Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
Arkansans in the film industry have long salivated over the vast sums of money — an estimated $600 million this year — that out-of-state production companies spend shooting at locations just a few hours away, in Louisiana.
Now they're getting organized to go after it.
Three new efforts — well, two new and one reinvigorated — have emerged in the last couple of months to tackle the two ends of the chicken/egg film industry recruitment cycle: Convincing production companies to choose Arkansas, and making sure there are enough trained workers for them to hire once they do.
On the official side, Arkansas has a new film commissioner: Christopher Crane, a Little Rock native with 20 years experience in the producing and acting aspects of film-making and former teacher at Parkview High School. He replaced Joe Glass, the longtime film commissioner who retired in September.
Locally, the Greater Little Rock Chamber of Commerce late last summer inaugurated the Little Rock Film Commission, headed by Gary Newton. It hosted the premier earlier this month of “Randy and the Mob,” the feature film from Oscar-winner and Arkie transplant Ray McKinnon.
And outside the governmental purview, Trey Lange, a local industry veteran, is working to establish an online database of skilled film-industry professionals in Arkansas that production companies can tap into when they're looking to hire a crew for a project in the state. The three men aren't officially working together, but their goals are the same, and Lange said he hopes the local film industry will coalesce enough to mount a successful lobbying effort for tax incentives by the 2009 legislative session.
Arkansas already gets a smattering of film projects — “Randy and the Mob” and Joey Lauren Adams' “Come Early Morning,” for example — but they're usually small-budget projects that have a local connection. (Adams grew up in North Little Rock; McKinnon moved to Arkansas with his wife, Lisa Blount, who's from here.)
Expanding the state's appeal means treating the film industry like any other industry, Newton said: Thinking about it in terms of providing the needed infrastructure (people trained not just as actors but as grips and best boys and make-up artists and boom mike operators), making the connections within the industry so that the Little Rock Film Commission and its state counterpart know about and respond to film studios' requests for information about locations for filming, and keeping up with the Joneses in terms of economic incentives for film companies.
“I don't have stars in my eyes about the industry,” said Newton, who's been an actor and writer in Los Angeles himself. “I look at it as a business.”
And it's a business the state should want not only because it brings in money, but because it's not a “footprint” industry, Crane said. Film crews “usually leave whatever they touched better off.”
Lange is working on the infrastructure end of things. His website, www.getafilmcrew.com, is up and running, but not as stocked yet with prospective crew members' profiles as Lange wants it to be before he starts actively marketing it to Hollywood production companies.
“Until I populate the site to my comfort level, I can't have them clicking on,” Lange said.
Listing a basic profile on the database is free. People with more complex material to show off — a company logo or film clips, for example — can post those as well, for a fee. The website also has discussion forums, classified ads and other information about filming in Arkansas.
Lange, whose experience includes work in Los Angeles, on feature films like “Come Early Morning” and with smaller projects around the state, said he started developing the idea after he heard a news report on the radio about the Coen Brothers filming in Fort Smith a couple of years ago. Arkansas has skilled people who could have worked on the shoot, Lange said, but the Coens' production company didn't know how to find them, and so just brought in a crew from out of state.
“It happens all the time,” Lange said. “It's not just movies.”
Little Rock does have production companies with listings in the Yellow Pages, but they generally have steady work with commercial clients and can't easily break away for two months to work on a feature film, he said. With a database of industry professionals, Lange said, “we can get that stuff for them.”
At the state level, one of Crane's new projects is actually to develop a database just like the one Lange is working on. He's also interested in working with colleges in the state to create programs to train more film-industry workers.
“We're probably one crew deep right now, so we can handle one feature film,” he said. “If we get more than one…”
Earlier this year, before Crane took the film commissioner job, he lobbied the state legislature independently for economic incentives for the film industry. Arkansas did have a small tax refund incentive, but it ended last summer. Now, we're one of a handful of states that don't offer any incentives at all, Crane said.
He'd like to see a straight rebate system, where a film company gets back a flat percentage of what it spends in the state (the nationwide standard is 20 percent). It's simpler than a tax refund system, he said.
The film commission is working on an economic impact study that would calculate how much the state would gain from more film projects, and how much it could afford to give away in incentives.
“I know that we can compete” on the basis of locations, Crane said. “If we have the incentives, I don't see any way we won't get the films.”