The Mississippi Film Office turned 50 on January 17.
It’s a milestone especially meaningful for former Film Office director Ward Emling.
“When I think back over my life and how tied it has been to the Mississippi Film Office, it’s just crazy to me,” said Emling, who served as director from 1980-1983 and 1990-2017. “I’ve been involved with the film industry in Mississippi for all 50 years. My career really speaks to what the film industry can be. It offers extraordinary opportunity for anyone. When film production comes to your backyard, it makes dreams achievable and graspable.”
Established as the Mississippi Film Commission in 1973, the office got off to an auspicious start by assisting the production of acclaimed director Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us, filmed primarily in Canton that year.
Emling, then a stage actor at Jackson’s Little Theater, was invited to the film’s Mississippi premiere at Jackson’s Capri Theatre. Soon after, he got a job as a wardrobe assistant on the next Mississippi film, 1973’s Huckleberry Finn, which was shot around Natchez. So began Emling’s film industry career, which included seven years working as a location manager and actor in Los Angeles in addition to his two stints as the Film Office’s director.
The 50th anniversary is also a special milestone for current Film Office Director Nina Parikh, who marks 25 years with the office this year. She began working for the Film Office as the deputy director in 1998 and became director after his retirement in 2017.
Parikh says that today more Mississippians’ dreams of working in the industry are being realized than ever before in the office’s history.
“When I started in the office, we were lucky to have one feature film per year,” Parikh said. “In 2022, we had 19 features. And that doesn’t include TV series, episodes, documentaries, commercials, music videos and short films. My time with this office the last 25 years hasn’t just been a job. I know I’ve spent my time well, helping to better my home state and be some small part of making someone’s dream of working in the movies come alive.”
1903-1972: BEFORE THE FILM OFFICE
The 19 films made in 2022 alone are more than had been made in Mississippi in the decades prior to the Film Office’s genesis in 1973.
Filmmaking in Mississippi dates as far back as 1903 when the Selig Polyscope Company produced a silent short film showcasing the majesty of The Mississippi River. The company also produced the oldest surviving Mississippi-made film, 1916’s The Crisis, which used the actual battlefield in Vicksburg for some ambitious battle scenes with assistance from the Mississippi National Guard.
1949’s Intruder in the Dust adapted the William Faulkner story and was filmed in the author’s hometown of Oxford. 1951’s Show Boat filmed crowd scenes in Natchez for added authenticity. 1956’s Baby Doll brought the work of another Mississippi native author, Tennessee Williams, to the screen and earned four Oscar nominations. It was filmed at a mansion in Benoit that remains a tourist attraction.
1960’s Home from the Hill is a classic Southern Gothic drama bolstered by its stately Oxford locations. 1966’s This Property is Condemned, another Williams story, used sun-drenched Bay St. Louis locations to amplify its steamy romance between Robert Redford and Natalie Wood. (Many of the locations can still be visited on a walking tour). And 1969’s The Reivers brought another Faulkner story to the screen as well as Hollywood icon Steve McQueen to the sleepy town of Carrollton where it was filmed.
“Movies had been made in Mississippi before, but they had struggled along without the assistance that the Film Commission was set up to provide,” Charles W. Allen, one of the Film Office’s founders, said in an October 1982 The Hollywood Reporter special section promoting filming in the state. “We were getting a lot of feedback that there was a definite trend developing toward on-location filming, and we felt that Mississippi was in a good position to capitalize on it.”
THE ‘70s: THE EARLY YEARS
Allen had film industry friends from his time teaching at UCLA, and he, along with Corinth native author and screenwriter Thomas Hal Phillips and actor James Best, then serving as Artist-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi, formed the core of the board of the newly founded Mississippi Film Commission. Soon Walterine Odom, who had been working for the state developing its welcome centers, was tapped to serve as director and held the post until 1980.
“We were one of the first film commissions set up in the country,” Odom said. “Mississippi may not always be at the forefront, but we were in this instance.”
The founders had seen the seismic shift happening in Hollywood: the move away from the old studio system to the New Hollywood movement. Led by directors like Altman, Martin Scorsese, William Friedkin, Francis Ford Coppola and others, the movement was characterized by director-centric productions looking for the naturalism provided by on-location shooting. And it certainly helped that films like Friedkin’s The French Connection and Coppola’s The Godfather were cleaning up at the box office and awards shows.
“The first year we had $8 million in production,” Odom said. “Back then that was a lot of money. And when we first started, we really had almost no budget at all, so that was a pretty good return on the investment. We had very capable people in place, but we were just learning. Fortunately for me, the people that came to scout locations were very much into teaching what they needed.”
An early niche the Film Office found was TV movies and miniseries. “Movies of the week” were ratings giants for the networks, and the massive success of productions like 1977’s Roots started a flurry of period dramas that Mississippi’s locations were perfect for.
1974’s The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, which won nine Emmys, 1976’s Nightmare in Badham County, 1977’s The Minstrel Man, 1978’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, 1979’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Freedom Road and 1980’s Beulah Land all came during this period. Odom’s favorite memory of her time with the office comes from Freedom Road, which starred boxing legend Muhammad Ali.
“I got to pick up him and his wife at the Jackson airport, and my husband and I drove him to Natchez,” Odom said. “He didn’t like to fly on small planes. We got to visit with him for about two hours. It was quite the experience, a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing.”
Odom’s tenure wasn’t without its share of challenges, however. She has stories of combating perceptions of Mississippi, of hotel managers refusing to put up film crews for months because it would scare off their “regulars,” of losing big productions like The Buddy Holly Story and Smokey and the Bandit for reasons out of her control and of navigating controversy over sexual content in 1976’s Ode to Billy Joe.
“Those early days had its ups and downs,” Odom said. “We had some real positives that we worked with, but we had the negatives of people just not knowing what the heck a film commission was or what we did.”
THE ‘80s: PROGRESS AND SETBACKS
Emling says that helping the public to understand the mission of the Film Office was an ongoing challenge during his tenure as well, and that it remains one even today.
“You never stop educating,” Emling said. “I think I talked to every Rotary Club and Kiwanis Club in the state, or anyone that called wanting to know more.”
When Emling took the reins of the Film Office in 1980, some of his goals were to get more projects that shined a light on the state, and to make sure Mississippi stories were filmed here.
“I said we have to be better at being Mississippi than anywhere else,” he said. “That may sound like a weird statement to make, but the reality is they make movies all the time where the setting isn’t the same as the actual location used. They made Sweet Home Alabama in Atlanta, for instance.”
During this three-year period, Emling met producer Christopher Morgan, who brought Beulah Land and the TV series The Mississippi to the state. This led to Emling’s time in Hollywood, where he worked on films like Problem Child and K-9.
Sen. John Horhn has been a state senator for District 26 since 1994. But in 1985, he took over as director of the Film Office and served until 1988 when he was appointed state tourism director when the Film Office became part of the tourism bureau.
“I would say that my crowning achievement was securing the filming of Mississippi Burning in Mississippi,” Horhn said. “I met with director Alan Parker, and I think he was reticent about whether Mississippi was ready to host a film as hard-hitting as he wanted to make. I told him you’ve got to shoot the film here. This is where it happened. And we want to demonstrate to you that we’ve made progress and we’re changing the state, and the best way for us to be able to do that is to host you here and let you see for yourself what changes have taken and are taking place.”
The film was critically acclaimed, winning the Oscar for Best Cinematography as well as garnering six more nominations, including one for Best Director for Parker.
Some other major projects Horhn worked with include the 1985 miniseries North and South, 1986’s Crossroads, 1989’s Miss Firecracker and 1991’s Mississippi Masala. These were all projects that were either set in Mississippi or had a deep South setting, but Horhn envisioned the next evolution of the state’s film industry for it to be a place for any production.
“Filmmakers had been coming to Mississippi because of the antebellum homes or some other historical aspect of the state that made us attractive,” Horhn said. “But we had a hard time getting people to come here to shoot a film set just anywhere. It’s taken us a while to get to the point we are now when we can attract people to come here because we have a great cash rebate, and the folks are easy to work with and it’s easy to get things done. That’s really been a 30 to 40-year evolution.”
Horhn’s tenure also had its share of disappointments. In 1987, Everybody’s All-American wanted to film on the Ole Miss campus but was turned down and went to LSU instead. The film was a hit and the state and college missed out on a lot of positive publicity.
“It turned out to be one of the best sports movies ever made,” Horhn said. “A lot of the public were beating up the chancellor at Ole Miss for passing on it, so they immediately said yes to the next movie that came their way, which was Heart of Dixie. A fine movie but not nearly as memorable.”
In 1989, the action film Stone Cold was set to do much of its filming on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, with the film’s final sequence to be shot at the Mississippi State Capitol in Jackson. But at zero-hour, permission was revoked due to concerns about damage to the historic building. The production packed up and went to Arkansas’ capitol building in Little Rock instead.
“We had that film in the bag,” Horhn said. “We convened the decision-makers at the capitol, and the filmmakers explained what they wanted to do and how they would leave the building in even better shape than they found it. And they didn’t see the benefits at all. They thought it was desecration of the state capitol for a B-movie.”
THE ‘90s: A TIME TO REBUILD
But damage was done regardless. Some film industry trade publications reported on the Stone Cold production woes, and the state’s reputation as being film-friendly took a hit. Perhaps as a result, the early ‘90s were a lean period for the industry in the state.
“We went through a really, really bad period of not getting any movies,” said John Read, a location manager who worked as an assistant for the Film Office from 1991-1992. “I would go out and scout and take a ton of pictures and then for whatever reason they would go somewhere else. It was just so frustrating. This was long before film incentives or any of that kind of thing.”
Emling, who had come back home to Mississippi in 1990 and took over again as director, attempted to right the ship.
Disney came calling in 1991 to make The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which marked the fourth iteration of the Mark Twain character made in Natchez. That same year, the comedy The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag filmed in Oxford, although it was quickly forgotten at the box office.
But it was the 1994 production of A Time to Kill in Canton that put the Mississippi film industry back on the map. It was a $40 million big studio production, the largest the state had yet seen, and it was based on a novel by Oxford resident John Grisham. Emling saw it as an opportunity to spotlight the ways film production benefited the city of Canton and the state at large, and how many lives it touched.
“I pitched an idea to The Clarion-Ledger,” Emling said. “I said what I want you guys to do is a 101 course on how movies get made on location. I lined up interviews with the below-the-line folks who dealt directly with the locals and impacted the community. The set designers and the prop people and the location managers—I said, let’s not focus on the actors and director and the glamour. And they produced some of the best coverage of a film production you will ever see.”
The state saw another flurry of big-ticket production in the late ‘90s. In 1995, The Chamber was another winning Grisham adaptation. The same year, The People vs. Larry Flynt shot a number of scenes in the state and Ghosts of Mississippi told a true story of the state’s racial turmoil and reconciliation.
1998 was a banner year—the Oscar-nominated Michael Mann drama The Insider shot scenes in the state, as did the thriller Double Jeopardy. And two of Emling’s all-time favorites, which both told uniquely Mississippi stories, were filming at the same time.
“We had My Dog Skip and Cookie’s Fortune, and I would go from one set to the other and just think how crazy it was,” he said. “The great thing about both of those films is that they are such loving portraits of Mississippi. They make people think, ‘I want to live there.’ Or maybe someone saw ‘Skip’ who had never heard of Willie Morris and bought a book. When I think about the impact of what the Film Office can do, it’s that. Changing people’s ideas about Mississippi.”
“This was without the benefit of a film incentive or anything, right? A $35 million dollar movie,” said Read, who worked on the film as an assistant location manager and has since become a sought-after location manager with over 20 films to his credit. “To this day they used more locations than any movie shot in Mississippi ever. I nicknamed the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou This Week? We shot from Natchez to Greenwood to everything in between.”
THE ‘00s TO TODAY: THE MAIN ATTRACTION
Production remained steady at the dawn of the new millennium, but the industry was about to see another seismic shift in the landscape, and another that Mississippi would be at the forefront: film incentives.
Louisiana was the first state to have an incentive program go into effect in 2002. But Mississippi wasn’t far behind with its own Mississippi Motion Picture Incentive Program, which began in 2004. And unlike a lot of other states, Mississippi’s incentive is a cash rebate rather than a tax credit. And that is arguably more attractive to independent film producers.
“Today, the Mississippi Motion Picture Incentive Program offers an up to 35 percent cash rebate on eligible expenditures and payroll made in the state,” Parikh said. “And our $50,000 per project minimum investment is a low entry point compared to some other states’ incentive requirements. As a result, we have had several producers who have been repeat customers.”
To date, over 200 projects have utilized the rebate program, and the impact on Mississippi communities has been immeasurable.
“The biggest challenge we face is helping folks understand that filmmaking is economic development, and that significant money is spent with individuals and in communities,” Parikh said. “We don’t build factories and produce cars or widgets. However, a feature film will be here for two to six months, and they could pay local employees $15-$50 per hour depending on the position. If someone works 2-3 movies in a year, that’s a pretty nice salary, but that’s sometimes hard to convey to someone more accustomed to a traditional 9 to 5 job. HGTV’s Home Town is now in Season 7 and they are working nearly year-round. Once we have more series work around the state, it will be easier to showcase that economic impact.”
And since the incentive’s inception, the vision of Mississippi being a place where almost any type of film can be made has been realized. There have been action movies (2016’s Precious Cargo, 2017’s Arsenal), horror films (2021’s Jakob’s Wife, 2022’s Glorious), westerns (2016’s The Duel, 2021’s Bastard’s Crossing), comedies (2016’s The Hollars, 2021’s Breaking News in Yuba County), thrillers (2019’s Ma, 2022’s Paradise Highway) and even prestige dramas (2008’s award-winning Ballast, 2022’s Golden Globe-nominated The Inspection and All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt, set to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival this month).
The state has remained a fertile ground for Mississippi stories as well. Actor James Franco produced and directed two Faulkner adaptations, 2013’s As I Lay Dying and 2014’s The Sound and the Fury. Hattiesburg native filmmaker Miles Doleac has produced, written and directed seven feature films including the upcoming musical Open. Two Christmas TV movies, 2017’s Christmas in Mississippi and 2021’s Every Time a Bell Rings, were filmed in and set in Gulfport and Natchez, respectively.
And the Film Office continues to help tell important and challenging stories from Mississippi’s past, such as the murder of Emmett Till and the strength of his mother Mamie Till-Mobley in the 2022 ABC miniseries Women of the Movement. It was filmed primarily around Greenwood and at several of the locations where the events occurred.
“It was important for that story to be told in this state, and the producers were initially looking elsewhere,” Parikh said. “For as long as I’ve worked in this office, there have been scripts circulating about that tragedy, but none had gone into production until recently. I’m glad I was here to finally help shepherd one to the screen.”
And not least of all is 2011’s The Help, which won Octavia Spencer a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role of maid Minny Jackson. The film, which received three other nominations including Best Picture, was based on Jackson native author Kathryn Stockett’s novel detailing the interaction between black maids and the white families they worked for in 1960s Jackson.
“The Help demonstrated in many ways the impact filmmaking can have on Mississippi communities, particularly a place like Greenwood that was still reeling from the 2008 recession,” Parikh said.
It was directed by Jackson native filmmaker Tate Taylor, who parlayed his success into Crooked Letter Picture Company, a production company based in Natchez he founded with his partner John Norris. The company co-produced the aforementioned Ma, Breaking News in Yuba County and the 2014 James Brown biopic Get on Up, all which Taylor directed using locations in Natchez and Jackson.
Parikh says Taylor’s career path is just the type of success story the film industry can make possible for Mississippians.
“I’ve seen crew members move from production assistant to heads of departments,” she said. “I’ve seen elementary students we’ve taught in our Canton Young Filmmakers workshops now directing their first feature film. I’ve seen the work this office has done over 50 years qualitatively and quantitatively grow with the industry.”
And it’s an industry that will only continue to see growth.
“It’s one of the few industries that is expanding rather than shrinking because of technology,” Emling said. “The credits of this year’s Marvel movie are even longer than last year’s Marvel movie. They just go on and on. And every name represents a different job. It’s endless opportunity that can be created anywhere. I mean, someone could open an effects studio in, say, Pelahatchie and work on one specific thing on the next Avatar. We know that because the work is in fact being done all over the world. Just watch the credits.”
Parikh believes that to capitalize on this growth, it will take more film industry companies putting down roots in the state.
“I envision production facilities in multiple parts of the state with episodic series work booked in them, support services around the state, and individuals employed throughout the year solely by production work,” she said. “There is an outrageous amount of content that will continue to be made far beyond the next 50 years even, for the tiny screen in our pockets to the big screens of theatres, from studios to streaming services and independent makers. There’s no reason that content can’t be made in Mississippi. I can see that future.”