Jones County Chamber of Commerce President Ross Tucker said officials there started making plans about a year ago for the opening of the movie “Free State of Jones.”
“We knew it was coming, and we wanted to figure out how we could take advantage of what it could do for Jones County,” he said. “We wanted to get our ducks in a row.”
“Free State of Jones” is an account of Newt Knight, who led a rebellion against the Confederacy during the Civil War that resulted in Jones County attempting to secede from Mississippi. It is written and directed by “The Hunger Games” director Gary Ross, and it stars Matthew McConaughey and Keri Russell.
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For the people of Jones County, which claims both Ellisville and Laurel as its county seats, hopes are high it will bring tourism dollars to the Pine Belt.
Tucker said the story of Newt Knight is a complicated one for Jones County residents.
“There have been four books written about Newt Knight and there are a lot of opinions about which of the book is the most accurate,” he said.
Knight’s tale, Tucker said, can also be divisive.
“There are some people that think that Newt Knight was a traitor and a deserter and then there are those that think he was ahead of his time and a hero,” he said. “It will be interesting to see how the movie is received.”
‘Home Town’ TV series
Though there is a great deal of excitement over the release of the film, Tucker said Jones County is already a part of the national entertainment conversation.
“HGTV shot a pilot here called ‘Home Town’ and it aired in January,” Tucker said. “It did really well — it had about 2.2 million viewers, so it was picked up for a full season.”
“Home Town” follows Erin and Ben Napier as they restore a house in Laurel.
“It’s about some people that moved back to Laurel and they started restoring a home and in the process they started rehabbing a community,” he said. “We’ve already started getting some visitors to town because of the TV show.”
‘A business decision’
The irony of “Free State of Jones” is the film was shot entirely in New Orleans. But that’s OK with Tucker.
“Sure, we wish it had been filmed here, but Louisiana offers the tax incentives, and they got it,” he said. “I’m sure it was nothing more than a business decision — we will reap the benefits from (the movie).”
To ensure Jones County gets the most benefits from the film, Tucker said officials built a tourism-oriented website, thenewstateofjones.com.
“We’re proud of the website, and it has all the things on it that we think tourists will be interested in, such as the Amos Deacon House, which is part of the Newt Knight story,” he said. “We’re hoping to have all of our tourism infrastructure in place by January when the ‘Home Town’ series debuts and the buzz starts all over again.”