Presenters at July DNA member meeting laud benefits to Downtown of both filmmaking and county government
By Jim Walker
DNA President Mickell Lowery quipped that those in attendance at the July DNA member meeting got three great speakers for the “price” of one. And all three of them focused on successful efforts to create a better Memphis, whether it be through bringing filmmaking to the area, or through the efforts of our county government.
First up was Film Commissioner Linn Sitler of the Memphis & Shelby County Film and Television Commission, whom Lowery noted was “The longest-serving film commissioner in the world.”
Sitler said that the commission began in 1985, and that she joined it in 1987, thinking she’d serve one year. “But it’s been a lot longer than a year, more like 30,” she said.
Sitler said their very first client was attracted to Downtown in 1988, and the result was the film “Mystery Train.” “That’s why we have the movie marker outside the Arcade Restaurant, because that is where the modern wave of Memphis movie making began, on that corner,” she noted. “And right on its heels came ‘Great Balls of Fire.’”
Sitler described the upward and downward trends in Memphis filmmaking and noted that the city provided her with a lobbyist in 2006 to help. Film incentives totaling millions of dollars followed. However, circumstances turned and she said from 2007 to 2016 “all the major (incentivized) movies were filmed in Middle Tennessee.”
The commission and Shelby County power brokers got together in 2015 and were able to get a total of $4 million for film incentives. Eventually, this led to the television series “The Million Dollar Quartet” being filmed in Memphis. Sitler explained that Christina Varotsis, the series’ production manager, was invaluable in making this happen. And she listed the benefits of the production being local.
“They are leaving more money here than ‘The Firm’...sixty percent of the highly paid union crew jobs went to residents of Memphis and Shelby County...over 43 speaking roles went to residents of Memphis and Shelby county...and over $17 million was spent in the State of Tennessee...”
Sitler then introduced Varotsis, who said the show began shooting in early April and finished July 9. She then presented an enticing promotional clip from the series, which she said was, “our first trailer.”
After the presentation Varotsis explained that CMT is licensing the show, and that the eight, one-hour episodes of the first season should begin airing in March of 2017. They won’t know until next year whether or not the show will get picked up for a second season.
Regarding the production, Varotsis said, “We tried to hire as many crew members and cast members (as possible) from the area and from Memphis, itself,” she said, “and we are very proud that we succeeded. Everyone has been a tremendous asset to us, every step of the way.” She went on to add that she believes that the heart of a downtown is the heart of a city. In closing, she thanked the people and businesses of Memphis who facilitated shooting the episodes.
Lowery then introduced Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell. However, before he spoke, Sitler presented Luttrell with an “Honorary Crewmember” award from “Million Dollar Quartet” for his assistance.
Luttrell noted that the filming of “Quartet” in Memphis is a great accomplishment for the city and for Shelby County and the entire state.
He then explained that county “mayor” is just a title, and he described the structure and purpose of county government, while lauding such developments as the arrival of Bass Pro, the St. Jude expansion, redevelopment of the Hotel Chisca, the Civil Rights Museum and the FedEx Forum.
“Vibrant communities have vibrant downtowns,” he said. “With all those projects that I just mentioned, we’re looking at roughly a $5 billion investment in the downtown area.”
Luttrell noted that, in Tennessee, the primary responsibilities of county government are public education, public health and public safety. But he added, “Our overarching responsibility is economic development.”
In describing Shelby County, he said, “Our most valuable asset is our diversity.” He then praised, among other assets, the low cost of living here, the low real estate prices and the low tax rates.
During the question/answer period after he spoke, Luttrell was asked how things would play out if he gets elected to Congress. He explained that the chairman of the Shelby County Commission would serve in his position for the first 45 days and then the commission would choose a replacement to serve the rest of the term.