Money behind the magic: How Memphis became the backdrop for ‘Bluff City Law’

Updated: Sep. 16, 2019 at 9:50 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Surely by now you’ve seen the billboards, promos and red carpet reviews for the new NBC drama “Bluff City Law.” It’s about a team of power house attorneys fighting for the little guys -- set in Memphis and shot in Memphis.

The Bluff City had to flex its own grit and grind to make sure the series filmed here. And if it’s picked up for a second season, you can expect another round of fighting to fund it.

“Can’t wait for the world to see it," said Linn Sitler with the Memphis Shelby County Film and Television Commission.

The most talked about new show of the fall season launches next Monday. It’s more than just entertainment.

“There was a lesson in this for all of us: Never give up,” said Sitler.

For nine months, Sitler and several others have been waiting to see the fruits of their labor after a long, hard fight for funding to make sure a series about the Bluff City filmed in the Bluff City.

“It was such an opportunity for Memphis, and I just felt like it had to work out, but honestly I didn’t know how it was going to work out,” said Sitler.

From the start, the show’s producers wanted to shoot in Memphis.

“We worked to find some place that didn’t look like the same old show you see all the time with the New York City skyline or the Chicago skyline,” said David Janollani, “Bluff City Law” executive producer. “We decided on Memphis because of its deep history here. It’s a great backdrop to have a law show set in the town that’s really the start of the Civil Rights Movement.”

NBC ordered a pilot episode in January. Filming for the first episode began two months later.

For the series to stay in Memphis, if NBC picked it up, would take $18 million in tax incentives.

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

Sitler traveled back and forth from Memphis to Nashville, trying to convince legislators to earmark money in the state’s budget to incentivize “Bluff City Law.”

Though support was there, the $18 million was not approved and the clock kept ticking.

“I even told Nashville you’re going to have a big problem on your hands if you all can’t come through somehow because it’s too good an opportunity for the state, for the city,” said Sitler.

Crew members who worked on the pilot episode started a letter-writing campaign begging legislators to find money to keep the series rolling on the river. Then in May, NBC announced they’d picked up “Bluff City Law” for series.

Though the show never got the requested $18 million, the state did cough up $2.5 million for the project.

The rest came from local resources, though it totaled much less than the original request. Memphis Tourism pitched in $350,000 of its marketing budget. Another $1.4 million came through the Economic Development Growth Engine, or EDGE.

“Desperation is a great motivator,” said Reid Dulberger, EDGE president and CEO.

Dulberger said this was the first time the board ever incentivized a TV show.

“We identified certain parcels of property that Comcast has in the city of Memphis that pay taxes to both the city and the county, and we found five of these that totaled $1.403 million," said Dulberger.

That means tax abatement for five of Comcast’s buildings would be applied instead of Comcast’s personal property, like fiber and telephone lines. Comcast, which owns NBC Universal, would then transfer those savings to “Bluff City Law.”

“I think when we first approached them with this they thought we were perhaps a tad crazy, but they quickly came to the realization that this could work,” said Dulberger.

NBC agreed to the deal and has already ordered an additional six episodes on top of the original 10 being shot right now.

Now the movers and shakers who secured that first round of funding are preparing for round two if the show gets picked up for a second season.

“We’re going to have to come up with more incentives from the state and on the local level, but I think it’ll be a different kind of battle this time, because this time we’ll have ammunition,” said Sitler.

“Bluff City Law” premieres on WMC Monday, Sept. 23 at 9 p.m.

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