Eva Golson, director of the Mobile Film Office, found herself out one night at a series of downtown bars with actor and director Mario Van Peebles. She was helping the director known for “New Jack City” scout locations for a new film, but to family hearing it third-person, it appeared Golson was out on the town.
“I went and scouted with him on a Friday night and he wanted to see all the bars in action downtown,” she recalled with a laugh. “The next week my daughter calls me and said ‘mama, I hear you were bar-hopping Friday night.’ What he wanted to see were the bars in action. I said, ‘well, we didn’t stop for a drink.’”
Golson said she’s gotten other requests as well — both mundane and unique — as she works to keep producers, directors and actors happy filming in Mobile. She and Film Office and Location Coordinator Diane Hall always have their cell phones on them.
“You never know what kind of thing is going to be needed for a movie or if they are having trouble,” Golson said. “Now that we have so many people who have worked with us so long, we’re not having as many problems getting things because the people on set, the [production assistants], they know where stuff is. They’ve worked with us so long.”
The celebrity encounters and requests have only grown for the local film office as the budding local motion picture industry has developed around it. One tool in that growth has been tax rebates given to production companies that decide to film on location in Alabama and use local employees. Despite local benefits, a study commissioned by the state Legislature threatens to end the program eight years after the rebates were enacted.
The incentives in question give production companies a 25 percent rebate on all goods and services above a $500,000 spending threshold. That threshold is the same for television and movies, but decreases for a motion picture soundtrack or a music video. The incentives also allow a 35 percent rebate on Alabama labor. The spending threshold is $500,000 on Alabama resident crew and talent and $50,000 to $300,000 for a soundtrack. The incentives also include no state sales taxes and no state lodging taxes. But local taxes are paid, Golson said.
The biggest film to be shot locally recently was the Jordan Peele horror movie “Get Out,” which has grossed more than $160 million since its release in February, becoming the first debut film from a black director to do so.
The movie, filmed in Mobile and Fairhope, has many in the local industry hopeful there could be similar successes to come.
“Everything you make here helps us through the industry because it’s like a family and they spread the word,” Golson said. “They’ll see the success of this movie and when they start to see, they’ll say ‘tell us what it’s like filming down there.’”
One film’s success may not help the area or the state retain competitive incentives, though. Members of the Legislature have vowed to re-examine the film incentives and others after a study by two University of Tennessee professors found Alabama’s entertainment industry incentive program gave the state a bad return on investment.
The findings of Dr. Matthew Murray and Dr. Donald Bruce suggested the film incentives program had a negative impact on statewide revenues and only a slight benefit to employment, not one that would justify the existence of the rebates. Specifically, the study points to marginal growth in the local film industry and roughly a $40 million price tag for the incentives from 2009 to 2016. Fifty-three projects took advantage of the incentives during that time.
Meanwhile, while the program has been in effect the state has enjoyed about a 3 percent increase in film industry employment, while the country as a whole has seen a 26 percent increase during the same period.
“These descriptive data, while certainly not conclusive, offer no support for the case that the credit significantly increased film production activity in Alabama,” the study states.
The study calls local benefits, such as those experienced in the Mobile area, “relatively small and short-lived,” while big production companies with out-of-state employees benefit the most.
“The state could almost certainly generate larger and more enduring economic benefits to the state with an alternative use of these taxpayer dollars that is more closely linked to stated economic development goals,” the study states.
When the film office was initially fighting for the incentives, Golson said, the idea of using money many thought could go to schools was a tough sell in Montgomery. She said she never could quite wrap her head around that argument because film crews have to spend the money upfront before being reimbursed.
“So, when you say ‘you don’t want to give them money,’ what money?” she asked. “You don’t have the money in the first place. You’re only giving them a percentage of what they spent.
“So, when you think about it that way — a lot of people say, ‘look at the money they gave that could be going to schools,’” she added. “There was no money there for schools until they spent it and you’re getting a percentage.”
Golson also had her own economic development figure. As of 2013, the movies filmed in Mobile had combined budgets of $116 million and also contribute to hotel room nights. For a recent example, the Jean-Claude Van Damme movie “Black Water” contributed to a total of 1,345 hotel room nights in Mobile and Baldwin counties. That breaks down to 672 at the Admiral Hotel, 626 nights at the Extended Stay America, 14 nights at Days Inn and 33 nights at Courtyard by Marriott, according to information provided by Golson.
“That was a quick shoot,” she said. “On big movies we’ll have 2,500 room nights.”
The importance of the film credits is not lost on Kent Blackinton, president of the Mobile County Lodging Association. He said the group recently voted in support of the incentives.
“They produce room nights,” he said of the incentives. “When they’re here, we’ve been a part of it.”
While film crews don’t make up a huge percentage of clientele for local hotels, any motion picture business can help during a lull, Blackinton said, adding there is typically plenty of space in the Mobile market, which averages about a 62 percent occupancy rate.
“We like business,” he said. “Mobile needs business all the time.”
In addition to local hotels, restaurants and retail shops, the incentives boost employment, Golson said. She said she feels responsible for keeping local film industry employees working.
“As our film industry has grown, [Hall] and I feel we have to work hard to keep the film industry here to keep them working,” Golson said.
The fear is if the incentives go away, it will get harder and harder for those who live in the area and work full-time in the industry to find work, especially given the expansion of credits to many other states in the country.
Scott Lumpkin, a local producer, said killing the incentives will take away workers and the movie-making infrastructure as well. Taking away the incentives would hurt local businesses, he added.
Lumpkin said a movie is like a city. Not only does a crew of about 300 have to work each and every day, but they also have to buy supplies, like lumber for sets. He said that’s all done locally.
Despite the reaction from locals, it appears the Legislature is preparing to take a closer look at the incentives program, although it’s unclear if legislation related to it will come out of the current session.
Will Califf, communications director in state Sen. Del Marsh’s office, said the senator wants to “take a broad look” at incentives and “see what’s working and what’s not working.”
“With the grade being so bad, we’re looking at all options to see what can be done,” Califf said. “It’s possible it could be this session.”
Members of the local delegation appear to be split on the issue. State Rep. Chris Pringle (R-Mobile) said something would have to be done with the many tax credits the state awards, but doubts anything would be done this session.
State Sen. Bill Hightower (R-Mobile) said he hopes the credits could be saved while State Sen. Trip Pittman (R-Fairhope) said the billions of dollars in various credits in the state would have to be evaluated.
The horror film “Get Out” used a variety of locations throughout the area, including Barton Academy downtown, the Ashland Place neighborhood in midtown and a house in Fairhope, Golson said. In addition to the locations and a squad of off-screen talent, the film also used local actors and actresses, including the two youngest — Caiden Vaughn of Fairhope and Adalyn Jones of Mobile.
While Vaughn plays the younger version of Caleb Landry Jones’ character, Jeremy Armitage, in the film, Adalyn Jones plays the younger version of his sister, Rose Armitage, in a small part.
Adalyn Jones, who will feature as a principal in the upcoming Netflix movie “Gerald’s Game” — also filmed in Mobile — said she was on set for a day filming “Get Out” and really enjoyed interacting with other members of the cast, especially Catherine Keener, who played her mom, Missy Armitage, in the film. Adalyn said Keener would play games with her young co-stars.
“She was really funny,” Adalyn said. “Every time we’d take a little break we’d play hopscotch on the porch. We’d see who could go the longest without getting dizzy because you can get dizzy jumping up and down, up and down …”
Kimberly Neno Jones, Adalyn’s mother, said having Keener on set was very nice for parents who couldn’t get too close to the action.
“She was awesome with Adalyn,” Kimberly Jones said. “She kept the kids occupied during takes.”
Also getting the seal of approval from the 8-year-old actress was Peele, her director.
“He was really, really funny,” Adalyn said. “He was nice and he took pictures with us.”
Mobile has seen its fair share of films over the years. In fact, since 1976, the Port City and the surrounding area has been home to iconic titles including “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Friday the 13th.” “The Insider” and “Under Siege” were also filmed in Mobile.
Golson said “Under Siege” used the USS Alabama as a set. At one point, the centerpiece of Battleship Park was one of only two battleships in the United States where a film could shoot and the only one that allowed for “at-sea” shots, she said. The other was a landlocked vessel in North Carolina.
“U.S.S. Indianapolis: Men of Courage” starring Nicolas Cage also used the battleship during filming.
While filming in South Alabama was sporadic before, it picked up in 2010 with the incentives.
Since 2009, 132 projects, including movies, television shows and commercials, have filmed in the Mobile area. Not all of those had a large enough budget to take advantage of the credits.
The process for picking locations is pretty standard across the board for Golson and Hall. Hall is usually contacted by a producer, who tells her a little about a project. She is then sent a script and gets to work.
“I read their script and write down every location,” Hall said. “Then I go to my film photo library and I immediately email them what I have on file. The next day, I’ll pick up a car in the motor pool and I’ll go out and scout for that particular project. Then I get the photos back to them as soon as possible.”
She said she tries to be as quick as possible because she understands she’s competing with other offices in other states with similar incentives.
As of Tuesday the Legislature had met for 18 days of its 30-day regular session. The General Fund Budget had been passed by the House, but was pending in the Senate Finance & Taxation General Fund Committee.