Uncertain incentives could keep ‘Bluff City Law’ from filming in Tennessee

Updated: May. 9, 2019 at 8:52 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - A TV pilot filmed in Memphis and based on a fictional Memphis law firm is the talk of the town after NBC announced this week the show will become a series for the peacock network.

Like all good courtroom dramas, we’re on the edge of our seats waiting to see what happens next because state money that will keep cameras rolling in Memphis isn’t a guarantee.

The Bluff City provided the backdrop for “The Firm,” “Cast Away,” “Hustle and Flow” and more blockbusters.

“Memphis has had great success for many years with film productions and then this was turned off because they started going elsewhere,” said Greg Akers, editor-in-chief of the Memphis Business Journal.

Akers is a former film critic and says in the early 2000s states began competing for film projects by producing lucrative incentive packages to draw filmmakers to particular states.

“Tennessee didn’t really participate much, so in the 2000s they began to incentivize a little bit for film and TV productions,” said Akers. “But we’re talking a couple million dollars a year for a production sometimes $10 million.”

Years later, some studios still consider Tennessee a light weight.

“We haven’t been happy here in west Tennessee for some time,” said Linn Sitler with the Memphis and Shelby County Film Commission.

Sitler says the Bluff City is losing a lot of money and jobs because of the state’s hesitance to incentivize film projects. Se points to recent productions like the Hallmark Channel’s “Chistmas at Graceland” and soon-to-premiere “Wedding at Graceland” as proof of a strong return on investment.

“Just the premiere night of Hallmark’s ‘Christmas at Graceland’ was worth $7.9 million in advertising dollars,” said Sitler.

Next on the horizon is the new project picked up by NBC this week, and Sitler believes it could be a big win for the entire state.

“'Bluff City Law’ for Memphis, Shelby County, for Tennessee would be the goose that laid the golden egg,” said Sitler.

The show stars Jimmy Smits as the principal attorney of a Memphis law firm tackling landmark civil rights cases.

While the pilot was shot in and around Memphis, Sitler says tax incentives are the only way to ensure future episodes are shot here too.

“This would mean jobs for 22 episodes, and that’s just the first season,” said Sitler.

Peter Kurland is a union representative for film crews in Tennessee.

“The way the incentive program is structured, for every dollar they received they spend $4 in the state, so it’s got a really good rate of return,” said Kurland.

He believes “Bluff City Law” could do for Memphis what the hit series “Nashville” did for the Music City.

“When they shot the ‘Nashville’ TV series here for the last six years, it brought hundreds of millions into the economy,” said Kurland. “It provided work for hundreds of people around for years. It was incredibly effective. More than paid for itself in tax revenue.”

Whether the show set in the Bluff City will actually be filmed in the Bluff City is still up in the air. Producers have requested $10 million in incentives, which Sitler says would provide a $55 million return on investment per season.

But legislators wrapped up the budget session without earmarking specific funds for “Bluff City Law,” allocating only $4 million for statewide film and TV project, despite support from Memphis lawmakers in both chambers.

“I think it would be more authentic if it was filmed in Memphis,” said Sen. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis. “The pilot was filmed in Memphis. The economic impact is huge. So it would be very disappointing if they were unable to make it work.”

Representative G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis, echoed his fellow lawmaker’s sentiments.

“A show about Memphis, Tennessee being filmed in Mississippi. A show about Memphis being filmed in Georgia. It’s embarrassing,” said Hardaway.

Sitler says the film commission hasn’t given up yet. Her next step is an email, letter-writing and call-in campaign encouraging Gov. Bill Lee to find $10 million in the state budget to keep the show in Memphis.

Tennessee Entertainment Commissioner Bob Raines said in a statement, “Tennessee’s Creative Class is a very unique asset, which contributes a significant impact to our state’s economy. My hope is that they will have the opportunity to work at home and be with their families.”

Former film critic Akers says he still thinks Memphis has a chance.

“It’s an uphill battle,” he said. “It will always probably in the future come down to specific projects.”

We should learn next week when “Bluff City Law” will begin airing on NBC. It’s not clear yet when a decision will be made on the production’s filming location.

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