Mississippi Gulf Coast film industry continues to grow and impact local economy

A scene of the harbor at Ocean Springs. Photo by Chandler Griffin.

Thanks to its 62 miles of scenic shoreline, a wealth of things to do and unparalleled hospitality, the Mississippi Gulf Coast is one of the best kept secrets in the tourism industry.

It’s also quickly becoming one of the best kept secrets in the movie business.

“We’re always making new ambassadors,” said Gulfport mayor Billy Hewes. “Filmmakers come here and they love it. They really enjoy the pace of life, the cost of doing business—all the things we sometimes take for granted here.”

Gulf Coast Project Manager Bill Webb says that since he started working for the Mississippi Film Office in 2014, over 30 film and television productions have been filmed on the coast, with five of them shot in just the past six months.

“It’s been exponential,” he said. “Producers fall in love with the coast because of the various locations. We have 11 very different communities on the coast. That’s what I tell them: if you can’t find the location here, it’s because you’re not looking.”

There’s the beaches, cityscapes and casinos of Biloxi and Gulfport. The quaint bohemian neighborhoods of Ocean Springs. The sprawling industrial district of Pascagoula. The scenic swamps and bayous of Pass Christian. Even military and aerospace installations at Keesler Air Force Base and the John C. Stennis Space Center. And much more.

“There’s a whole lot of value in these magnificent locations that I’ve fallen in love with in Mississippi,” said David Lipper, producer and owner of Los Angeles-based Latigo Films. They are currently in production on “Joe Baby,” their third project to be filmed in Mississippi in 2022.

2020’s “The Card Counter” was shot primarily in Biloxi.

He says that the Mississippi Motion Picture Incentive Program, which offers a 25-35 percent rebate on a production’s local spending and payroll, got him to consider coming to the state and initially contact the Film Office.

“When I looked at other places, they were less inviting than the good people at the Mississippi Film Office,” Lipper said. “Nina and Bill were just so easy to connect with and were so hospitable.”

Mississippi Film Office Director Nina Parikh says that Webb is the office’s secret weapon, because he brings the knowledge and connections of working in economic development for Mississippi Development Authority on the coast for nearly 30 years.

“In many ways, the coast is a one-stop shop for filmmakers because they can call Bill and he can connect them with anything they might need, whether it’s getting permission for a street closure, chartering a boat to get to an island or even finding someone local to feed the crew,” Parikh said.

Webb says it’s easy for him because government officials, businesses and locals are so welcoming to filmmaking.

“One of my biggest assets is building and maintaining relationships,” Webb said. “What keeps the filmmakers coming back is the ease of working with people here.”

Lipper agrees.

“I will take the added value of the people, services and the community working with me over the added incentive only of Georgia,” he said. “Certainly, Mississippi’s rebate program is competitive enough that it makes sense for me to be here, but you also have to look at the total value when you look at going on a location shoot.”

And the productions that come to the coast pay back the value they get in several impactful ways.

2017’s “Arsenal” was shot in Biloxi and features many real locations in the city.

“There’s always that multiplier effect from a dollar spent,” Hewes said. “We want to see these productions be successful because their success is our success on so many levels, not only at the box office, but in our community. When a movie comes in, they’ve got to stay somewhere. They’re going to eat somewhere and most of the time they’re in town for weeks at a time. That has a direct economic impact. It’s people working, making a living. That translates into more opportunity in areas beyond just the movie industry.”

“I’ve gotten calls from hotel operators about how happy they are when they had 80-plus room nights in a month when they normally wouldn’t have them,” Webb said. “These folks spend a heck of a lot of money on rooms and using their per diems at restaurants and going to the casinos and bars on their off days.”

Productions also spend money locally in other ways, from purchasing needed supplies from big box and mom and pop stores to paying fees to businesses and homeowners for location usage. George Bush owns Club Thirty IV, an 11,000 sq. ft. nightclub on 9.5 acres in Gulfport, which has served as a location in several films.

“The filmmakers bring in an extraordinary amount of revenue to the gulf coast, and they’ve all been a pleasure to work with,” Bush said. “It’s been exciting for me to see the creation of what they do. I’ve made my facility their home, any time they choose to use it.”

Along with the cash infusion the productions bring, they also bring local jobs. While it’s a requirement of the incentive program for a production to hire at least 20 percent in-state crew, it also benefits them to hire as many Mississippians as possible because their pay is rebated at a higher rate.

2016’s “Precious Cargo” was shot primarily in Gulfport.

“Once producers get comfortable down here, they want to actively help train local crew, to bring students in from the local film programs,” Webb said.

The University of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Park campus in Long Beach is home to the school’s film studies program, which teaches technical filmmaking skills as well as film history and theory.

“I’ve noticed there’s been an influx of productions coming here to the coast especially in the last three to four years,” said USM assistant professor Vincenzo Mistretta. “It’s been steadily growing. My students work with these productions when they need production assistants. We really try to focus on the hands-on experience and working on these projects is a great way to do that.”

Biloxi native Bruce Roberts graduated from the school’s two-year program in 2013 and has gone on to a busy career in the camera department on several coast-shot productions. He most recently worked on the film “Lineage” that shot in Gulfport in April and is grateful for the recent influx of local work.

“I love living at home and I never really want to move,” he said. “If I could work on at least two films a year in Biloxi I’d be happy. I think when the above-the-line people come down to the coast, they get such a sense of fun when they see the beaches and the casinos and all the things to do. They might think it could be a little vacation for them. I think there’s a little bit of that going on here.”

Lipper is considering putting down roots on the coast himself.

2017’s “Kill ‘Em All” was shot primarily in Biloxi.

“I’m actually looking at real estate to buy and thinking I’d love to become a resident and get a home here,” he said.

His production company, Latigo Films, has been looking for a place to set up shop as well.

“We really kicked into gear about a year ago,” Lipper said. “I founded the company with my friend Bob Daly, Jr. We thought it would be a whole lot of fun if we had a company together and made films independently the right way, where we treat people with respect … The next level up for us would be in creating a studio where we would have offices. We would have some infrastructure, rental equipment and a stage to shoot on. And I feel like Mississippi would be a great place for that.”

Latigo Films’ last two productions brought well-known talent to the state like Mickey Rourke, Mena Suvari and Jason Patric. And other studios’ recent productions have also attracted a myriad of top talent to the coast.

The 2020 thriller “The Card Counter” starred Oscar Isaac and was directed by Paul Schrader and executive produced by Martin Scorsese, the pair famous for their collaboration on the 1976 classic “Taxi Driver.” The 2017 action film “Arsenal” starred Nicolas Cage, John Cusack and Adrian Grenier of “Entourage” fame. Other stars like Morgan Freeman, Ruby Rose, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Bruce Willis, Harvey Keitel and even the late Burt Reynolds have appeared in coast-shot productions.

“Of course, everybody talks about celebrity sightings and things like that, so it creates some buzz,” Hewes said. “But we also take pride that A-list people want to be here. We work hard to promote and provide what we do from an experience standpoint on the Gulf Coast. Particularly our cuisine, the natural resources, the amenities and just the overall environment and the way we treat people. Folks say everybody is so nice and accommodating here. That’s what we do. We’re the hospitality state for a reason.”