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Mississippi loves its movies, but the movies aren't loving Mississippi back

Frank Ladner directs Buddy Moody in a scene from 'Max Peril.'
Frank Ladner directs Buddy Moody in a scene from 'Max Peril.'

GULFPORT -- The Coast has seen this movie before.

A movie crew is in town, accompanied by a flurry of media coverage, social media posts and rumors. The filming is over in a matter of days, the stars are here for a matter of hours and the hubbub subsides. Until -- The Premiere. More news stories, more social media and a few hundred people go watch a movie at least partially shot on the Coast.

And the movie goes into wide release -- via Amazon, Hulu and other internet services. But the big screen? Sure, if you have one in your house.

For the past six years, the state has been betting movies could give the state an economic development boost. And, it put together one of the country's most attractive packages of incentives to nurture the film industry.

The results have been mixed at best. Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves says the industry likely has just one more year to prove its worth.

"The PEER report said it returns 49 cents for every dollar invested by the state," said Reeves. He said the Legislature extended the repealer in the movie incentives bill for another year but "it's got to return more to the general fund than it takes out."

The Film Office, which gets its almost $400,000 of annual operating money from the budget of Visit Mississippi, the tourism wing of the Mississippi Development Authority, spends about a third of that money on marketing. The rest goes to salaries and fringe benefits.

"The MFO is focusing on developing its film infrastructure from the ground up in a manner similar to the integrated approach used in Canada (where filmmakers went to escape the high cost of Hollywood)," the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review wrote in its report. "The Legislature has tailored the incentive program to attract lower budget and independent films. The MFO

is hoping to expand the film industry workforce and infrastructure in the same manner as Canada by focusing on sustainable employment opportunities and creating a competitive edge by focusing on a specific market."

People trying to get the industry off the ground on the Coast say the state has neither the infrastructure nor workforce to attract a steady stream of films, independent or otherwise. And, independent movies don't have a big budget and salaries for the crew are generally low.

Studio didn't make it

The only film studio on the Coast folded without ever landing a movie deal.

"The timing just wasn't right," said Paula Lindsay, one of the owners of Mississippi Gulf Coast Studios, which took over the old skate park in Gulfport but went out of business after less than two years. "We partnered with a gentleman named Michael DeLorenzo out of Santa Clarita Studios. He owns one of the largest studios in California.

"He has all the equipment and everything and he couldn't get anyone to come to the (Gulfport) studio. I think it's mainly because of the infrastructure here.

"We came in hoping we could work with the state and getting funding for education and we met a few times with the colleges and they were very helpful and very excited but we never could get anything to stick."

She said the smaller productions that are coming here don't require a studio. She said a lot of other people seemed interested but backed out before ever seeing the studio. And she said one reason is the state lacks enough people trained in the highly technical aspects of filmmaking.

Too much hype

Peter Petro produces commercials on the Coast. He says most of the films that come here have budgets smaller than his 30-second spots.

"I have been in the film industry 40 years and have seen all the hype generated when low budget, and I mean low, come to town," he said. "Granted, we get a film with a decent budget once a year but even those aren't Hollywood blockbusters."

The recent Bruce Willis film, "Precious Cargo," was one example he cited.

"The actors fly in for one day of shooting," he said. "That's it."

Critics have been tough on Willis and company, even before the film slinked off to the online rental sites after a "premiere" a couple of weeks ago at the Saenger in Biloxi.

"Bruce Willis has bills to pay -- pool guy, dry cleaner, personal chef," wrote Billy Donnelly on Joblo.com. "For Bruce Willis, that means doing movies like 'Precious Cargo.' "

And Donnelly is no outlier. 'Cargo' rated a zero on Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer. It didn't even register on Metacritic, a site that aggregates movie reviews. But at least the movie showcases the Coast with scenes on the water and at the casinos (even if it spells the biggest city Gulf Port).

Pay is often low

Willis might be paying the bills, but Petro doubts many others who are working on South Mississippi films are. He said one filmmaker wanted to rent some of his equipment. Petro's pay: Credit at the end of the film.

And the crews don't fare much better, he said.

"It's less than McDonald's," he said. "$100 a day, no overtime. Sometimes no meals."

But what really riles up Petro is the Film Office offering incentives to people who make commercials.

"The only winners are the hotels and restaurants and of course the out-of-state production companies," he said. "We now have these out-of-state companies shooting our state tourism commercials and many other projects that in the past went to in-state companies. The tax credits would be fine if they were just for movies, but they also apply to commercial production."

Ward Emling, director of the Film Office, didn't answer the phone nor respond to a request left on his voice mail to talk about the film industry.

Success in Poplarville

Then there are homegrown filmmakers flying below the radar, employing family and friends and shunning Hollywood and the state's incentives.

Frank Ladner pays the bills with his Stout Woodworks near Poplarville, where he hand-crafts wooden rings. But that's another story.

For fun, he makes films. And he does them on budgets that would warm the lieutenant governor's heart.

His latest, "Max Peril," came in at $2,800, "dirt cheap for a feature film." He's pretty excited about it -- it's coming out on DVD soon.

And more than half a continent away from Hollywood, there will be a release party on May 31 in Poplarville at Dimple's Chicken, "where the pivotal restaurant scene was filmed." You can also pick up a "The Filmmaker" bundle that includes the DVD, movie props, including a Super 8 camera, and other stuff from the production.

Ladner clearly is having a good time.

"I made a film a few years before called "Hickory Never Bleeds," although I've been doing this stuff since I was about 12," he said. "But I had never made a movie. It's always been shorts and experimental things."

Both his films are "mockumentaries," which he calls documentaries about fictional subjects.

The central character is played by Buddy Moody, "just a very likeable guy."

"He's been through some interesting things but the way he tells it is just an attitude of, well, he never puts himself up," he said. "It a very likeable quality."

As Max Peril, Moody tells tales of a "sort of A-Team for hire" he once led.

"I don't use a lot of actors in the strict sense," he said. "I use a lot of regular folks; I really like their personalities."

Not under gun

In "Max," Ladner plays the filmmaker and art imitates life. And as a real filmmaker, he's able to keep the budget low with low-cost acting. "I try to pay them (actors) something, $10 or $15 an hour," he said, though they aren't used for many hours. And, when he had a crowd scene, he had meals catered.

"I know it's very difficult to make a living making films," he said, adding that he declined offers to go to California to work on movies because he doesn't want to leave the small town. "That's the thing about filming in a small town; they come together and will cut you a break. They're just happy to be involved.

"A lot of people knock that. They think you have to live in a big city to do this.

"I'm a family guy with no desire to move anywhere else."

'Peril' has been in 16 festivals, including Y'Allywood, winning seven awards. All without help from the state.

"I'm writing another film now so that has crossed my mind more now than before," he said. "But it gets back to that whole thing of being under the gun when someone else's money is at stake."

Not throwing in towel

Still, no one is giving up on Mississippi as a film destination. Reeves said he could be convinced that the prestige and publicity brought by the film industry is worth at least some of the 51 cents the state loses on its film investment.

And Southern Miss has a filmmaking sequence at its Gulf Park campus in Long Beach.

Lindsay, whose studio didn't go over, said more education, such as the "great USM program" is the key. And she remains optimistic.

"I've fought the battle for three years," said Lindsay, who said she went to Cannes, Florida and Los Angeles to talk up Mississippi to film people. "I'm never going to stop promoting the state.

"We just have so much to offer. There's always going to be film in Mississippi. And I haven't given up on bringing more films to Mississippi. It's just what we love."

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