“We are proud to offer production professionals and filmmakers everywhere the chance to take advantage of East Tennessee’s beautiful scenery and myriad of locations.... Let us help you transform our downtowns and hometowns, alleys and valleys, mountains and hills, rivers and lakes into your next backlot.”
Those words, taken from the website ettfc.com, constitute a de facto mission statement for the East Tennessee Television and Film Commission, a long-standing though erratically funded organization established to bring coveted TV and film revenue to the region.
The words seem to ring hollow now; with Knox County Commissioners considering budget proposals for the fiscal year beginning July 1, it’s likely that ETTFC will lose its primary funding source. And with ETTFC apparently cut out of the loop—as per recommendations to commission from a citizens review panel—Executive Director Michael Barnes, one of two full-time staff members employed by ETTFC, resigned from the organization, effective Monday, June 2. For now, inquiries are directed to Project Coordinator Thomas Duncan, the remaining staffer.
“There was a mutual decision to part ways between Michael Barnes and the film commission,” said Rhonda Rice, executive vice president at the Knoxville Area Chamber Partnership. ETTFC is a partner organization of the chamber, and is operated out of the chamber building on Market Square.
“Michael was thinking about some other things he would like to do, and then there is the uncertainty of funding,” Rice continued. “Obviously, we can’t make a decision on the open director position until we see what might happen with funding.”
On Monday, neither Barnes nor Duncan would comment on the resignation or any other issues concerning ETTFC.
What happened, and how will the loss of a fully funded film commission affect Knoxville’s sizable production community? The answer to the first question is relatively simple: Of 29 organizations that sought funding approval from the county’s tourism citizen review panel, ETTFC received the lowest overall score—63.78 out of 100—on its funding presentation, which included a written grant application and a question/interview session with the panel.
Funding requests from non-profits like ETTFC fall under the county’s community grants budget; beginning this year, those agencies were required to present their requests to one of five citizen review panels, which are tasked with making final recommendations to County Commission. The panels were ostensibly created to avoid conflicts of interest resulting from commissioners voting to fund groups to which they had ties.
ETTFC’s budget for the current fiscal year is $115,000, more than $100,000 of which came from Knox County. The organization’s request for ’08-’09 was $159,805. Having considered all requests, the review panel recommended only about half that amount—$84,896—but the low application score means that the $430,000 the panel was tasked with allocating was gone long before it reached ETTFC’s spot in the pecking order.
How all of this plays out for the local film and television industry is much less certain. In an interview conducted prior to his resignation, Barnes was quick to recite a litany of seemingly impressive facts and statistics relating to ETTFC’s accomplishments in recent years. He claimed the organization had a “40 to 1 return on investment” from 2004 to 2007; he claimed a key role in facilitating recent productions filmed in the area, shoots like Boys of Summerville, a full-length dramedy about small-town softball; Heaven and Hell, a horror short; and Amateurs, a comedy about “buds, babes, booze, and ball.”
“Right now, I’m on a production scout for sites for a movie that is definitely coming, something we had recruited very heavily,” he said on May 30, though he declined to name the project. “I’m meeting with another production company next week, and three weeks ago we had a company come in looking to do three films in 2009 and 2010.”
“I think Michael Barnes has done a good job working with both the state of Tennessee and with the independent film community,” says local producer/director Michael Samstag of Samstag Productions. “He was really successful in helping to get some film incentives passed in state Legislature.”
Others are less certain that ETTFC has been effective in the role of bringing in more film/TV productions. “As a production and talent community, we would depend on a film commission to help us stay employed,” says Jeff Delaney, owner of Tin Soldiers Productions. “What we hear is lots of ‘We can’t tell you anything, but we have this project.’ Then we never see anything. Or a production comes through, but they don’t use any of the people here in town.”
Delaney also points out that the aforementioned Boys of Summerville and Heaven and Hell were projects linked to local producers and directors in the first place. “Looking at the money [ETTFC] gets, I don’t know what it’s allegedly used for.”
“It was sometimes hard to get beneath the surface of what [Barnes] was doing,” admits a member of the film community close to the ETTFC. “It was hard to get at what was going on, and he was very analytical, but not as good at building relationships. Those things may have contributed to [ETTFC’s] demise when he presented to the review panel.”
This isn’t the first time ETTFC has faced a funding crisis. “Unfortunately, East Tennessee has a lousy track record keeping it funded,” says Samstag. “Since it’s been around, it’s gone from being grossly underfunded to not funded at all, and back. And for a production community as large as Knoxville’s—we’re the third, fourth, or fifth largest cable TV producers [in the country] depending on who you believe—that’s blasphemous.”
It also means that the region may not have a voice in claiming its share of a $20 million incentive fund for bringing in film productions, instituted by the state legislature for the current fiscal year. Several Southern states have long had hefty film incentives packages in place, including neighboring North Carolina and Louisiana, and the incentive fund looks to give Tennessee a much-needed boost.
“The incentives are not recurring—they have to be requested in the legislature every year,” says Juanelle Walker of Talent Trek, one of the area’s top talent agencies. “Having an active film commission with a full-time director gives us a voice on the Hill. We need a voice locally; we need longevity in that area, and it just doesn’t seem to be in the cards.”
Probably not, anyway. Even though the aforementioned citizen review panels were intended to do the work of weighing community grant requests in lieu of County Commission, commissioners have chosen to hear 10-minute presentations from each grant applicant on Wednesday, June 11, at the City County Building prior to making final funding decisions. Are commissioners likely to vote in accordance with the review panels’ recommendations?
“This is the first time we’ve done this, and we’re really not sure,” says Susanne Dupes, spokeperson for County Mayor Mike Ragsdale. “But we’re about to find out.”