The annoyingly addictive theme song and happily partying kids from the opening credits are just memories and the mood is grim when Dennis Quaid’s character addresses a crowd in one of the first scenes in the new, filmed-in-Georgia “Footloose” remake.
Time to face reality about the world they’re living in, he mournfully tells them. It’s “a world filled with evil and temptation and danger.”
On screen, as anyone who ever saw the original “Footloose” can instantly tell you, that danger is youthful dancing.
Off screen, as plenty of disappointed Tennesseans can attest these days, that danger is Georgia’s juggernaut film production industry stealing their business away.
In this case “Footloose,” which opens today in Georgia, Tennessee and everywhere else besides.
“Disaster” for Tennessee
Tennessee desperately wanted the $25 million budget, foot-tapping, potential box office phenom to be filmed on its turf. And it thought it had an ace in the hole: Craig Brewer, the writer and director of the remake, lives in Memphis and wanted to make the movie there, just like all his previous films. His original version of the script even set the action in a fictional small town in Tennessee.
But when the cameras finally started rolling, everything — that fictional small town, all the very real filming sites — was located in Georgia.
“What’s that old saying about ‘death by a thousand cuts?”’ sighed Jan Austin, executive director of the Association for the Future of Film and Television in Tennessee. “To lose ‘Footloose’ to Georgia was a disaster.”
As Southern feuds go, this one isn’t as long-lived or as likkered up as, say, the Hatfields and the McCoys or the Bulldogs and the Gators. But the stakes, arguably, are much higher — $2.4 billion. That was Georgia’s economic benefit from TV and film production in the recently concluded fiscal year, said Lee Thomas of the state Film, Music and Digital Entertainment Office.
Georgia’s Other Scoops
And the scales keep tilting increasingly in Georgia’s favor. Besides “Footloose,” an update of the 1984 Kevin Bacon-starring hit that’s been re-set in the iPod era South, two other recent movies that by rights should have been made in Tennessee ended up here instead.
Granted, “Get Low,” about a Tennessee hermit (Oscar winner Robert Duvall) who stages his own outrageous funeral while still alive, didn’t generate that much heat when it was released last October.
But the same can’t be said of “The Blind Side.” The story of a real — ahem — Memphis family was shot here in 2009, and went on to earn $256 million at the box office and snag a Best Actress Oscar for star Sandra Bullock.
“It’s like being asked ‘What’s worse, losing an arm or a leg?”’ Linn Sittler, longtime head of the Memphis & Shelby County Film Commission, said about the current situation. Still, as bad as it was to lose “The Blind Side” — which, to add insult to injury, got much of its financing from FedEx founder (and Tennessean) Fred Smith — Sittler said the two hurts don’t compare.
“It’s much worse that we lost ‘Footloose’ because here was a talent that we had nurtured for years,” Sittler said of Brewer, who’d shot his three previous movies in Tennessee, including the Oscar-winning “Hustle & Flow.” “In all my years of recruiting movies (to film in and around Memphis), this one was a gimme.”
Brewer’s local ties weren’t the only thing Tennessee film officials thought they had going for them. Known as a powerhouse of the music industry, Tennessee seemed like a perfect backdrop for a movie whose glut of hits included “Let’s Hear it for the Boy,” “Almost Paradise” and, of course, that catchy theme song. (Indeed, Brewer told the Memphis Commercial Appeal he’d planned to produce the new soundtrack using Tennessee musicians and recording studios.)
A tough offer to refuse
Yet it wasn’t to be. Since 2008, Georgia has offered a tax incentive for production companies that spend at least $500,000 in the state: Up to 30 percent of the production’s budget in tax credits as long as the finished film displays a special Georgia tourism logo prominently in the credits.
Except in rare cases (paging Mr. Spielberg!), it’s the studio rather than the director that decides where a movie will be made. In the case of “Footloose,” that was Paramount Pictures, and the decision “was pure economics,” said Thomas of Georgia’s film office. With a $25 million budget and an executive producer — Timothy Bourne — who’d also produced “The Blind Side,” “Lottery Ticket” and several other movies here, “Footloose’s” economic indicators all pointed toward Georgia.
Personal feelings aside
“He was very familiar with our tax incentive process and very comfortable working here,” Thomas said of Bourne, who is also the executive producer of “Joyful Noise,” the filmed-in-Atlanta choir comedy starring Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah that hits theaters in January. “It came down to his decision and the economics of it. I think they gave Tennessee an opportunity to try and come up with the difference (in incentives).”
Yet lacking a similarly generous tax break, Tennessee couldn’t close the gap. Brewer didn’t hide his frustration when the efforts of him and others fell short of the $1.6 million needed to make up the difference.
“I think this is an unfortunate loss for Tennessee,” Brewer told the Commercial Appeal at the time. “I really wrote ‘Footloose’ and designed ‘Footloose’ to be a big commercial not only for the music of Tennessee but the spirit of Tennessee. Tennessee comes off looking really good in ‘Footloose.”’
Instead, Tennesseans — and everyone else who sees the new “Footloose” — will be looking squarely at Georgia.
“Tennessee probably felt the way we did in 2004 when ‘Ray’ was filmed in Louisiana and the final scene (set at) the Georgia Capitol was not the Georgia Capitol,” said Greg Torre, deputy commissioner of marketing and communications for the Georgia Department of Economic Development, which includes the film office. Indeed, it was that experience of losing Albany native Ray Charles’ celluloid story to another state that kick-started the legislative process needed to create the tax incentives here.
Ever since, more business has kept on attracting more business here: From soundstages and stunt people to camera operators and post-production facilities, all are setting up shop here permanently. That, in turn, attracts still more TV and movie projects enticed by the state’s one-stop-shopping opportunities.
“We sympathize with them,” Thomas said of Tennessee. “But the longer we keep it going, the harder it is for anyone else to catch up to us.”
Just ask Brewer. During the recent interview here, he more than once praised the “pretty incredible” crews and other filming infrastructure he’d found in Georgia. Appointed last month by Gov. Bill Haslam to the board of the Tennessee Film, Entertainment & Music Commission, Brewer said that they might need to “maybe, maybe start considering that we can’t compete with Georgia” on the film front and instead try to become the dominant “go-to place” for other entertainment production.
“I think we have a good shot in terms of music,” Brewer said.
Meanwhile, give the “Footloose” director credit. He might have gone into this wanting to be in Tennessee, but once here, he certainly didn’t hold a grudge. He didn’t painstakingly transform Atlanta into Memphis, like the makers of “The Blind Side” did, or remove any identifying traces of Georgia wherever possible.
Just the opposite, in fact: The Starlight Drive-in, Cowboys in Kennesaw and Senoia Raceway all are settings for key scenes; cars come equipped with authentic Georgia license plates, right down to the peach in the middle and the county name at the bottom. And perhaps most memorably, one high school boy makes clear where he just won’t go, fashionwise:
“I don’t wear orange,” Willard (Miles Teller), witheringly informs the lead character, who’s just moved to town from Boston. “I am not a Tennessee fan, I’m a Georgia Bulldog fan!”
Ouch! Talk about kicking another state when it’s already down. Why not simply go “The Blind Side” route?
“To be honest with you, I had that choice,” Brewer said. “I could say it was Tennessee, but I couldn’t do that in my heart. I really wanted there to be to some extent a regional pride (present) in the movie.”
Feud? What feud?
“I think that honestly that if I could do it over again, I would still do it here in Atlanta,” Brewer said. “Because I had an incredible experience filming here.”