Memphis Stays in Character for Growing List of Filmmakers
It’s all lights, camera, action here in Memphis even with a pandemic keeping film production crews at a social distance.
Between Netflix’s “Uncorked” and “Buried by the Bernards,” the upcoming film “Jacir,” and the new ABC series “Women of the Movement” filmed Downtown, the Bluff City is certainly getting the Hollywood treatment.
Joseph Carr, Director of Artist Development and Youth Films at Indie Memphis, said Memphis always puts out the welcome mat for the industry.
“Memphis is not on the map as far as large markets for producing film and television content,” Carr said. “And so it's up to us to be champions of the city, and be champions of our own creative. And to kind of foster the environment where they feel comfortable, and they feel happy, and they feel content, and they want to tell Memphis stories.”
He said productions -- especially TV series -- bring a big economic boost.
“What's great about television -- the difference is -- a film is usually a one-time occurrence over the stretch of however many days,” Carr said. “But a TV show can be a continuous, economic engine.”
Even short-lived series can have a significant impact. Take 2019’s “Bluff City Law.” Many people called it a flop when it was cancelled after just one season. But Memphis and Shelby County Film Commissioner, Linn Sitler, said that one season still generated an estimated $35 million to the state and the local community.
“There's very few areas of the local economy that aren't touched by a production,” Sitler said. “It's the blue collar jobs on a production that get the most money: the truck drivers, the carpenters, the grip. Sometimes the largest bill that they need is for the hotels."
With so many large productions coming out of the Bluff City, you start to wonder why they’re here. Sitler says one reason is the media’s desire to bring more Black stories to a universal audience.
“I see it in the calls we get and the projects that are interested in filming here,” Sitler said. “There's definitely been a recognition of the fact that we are a majority African American city, and that African American programming is -- to use the industry term -- hot right now.”
Princeton James, owner of Princeton James Productions, is a local writer, director and actor. He’s also co-producer of the new Memphis series “High Heel” alongside rapper Post Malone and actor David Arquette.
James says what makes Memphis interesting to outside producers is its one-of-a-kind stories and characters.
“I think it comes down to: Memphis has soul,” James said. “Memphis has a heartbeat. Memphis has a pulse. You can make Memphis as a character and not just a backdrop. So I think that you have so many stories, so many directions, so many big and beautiful characters.”
Of course, outside production teams aren’t crafting Memphis’s narrative by themselves. Like James, many local creatives are getting the opportunity to be a part of these Hollywood crews.
He said Memphis is full of talented, capable filmmakers, and they’re part of what makes the city unique.
“This city has something special, and the thing that makes it so special is its raw talent,” James said. “A lot of times we can't say we grew up in a market that had, like, movie after movie after movie or exposure to exposure. So, all of our talent has to come just from consuming entertainment and creating our own interpretation of what we consume.”
This story is produced in partnership with the University of Memphis' Institute for Public Service Reporting.