Twenty-one-year-old aspiring filmmaker Christopher Mitchell has talent to spare, but you wouldn't know it from the attention given to Mitchell and other up-and-comers like him. He's never had a location scout; nor has he had occasion to avail himself of the state of Tennessee's nascent film incentives package; nor has he enjoyed the hospitality of an accommodating film commissioner, greasing wheels and making deals with local businesses and property owners on his behalf.
No, Mitchell makes all his arrangements—such as securing permission to shoot scenes for his forthcoming short film on a balmy July evening at Ijams Nature Center—by his lonesome. He has high hopes for this, his second film, A Sister's Love, a scene of which he's shooting at Ijams tonight on the North Cove trail, on a section of boardwalk that runs through the dense foliage of the bluffs overlooking the Tennessee River. It's a spare shoot this time out, just Mitchell, his 20-some-odd-year-old Arriflex SRII 16-mm camera, and local actress Lauren Lazarus, a slim redhead who's taken the role of Brandy, the troubled lead character in this short, a poetic rumination on mental illness.
Mitchell's directions to Lazarus are simple—"Look left; look right; now look forward"—as he shoots her in close-up, and then at a distance, Brandy looking pensive as she veers out over the boardwalk's withered wooden side rails, reaching and longing as if to immerse herself body and soul in the placid green of the river below.
Call Mitchell a minimalist. He uses refurbished, old-school equipment, natural lighting, simple direction, sparse dialogue: "I'd rather show than tell," he says of his method. But his minimalism may be as much a necessity as a matter of preference; there's scarce help, of any sort, available to small, independent filmmakers, even those with drive, talent, and a track record.
It's certainly not that he wouldn't like some assistance—an incentive or maybe a development grant. "It would be great if there was more help for small filmmakers," Mitchell says. "I looked like crazy for grants and things from around the state, but there wasn't much available."
So far, the precociously talented Farragut native has done pretty well on his own, translating the prize-winning still photography of his teen years into freelance editing and photography work for DASH Networks, a local TV/video/film production house, and a Best East Tennessee Film award at the 2007 Secret City Film Festival for his first short, Between the End.
So news like the recent near-dissolution of the East Tennessee Television and Film Commission (ETTFC)—a facilitator for film and television projects based out of the Knoxville Chamber—or that $20 million in state-level TV and film incentives may be threatened by a state budget crunch, means little to Mitchell's personal filmmaking endeavors, which are funded by a combination of borrowing, ingenuity, and freelancing checks.
Secret City festival founder Keith McDaniel, a self-employed producer of both corporate training films and artistically viable documentaries and shorts, likewise confesses that organizations like ETTFC meant "not a whole lot to me, certainly not from a financial standpoint. I looked to them for support from time to time, but there was never a lot they could do."
Which explains why, when Knox County Commission cut the ETTFC budget from just over $100,000 to roughly $50,000 recently, leading to the departure of director Michael Barnes, reaction in the production community was mixed. The truth is that placing the whole of Knoxville's television/film/video et al. production industry under the auspices of a single, unreservedly mothering umbrella organization is an unwieldy proposition at best—and a fractious one, at worst. "The production community doesn't speak with one voice," says local writer/actress Jayne Morgan. "One sector of the industry may be up while another is suffering."
Founded in the mid-'90s by a group of earnest industry folk, with the intent of offering "production professionals and filmmakers everywhere the chance to take advantage" of East Tennessee, the ETTFC has had a spotty history. Funding from local government has been inconsistent. It lacked a director for most of its existence; in office only a couple years, Barnes was only its second, and he stepped down in June when it became clear that the organization would lose significant funding this year. (Barnes' salary was $40,000.)
All of which begs several questions: How will different sectors of the production community fare if ETTFC fails to get back up and running? What will recent state-level film incentives mean to the Knoxville community and to filmmakers alike—or what if we should lose them altogether? And is there a way, organizationally or otherwise, to satisfactorily address the needs of all of our production community—small filmmakers, TV producers, and freelancers alike?
"One thing our community lacks is a sense of unity," says McDaniel. "I don't think it's dog-eat-dog; people really do want to help each other. But there's a lack of organization."
Cable or Film?
"Knoxville is a TV town." That's been said more than once, probably by someone like Ross Bagwell, venerable godfather of the Knoxville cable television industry. And there's truth in the assertion; Knoxville has been ranked by some publications as high as number three in the country in cable television production, in terms of number of hours produced.
Bagwell's is a well-travelled story hereabouts, how he rose from an NYU film student to a pageboy working on The Howdy Doody Show in the 1950s for NBC, to a production assistant and then a developer of new programs for the network. One of his most memorable achievements: "We developed a show for Canadian TV called A Kin to Win," says Bagwell, now in his 70s. "It's still running here in the States, as Family Feud, to this day."
Bagwell came home to Knoxville and founded Bagwell Communications in 1973, and then Cinetel, companies that, directly or indirectly, spawned much of the cable presence that exists in Knoxville today. Scripps Networks (home of HGTV, Food Network, DIY, among other cable channels), one of two major cable distributors in town along with Jewelry Television, entered the Knoxville market when it purchased Bagwell Communications in 1994.
Of the two major cable TV production houses in the city, Jupiter Entertainment—with revenues over $10 million, and more than 30 employees—was founded in 1996 by former Bagwell protégé Stephen Land. The other, Rivrmedia—with 60 employees, producer of nearly 300 cable TV hours per year—is helmed by Bagwell's daughter, Dee Haslam.
Veteran of more than 4,000 hours of programming over the course of 50 years, Bagwell is skeptical when it comes to film commissions and film incentives. "We're not ever going to be Hollywood," he says. "It's good to have a film commission, and to be actively soliciting films. But we'll get one every once in a while, and that's about it. That's just the way it is."
Land remembers that his former mentor used to compare incoming feature films to the arrival of the circus. "A week later, the elephants have messed up the streets, the carnies have knocked up the girls, and they all leave," says Land. "Getting a $50 million picture in is incredibly sexy; the locals can go watch scenes being shot, see the Baldwin brothers at the local bar. But in my opinion it doesn't do a lot over the long term for the local economy. Whereas a business like ours, and Rivrmedia, are sustaining businesses that pay taxes and employ people this month and next month.
"I never felt like our film commission was helpful, or understanding or our specific needs. If it's good for the local economy, I'm all for it. But it's never been a factor in our professional lives."
In a given month, Jupiter—producers of high-end cable programming for the likes of A&E, History Channel, Discovery, Fuse, Disney, and Animal Planet—may issue 100 checks, a number that far exceeds the 30-some-odd writers/producers/editors that work full-time at the company's palatial digs off Ebenezer Road in West Knoxville. Those freelance jobs may include grips, cameramen, sound men, and other technical positions—and at times, even writers and directors.
Freelancers like Michael Samstag, cofounder of Knoxville Films, a local film and arts promotional organization, and Jeff Reed, cofounder of the local independent filmmakers organization TiPTOE, depend on the larger production houses for much of their income, just as the production houses depend on them for jobs that may only be required for a small portion of the 16 or so weeks it takes to produce the average cable television program. (Of that 16 weeks, says Land, only about two are spent "in the field" shooting, with the rest of the time spent in pre- and post-production tasks like scouting, editing, and scoring.)
"No one's going to make their living on big film shoots around here," says Samstag, whose freelance resume includes directing 30 episodes of Animal Planet's Backyard Habitat for Rivrmedia. "But if you're a freelancer, two films in a slow year can make a big difference."
Samstag classifies 2007 as a "slow year," one salvaged for many freelancers such as himself by the arrival of a few small films, including Amateurs, a baseball comedy (tagline: "Buds, Babes, Booze and Ball) from director Chris Blanton, and Boys of Summerville, a full-length comedy/drama about small-town softball, helmed by local filmmaker Brooks Benjamin.
Reed notes that technological advances have made the world of production exponentially more competitive, heightening the importance of every additional opportunity. "Digital video cameras are dirt cheap and high quality; hard drive space has become so cheap that you can afford to edit broadcast-quality material on a $2,000 computer," Reed says. "For freelancers, that means there are more opportunities—we can make money as editors now, for instance. But it also means the competition is stiffer. It used to be that we all had one or two ‘sugar daddy' accounts that paid the bills. Very few of us have those anymore; we're all kind of hanging our asses out in the breeze every month."
But what impact has the local film commission really had on bringing new production into the area? Some would argue not much, pointing out, for instance, that the three small productions that came to the area in 2007 already had strong East Tennessee ties, and would have likely chosen to locate here regardless. And since the mid-'90s, only two features with budgets in the multimillion dollar range—1997's Box of Moon Light and 1999's October Sky—have landed in Knoxville.
Others say that the impact of a local TV/film commission can't be accurately measured until the community has managed to field and fund one consistently; since its founding in the mid-'90s, ETTFC's funding has fluctuated from none at all to slightly more than $100,000 in 2007-08; the organization has had a full-time director for less than half that time.
"Michael Barnes [departed ETTFC director] had just started to make some great relationships out on the West Coast," says local filmmaker and TiPTOE member Paul Izbekie. "The day he left office, there were supposedly three films heavily considering locating here, and a fourth was pretty much a lockdown. I have no idea what will happen with any of that now.
"Eventually, if everything keeps going to other places, we lose our talent pool; we lose our crew base. The bottom line is we need a film commissioner; the office needs to be consistent and stable, and funded well enough that the commissioner can go build relationships. We already have talent and crew; once you start the ball rolling, success builds success."
Incentives: For Whom?
Hollywood, it seems, has lost some of its vice-grip on big-time film and TV production, and everyone wants a piece of the action; today, all but a couple of states offer major incentives to television and film companies that choose to stage large-scale productions within their borders.
The kingpin of incentive states? Humble New Mexico, which, according to a recent report from Stateline.org, saw the film industry spend $476 million there in 2007, as opposed to $1.5 million in 2001, the year before incentives were passed. And those incentives—including a 25 percent rebate from the state on all in-state expenditures, as well as a film investment loan program for up to $15 million—were enough to lure a mammoth $75 million complex to Albuquerque, a collection of huge buildings, some of them six stories tall, filled with movie sets: city streets, mansion interiors, and mountainscapes with trucked-in snow.
What has Tennessee done to compete? Not much, until 2006, when the Visual Content Act, championed by state Sen. Tim Burchett and Rep. Harry Tindell, created a fund for reimbursing major filmmakers (minimum budget of $200,000 for in-state filmmakers, $500,000 for those based out of state) and television producers for all of their (carefully audited) in-state expenditures at rates of 13 percent, 15 percent, or as much as 17 percent, depending on factors such as the productions' percentage of local crew (the more locals employed, the higher the incentives).
The Legislature made an initial allocation of $10 million to back the measure; Gov. Phil Bredesen added another $10 million only months later.
The catch is that the fund doesn't automatically roll over from one year to the next, and additional allocations aren't guaranteed either, a matter of mere legislative fancy.
"But it's a start," says Jan Austin, former deputy director of the state Film, Entertainment and Music Commission, and now head of the fledgling Association for the Future of Film and Television (AFFT), a Nashville-based lobbying organization geared toward issues like protecting, or even expanding upon, the Visual Content Act incentives.
"I don't know if that money will roll forward or not, given our current budget crunch," Austin says. "For now, it's staying. But most states have permanent, ongoing funding. Most of the states around us all have incentives packages, and they've had them for a long time."
She points to Louisiana as one example, a state which offers no rebates, but a generous tax-credit program. The year before Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana hosted more than 25 major film productions—compare that with four in the state of Tennessee in '07-'08.
But those four were telling, says Austin. "In Middle Tennessee, we saw Billy the Preacher, a biopic about Billy Graham, and the Hannah Montana movie," she says. "I think we owe both of those projects to our incentives. There's no doubt in my mind that Disney came because of the incentives; they had previously considered going to L.A."
The economic payoff of such incentives is considerable, says Austin. While some industry analysts estimate the impact of a film or television production according to a percentage of the total budget—usually somewhere between 20 and 40 percent—Austin says a more accurate measure involves a 2-to-1 ratio on what she calls local spend: "In other words, for every dollar spent in the state of Tennessee, another dollar is created. You pay the soundman $60,000 for a 45-day shoot, he spends so much more to get his apartment cleaned, or he buys a new sound system."
But while incentive packages reward major film and television producers alike—and, by trickle-down, the members of the freelance production community who depend on them for a portion of their livelihood—they notably leave small, local filmmakers out in the cold. The oversight, some would argue, is mostly a fiscal one, since most independent filmmakers only contribute a few dollars to the local production economy. But they have an economic component that could blossom.
Keith McDaniel served as executive producer for the aforementioned Boys of Summerville shoot in 2007; with a budget a little below the six-figure range, it was too small by half to qualify for the state incentives package. Nonetheless, McDaniel points out, that budget was sufficient to support a 28-day shoot (roughly average for any film production) with a nearly all-local cast and crew—more than 60 actors and technical people working and spending on shoots in Roane, Anderson, and Blount counties.
And McDaniel—whose 2006 documentary The Clinton 12, about 12 black teenagers who integrated Clinton High School in 1956, has won awards and toured numerous film festivals—began shooting a $15,000 short film in early July featuring well-known actress Natalie Canerday (Sling Blade, October Sky) among a cast and crew of nearly 25. Again, he had no incentives other than his own desire to further the cause of local independent filmmaking.
"It's important to have incentives, to incentivize productions to come in and hire locally," McDaniel says. "That said, the incentives only go halfway. This is my problem, and no one seems to care: 95 percent of the films made here are made by people like me, people who live here, work here, have businesses here. It's all done in that $10,000 to $200,000 budget range, and there's absolutely nothing to help those people.
"Here's what I say: Take a couple million and turn it into a fund where you apply for, say, 20 percent of your budget. That helps you employ more people, pay more people. Or when you're raising money, if I raise $100,000, give me some kind of tax break."
Such incentives for small filmmakers are uncommon, though they do exist. Austin notes that the original $10 million allocation for Tennessee's own incentives package was originally intended to include $500,000 in seed money to help small filmmakers.
But that plan was jettisoned by legislators, in part due to an incident in Middle Tennessee involving independent filmmaker Glen Weiss and a short spoof he produced entitled Thong Girl—about a comic book-style superheroine whose costume was a thong bikini. When Weiss obtained permission to shoot a scene in the mayor's office in Gallatin, just outside Nashville, lawmakers were apparently shaken by the prospect that other less-than-tasteful film productions might receive direct funding from the proposed seed fund.
"It was a farce, and it actually wasn't so bad, but it elicited an incredible response from lawmakers," Austin says. "The roadblock became ‘How do you choose who gets seed money?'
"My heart is with the small filmmakers, but it's tough to come up with a viable developmental or incentive package for them. And from the standpoint of the Legislature, it's important to incentivize films that will have guaranteed distribution, films that have big-screen exposure. Then you can go back to the lawmakers and say ‘See?!' It's like tangible proof that they're getting a return on investment."
But local filmmakers like Samstag—who has produced a highly regarded documentary of his own, a 2005 look at the trials of war correspondents entitled War & Truth—aren't buying that line of thought. "We had a panel discussion on the subject of development funds at the Secret City festival in 2007," Samstag says. "The argument was that the state commission couldn't manage that kind of fund. As it exists now, maybe that's true. But I think they could find the people to do it.
"There are models for this; New Mexico has a development fund program. You get a couple of professors, some economic people, and then you set some criteria, some standards. Then, for instance, if you provide seed money for someone with a TV concept that goes national, that's a big win. A bigger win than paying someone to come stay in your hotels for a few weeks."
On the big-screen plasma set in the nicely-appointed living room of his South Knoxville apartment, Christopher Mitchell screens a few of his filmmaking endeavors—some promotional pieces, scenes from A Sister's Love, and the whole of his '07 short Between the End, based on the Ambrose Bierce short story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." Mitchell spent a semester at Pellissippi State in the school's vaunted new video/production program, but didn't finish. "I felt like I wasn't learning what I wanted," he says. "It felt like the training was geared more toward preparing me to work in broadcast TV."
He dropped out; thanks to early connections through his father, a photographer/video producer for TVA, a freelance career already beckoned.
Sharp and voluble—especially when it comes to the topic of film—Mitchell is a font of both technical know-how and trivia. "When you're shooting black and white, you can use chocolate syrup for blood," he says at one point. "I picked that up reading about Hitchcock." At another: "I got frustrated with taking photos because I could never get them to move."
His current short is running on a shoestring budget of maybe $3,000—though that's considerably more than he spent on his first film, which came in at under $500. The uncannily frugal Mitchell says that for Between the End, he purchased a single roll of 16-mm film—that's 400 feet of celluloid and 11 minutes of screen time for roughly $140—and still had film left over when he finished the short. "I'm a firm believer that the first take is usually the best," he says.
One could make the case that Mitchell is more than just a struggling independent filmmaker with a measure of talent and a budding freelance career—he could be the future of film and TV production in Knoxville, maybe the next Keith McDaniel or the next Brooks Benjamin or the next Stephen Land. Or perhaps even more—maybe the next Kubrick or the next Louis Malle, or the next Terrence Malick, Mitchell's own favorite, director of The Thin Red Line.
"I'm not making my films because I expect them to premiere at Regal," says Mitchell, a humble fellow with a gee-whiz demeanor and a face that looks even younger than his 21 years. "I just do it because I want to do it."
That's what he says now. But as Knoxville's production community struggles to make sense of incentives packages and a local film commission in disarray, maybe it would do well to remember the Mitchells of the world; and the Samstags; and the McDaniels. Because without them, all the huge production houses and multi-million-dollar film projects might otherwise fall by the wayside, big dreams with no one to make them happen. m
Corrected: titles of Sen. Tim Burchett and Rep. Harry Tindell