October 28, 2020

Film industry poised to invest millions in Southwest Mississippi in coming months

The film industry is poised to bring four or five film productions to Natchez in 2020, pumping $30 million into the local economy, a production company executive told members of the Natchez Rotary Club last week.

The Mississippi film tax credit bill passed by the Mississippi Legislature earlier this year is fueling the growing film industry in the state, said Thor Juell, vice president of Village Studios and Dunleith Studios.

“The renewed incentive brings back a 25% rebate on cast and crew members’ salaries up to $5 million for payroll and fringe benefits paid to out of state, non-resident employees for Mississippi-based film production companies,” said Nina Parikh, director of the Mississippi Film Office. “The 25% rebate on expenditures with Mississippi vendors and 30 to 35% rebate on payroll for Mississippi residents remains in place.”

Juell said the film tax incentives are the most competitive in the South, making Mississippi, and Natchez in particular, more competitive than Atlanta, Georgia, Louisiana and Alabama.

“That bill effectively makes Mississippi as competitive as virtually any other Southern state from a production perspective,” Juell said, “in terms of movie producers trying to find places that they can most affordably come to make movies. That is a big deal in terms of our ability to drive the economy of production and movie film making to Mississippi, and more specifically to Natchez. That is a big deal and that is effectively why I am here.”

Juell, who works for Louisiana movie producer Jake Seal, who is in the process of closing on the purchase of historic mansion Dunleith, works to recruit filmmakers to studios in Louisiana and Mississippi.

“I had previously been working in Louisiana,” Juell said, “and Louisiana has obviously had a long history of tax incentives there that have made them extremely competitive, and they’ve seen massive spikes in jobs and just the general outlying economic activity related to all the impending pieces. Mississippi, in my opinion, is even better.”

Dunleith

Juell said Dunleith is approximately “a month or so out from being operational” to re-open as a hotel, restaurant and bar as it had been in the past and he hopes to circle back and rehire as many as possible of the former 50 employees who were laid off when Dunleith was foreclosed on and sold earlier this year.

In addition to being a hotel, bar and restaurant, however, Juell said Dunleith will be capable of housing film productions.

“The long term goal within six months or so is to start having productions that are in that environment,” Juell said, “which means that not only are we charging those productions for hotel, catering and bar and restaurant, but we are also charging for camera equipment and dailies editing and electricians and construction which gives an additional opportunity for us to make money but then there are jobs relative to all of those things.”

If successful, Juell said Dunleith would be able to hire even more people than before, “including those folks who were unfortunately laid off.”

Lure of Natchez

Juell said as a salesman working to bring producers to the area, the tax incentives make it easier.

“We are at the front of the line as far as I’m concerned,” Juell said, “and I’m the one who is having to sell to Louisiana. So I can speak as a salesman, we’ve got a better sales pitch here, I think.”

Juell said the first production to benefit from the Mississippi film tax credits is “Ma,” the horror film produced and directed respectively by Mississippi residents John Norris and Tate Taylor, who also began shooting a new film titled “Breaking News in Yuba County” in Natchez last week.

“It (‘Breaking News in Yuba County’) has got an incredible cast, and I think it will be a potential Oscar contender,” Juell said.

“Breaking News in Yuba County” stars Allison Janney, Juliette Lewis, Ellen Barkin and Mila Kunis, among others.

“They have employed a tremendous amount of women in those roles,” Juell said. “It is a completely female cast. They have a director of photography that is a female, an executive producer that is a female. They’ve got (a) producer who is female, an assistant director that is a female.”

Juell said Taylor and Norris who live in the area are the highest caliber of filmmakers, having produced and directed such films as “The Help,” “Get on Up” and “The Girl on the Train” and that in addition to the tax credits also is helping draw filmmakers to Natchez.

“We’ve got John Norris and Tate Taylor here in town that are driving production quality and product quality from a movie perspective that is effectively as competitive as anyone,” Juell said. “Even Speilberg is on the same level as Tate Taylor in his ability to drive value from a production that he creates, so we are effectively starting from the absolute highest level. There is nowhere in Mississippi that is more competitive leveraging this tax incentive than the fact that we have Tate and John here than in Natchez, so I walk in to this situation and say, ‘Wow! This actually seems pretty good, but how do we take it a step further? And how do we make it as a thing that doesn’t go away?’”

Longevity of the industry

Juell said he and others are working on several strategic goals to give the film industry longevity in Natchez, including working with Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Natchez and Alcorn State University to develop film courses to train locals to do technical film production jobs.

Filmmakers have an incentive to hire Mississippians to do jobs on the sets with 30% to 35% tax breaks on salaries paid to Mississippians working on films in Mississippi, Juell said. However, currently, it is hard to find Mississippians with the experience and training to work on the films.

Juell said Taylor recently told him approximately 5% of the crewmembers working on “Breaking News in Yuba County” are Mississippians.

“Where the opportunity lies in that is in two things,” Juell said. “One, Tate and John want to employ Natchez folks No. 1. They have sort of a spiritual quest to make that a big part of this.”

Two, Juell said would be establishing film production programs at Co-Lin and Alcorn that could help turn that around.

“In theory, you could graduate from high school,” Juell said. “You could go to Co-Lin, learn to be a film electrician. Two years later you can walk right off the Co-Lin campus directly into a Tate Taylor production, making $50,000 to $60,000 per year and you never left the town. The overall goal, considering all of these pieces is that we can do all of them simultaneously and that it creates an extremely sustainable environment to be able to do this long term, because one of the things that is most difficult about doing this long term is the jobs and the specialized nature of film production. You can’t just go grab a typical electrician and make them a film electrician. There are very specific pieces to it, and there are hundreds of jobs — 250-plus jobs associated with every movie that happens.”

With the projected films coming to Natchez next year, Juell said the revenue would be the equivalent of creating 1,400 new jobs, and that making the industry sustainable — even if the tax incentives go away — is important.

“My goal is to make the folks that are chasing these things (film production) move into places where they have better opportunities to make more money per capita,” Juell said. “The household family incomes can increase, and we sort of raise the sea level, if you will … and I think you could be on a fast track to some really great paying job here all within two years and never have to leave town, which is pretty cool. It is a cool town.”