer/director of “Rites of Spring” and Rick Moore of “Big Bad.”

Benton and Moore are two of the examples of strong filmmaking coming into this state. Moore is a long time user of the film incentive and Benton brought his production company to the state a few years ago. However, the two are just a small part of the puzzle that makes up the filmmaking community in Mississippi.

Lunsford is part of the project that fought to get made in our state and showed the state politicians just how much of an economic gain could be made through filmmaking here. With over $300 million put into a depressed Delta town, the state quickly got on board to help push new incentives and to begin actively promoting the industry through the state economic development offices. And rightly so as the industry is starting to come alive here.

Although hundreds attended the Canton film facility opening, there were still more filmmakers that could not make it. I didn’t quite realize the enormity of our film community until last weekend and I was quite impressed that there are so many trying to work in the business and stay in Mississippi.

But getting them work is the key. And getting enough trained crew for films to come here to hire is the other key that has to work out if any more projects like “The Help” will make its way here.

Two major projects that have been under construction and were discussed at the summit include the new film incentives as well as the new Hinds Community College film and video technology degree. The program is a two-year degree that also has classes in evenings and weekends for non majors who want to learn technical aspects like grip and electrical, camera, lighting and screenwriting. Between this program, the film degree at University of Southern Mississippi and our own burgeoning screenwriting classes in English and the film program in the Theater Department at Ole Miss, from top to bottom of the state, there are now educational opportunities for young filmmakers.

Now, to keep them in the state and working, more films need to come here. Film Commissioner Ward Emling, Governor Haley Barbour and Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant throughout the day reiterated the importance of that focus for the Missisippi Development Authority as one of the next big economic areas in which growth is needed. While most of us walked away charged up from the summit, it is now a waiting game for larger projects to find their way here. Meanwhile, the ripple effect of numerous smaller projects continues. In West Point this week a film that was going to be shot in Kentucky is coming here which impacts the local hotel and restaurant industry as they eat out and have a place to stay. In Tupelo last night, a short film was made with people from around the region that traveled there to work for the day. This month, a feature film will be shot in Oxford which will bring actors from both Los Angeles and New York to work and employ local film crews.

Throughout the state these types of projects are being filmed almost daily. With the tide changing on state support, new incentives, national attention as “The Help” opens this summer, and new educational opportunities, the next few years will be a new awakening.

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