The reveal of Mayor William Bell’s proposed 2018 budget last month served as an announcement of sorts for Film Birmingham, a new initiative of the economic development organization Create Birmingham. The budget allocated $100,000 to the program, which has been in development for nearly two years and is slated to launch officially in June.
The goal of Film Birmingham is “twofold,” says Buddy Palmer, the president and CEO of Create Birmingham. It’s about attracting new film productions to Birmingham, he says, while “assisting growth of the local business infrastructure that supports production.”
The relationship between those two elements is a sort of “chicken-or-the-egg” situation, Palmer says. Developing a thriving, film-focused local business infrastructure requires consistent film production in the city — but attracting that consistent production to Birmingham often requires having that infrastructure already established.
“Those two things have to in some way go hand in hand,” Palmer says. “Incoming productions need to want to give opportunity for growth to the existing crew base that’s here.”
The local businesses that form Birmingham’s potential crew base, Palmer says, can include everything from catering and sanitary services to architecture firms assisting in set design.
“There’s only a handful of productions that we’ve worked with so far, but those that have made the decision to come here have uniformly said to us about their experience that they’ve been blown away by the talent base that exists here,” Palmer says. “So we know that there’s a talented foundation to build upon.”
The process of attracting more productions extends beyond that crew base, though. There’s the matter of tax incentives offered at the state level. Palmer points to states like Georgia and Ohio, which have thriving film industries, as examples of states with “incredibly competitive incentives, [which] position themselves to clearly communicate to the film industry, ‘We want you here.’”
But while those states are better positioned for big-budget films — much of Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise, for instance, is shot in Atlanta — Alabama is better suited to small- to medium-budget films. The Entertainment Industry Incentive Act of 2009, signed into law by then-Gov. Bob Riley, provides production companies with 25-percent rebates on all state-certified expenditures, and 35-percent rebates on all payroll paid to Alabama residents. The expenditures for eligible projects must be between $500,000 and $20,000,000, according to the law.
But while Palmer says that “90 to 95 percent” of economic incentives for productions occur at the state level, he adds that Film Birmingham is working with the mayor’s office to develop policy “that really cannot cost the city money, but [that’s] a way of communicating that we’re open for business. ‘We want you here, and we’re going to do our best to make this a hospitable environment for you.’”
So far, Palmer says, the increased focus on bringing in productions has paid off. “In 2016, we provided some form of response or assistance for approximately 20 inquiries for Birmingham production,” he said. “The primary interest was for feature film, but we also pursued some series work, music videos, and commercials.” While the majority of those projects did not end up in Birmingham — “as is the case with pretty much any other form of industry recruitment,” Palmer notes — two feature films, the sports drama Run the Race and the religious film Let There Be Light, were filmed in the city with the early assistance of Film Birmingham.
And there are more projects on the way, Palmer says, including a film that just wrapped production in Bessemer, and “a project set for August with a marquee-name actor.”
“We’re way ahead of where we were this time last year in terms of interest from outside production and actual projects being executed,” Palmer says.
In recent years, before the start of the initiative, other films were made or partly shot in Birmingham, including, in 2013, the sports drama 42 and the faith-based October Baby, and in 2015, the faith-based sports film Woodlawn.
Though he anticipates that the $100,000 proposed by the mayor’s office will be reduced by the time the city council passes the final budget, Palmer says he’s most excited that the city is recognizing “that this is industry, this is economic development.”
Money from the mayor’s budget will help in attracting more film projects, Palmer says. “Recruitment in the film industry is no different than recruitment of any other industry,” he says. “You’re hospitality, you’re incentivizing, you’re cheerleading. No one is paying you to be recruited; you’re laying out money to spend time and effort to showcase the community.” Other expenditures will go toward paying staff, website maintenance, and membership in national film organizations. “We are learning that so much of this industry is about networking and word-of-mouth,” Palmer says. “It’s about the experiences you have here, but it’s also about [going] places to promote the community.”
But at the end of the day, Palmer says, the long-term goal of Film Birmingham will be to make connections, then get out of the way. “Probably most important of all for us is to know when we need to step out of the way so that someone from local crew gets employed,” he says. “We’re really the landing spot, the point of introduction. As soon as we can pass off a production to [someone local] who gets a paycheck for their work, … we want to get out of the way as quickly as possible so that local crew begins to earn their living.”
Film Birmingham’s website is slated to launch within the first week of June. It will be available at filmbirmingham.com. For more information, visit createbirmingham.org.