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In this episode of the Arkansas Inc. Podcast, our Host Jeff Moore explores the ins and outs of what it’s like to work behind the scenes in the film industry from the perspective of Christopher Crane, who has served Arkansas as the state film commissioner since 2007. They discuss technical difficulties, the process of choosing locations, and how Arkansas’ unique creative economy has been the secret ingredient to film and television success stories like “Mud,” with Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon and HBO’s “True Detective” season three.
Film and television production, and economic development
Jeff Moore: I'm your host Jeff Moore, executive Vice President of marketing and communications for the Arkansas Economic Development commission.
Jeff Moore: More than ever, Americans love movies and TV with more content offered on screens large and small than ever before. There's a lot that goes into the production of all these movies and TV shows. According the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2016, the American Film and TV industry accounted for, get this, 1.2 million jobs and 400,000 local business across this country. The industry continues to be a key driver of the US economy, adding high quality domestic jobs and paying out 49 billion businesses. And the movie industry is an integral part of what we know to be the creative economy.
Jeff Moore: So, today we're going to learn about this creative economy on the Arkansas Inc. Podcast, and my guest today is none other than Christopher Crane. Christopher has served Arkansas as the state film commissioner since 2007, and in his role, he oversees the promotion, recruitment and development on the state's film industry by marketing Arkansas to national and international film clientele. So, welcome Christopher.
Christopher: Well, thank you for having me.
Jeff Moore: So, tell me a little bit about the connection between film and television production and economic development?
Christopher: First of all, my office is housed in economic development, and it's there for a reason. The film industry does many things as far as attracting out of state investments, it creates high paying jobs, it contributes to the economic and civic vitality of communities, it stimulates cultural tourism. And then another key component is the retention of university and college graduates. So there's a direct correlation between what we coin as the film industry. It's not just entertainment; it is an economic driver; it's an engine.
The creative economy in Arkansas
Jeff Moore: So, tell me a little bit about the creative economy in Arkansas and how the film production industry fits into the creative economy in that type of ecosystem.
Christopher: Sure. So film, in and of itself, and you know we've talked about this throughout the years, there was a study, there were actually several studies done. The Winthrop Rockefeller Institute commissioned a couple of studies by RTS and Stu Rosenfeld, and it talked about the importance of capturing the creative economy. The creative economy to us and the film industry is; we look at film as the ultimate amalgam of all of the creative industries.
Christopher: So, to effectively produce a film, you have to have personnel, people being paid who are seamstresses, carpenters and artists and drafters and writers and musicians. So you have all of these people who are creative in their own aspect and in their own little bubble. But when you expand the bubble and you get all these people working together, that's exactly what it takes to produce a film. So, we feel like the creative economy flourishes, in part, because of the film industry. The film industry employs literally millions of people who would be able to be set into that particular category of being participants of the creative economy.
Christopher: I will say that when we talked about the creative economy on a state level it was, at the time of the study, it was the third largest traded cluster. It was behind transport and logistics and timber. And when we're talking about an economic engine, I think that that's very fascinating. Arkansas in and of itself is just full of creative types, and we feel like there's no better industry to take advantage of that then the film industry
The Role of The Film Commissioner
Jeff Moore: Tell me a little bit about how the film commissioner fits into this. What's the role of the film commissioner in this piece of the creative economy and film production?
Christopher: The role of the film commissioner. Well, somewhat like a dinner roll. No the role of a film commissioner is there's a certain amount of ambiguity especially in the eyes of somebody who's not in the industry. What I consider myself is a producer on a state level, and so I work on logistics with every single production. We're responsible for recruiting a production to a particular area.
Christopher: When we talk about an area, I don't care where it is as long as it's within the confines of the state of Arkansas. So, we help with productions all over the state. We deal in permitting, in road closures. We deal a lot with child labor issues and making sure that the laws are strictly followed especially when it comes to the employment of young actors and workers, et cetera. We have a pretty comprehensive data tool at our fingertips which is Arkansasproduction.com which is the clearinghouse for locations and crew and then all of your ancillary businesses, your support services.
Christopher: So putting all of that together, my day to day duties really change. It's very dynamic. I love what I do because it's never the same on any single day. If somebody asks you, "Are there similarities in productions?" Generally, no. There are no two productions that are the same. No two productions really hire the same amount of people. They're never in the same locations. They're never closing down the same streets. They're never wanting the same equipment. So it really, it changes.
Christopher: My role is to facilitate and to handle those logistics to make sure that producers and directors have all of the necessary tools at their fingertips in order to produce the highest quality and caliber production in the state.
Major Films Produced in Arkansas
Jeff Moore: So of all of the productions that have happened in the state, and I can name three or four just off the top of my head, tell us about some of the major films that you've been a part of that have been filmed here in Arkansas.
Christopher: Well, we've grown over the past few years and we're really happy about that. I think that some of the major productions that people will be familiar with, of course Mud with Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon and Ray McKinnon and just a cast of thousands so to speak, was filmed all along southeast Arkansas. So, the production offices were located in Stuttgart and then as far south and east as you can go. We pretty much filmed in every little town along the way. Dumas, DeWitt and Crocketts Bluff, and et cetera. So, that's one of the larger film productions that we've had as far as feature film. Then, of course, this last year we've hard laid that into what we think is the penultimate of the film industry and episodic television which was HBO's True Detective 3.
Christopher: So we feel like we've had some success in the past. We've had some pretty major productions in the state. Sling Blade, while not a huge economic spend, really had an impact on the state. It was really the rest of the world's first entrée into the Billy Bob world, and Billy Bob produced an excellent piece of content there that then started to shine some light on some of our local content developers and producers as people who could really be a part of the industry. Out of that spun the Jeff Nichols, who then went on to product Mud and now several other award winning films.
Christopher: So, we've got a very storied history. A lot of people take a lot of pride in the fact that something was filmed in their community which is a great ancillary impact of film is that moral building so that you can point at Uncle Joe and say, "Hey look there's my uncle!" Some of the big films, I'd say that a community that's embraced that the most probably would be North Little Rock and the three seconds of film that we saw the old mill in Gone With The Wind. So communities have had an interesting way to take these films that we've made and turn them not only into that film was made here, but become a tourist attraction as well.
Jeff Moore: So you've got the Jeff Nichols and the Billy Bob Thornton, the name brands in keeping with the creative economy and film production is part of that greater economic movement in our state and across the nation. Not just film production but film creation right? You'd mentioned before all the creative skills that go into becoming a part of this ecosystem. So how has Arkansas been able to raise up it's okay, of course there is Jeff Nichols and Billy Bob Thortons, but what organically is happening in our state in terms of creation?
Christopher: So we've seen a lot of growth in the industry. First of all on a local level because of all of our film festivals. Right now within the state of Arkansas we have give or take one that may take a year off. We have around 19 active films festivals, which not only lends to people being able to view content, but it also brings the content developers to the area, and then we're able to have our local film personnel and our kids who want to grow up to be directors. They're able to rub elbows and interact with some of those people. Which, to me, is just a glorious thing.
Christopher: This last year we had Jeff Nichols come back. He's helped create something called the Arkansas Cinema Society, which is a curated festival. Jeff's whole intent in that is to really break down film into layman's terms, and for people to be able to come to that festival, to hear a director or a producer talk about the idea and it's conception and then how do you take that idea and then take it to fruition and it becomes something that's a viable, living, breathing piece of art or content. So that's important. That doesn't happen in a lot of places. I applaud Jeff and Katherine and all of the people who are part of that festival.
Christopher: Traditionally, we've had really strong leadership at AETN. AETN has been a content creator and developer for years. They produce some of the finest documentary work in the nation which then, in turn, parlays into content that's seen on a local level but then nationally through Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival. So, I think that that's a huge part of the growth. We also have certain initiatives like East Lab. East Lab is another one that lets kids from K through 12 and now in the college level really start to manipulate and play and craft with cutting edge technology in film and media. They become accustomed and it's almost like rote memory for them to talk about how films were made and what you do and what a two shot is and et cetera. It really has taken all of these pieces to foster this pond. We've gotten past our tadpole stage now, and we've got some frogs. Yeah we're starting to leap a little bit so we're pretty excited about that.
Jeff Moore: You've been listening to the Arkansas Inc. Podcast. We're going to take a short break, then we'll be right back with Christopher Crane.
HBO's True Detective
Jeff Moore: Well obviously one of the most recent successes in the state has been HBO's True Detective season three which recently wrapped production in northwest Arkansas. How did HBO decide to film the series in Fayetteville in greater northwest Arkansas?
Christopher: Well, believe it or not, it was more than a flip of a coin. First of all, there was relationship there with HBO that was founded when we began recruiting Graham Gordy's series Quarry. So the relationship with HBO had been fostered, and we stay in touch with those guys and would call every couple of months and see if there's a project out there. Then we'd get a call from them to see if something fit et cetera.
Christopher: So we got a call and we knew that Nic Pizzolatto was writing a third series and HBO expressed interest and we said of course we'd love to have it here if we can get a shot at it. They were looking at three or four other states at the time. We were able to get them here, and one of the things that I think gives us a competitive advantage when we're talking about economic development as well is the fact that our governor has an open door policy when it comes to that. He's truly an economic development champion. He was willing to sit down immediately with the producers and with the HBO executives, and just talk to them in a very personal way about how much we wanted them here in the state and what that meant as far as what we could offer them. I'm not talking about monetarily or incentives, I'm just talking about customer service. And I think that that went a long way.
Christopher: From his office, we literally hopped in a car and started scouting the locations that we'd already sent them. We sent them an initial package while we were beginning the process. And, to tell you the truth, Scott Stevens, who was the executive producer, we were driving up Highway Seven and got out at one of the vistas there that is right at the Arkansas valley and in the foothills of the Boston Mountains by the Cliff House Restaurant outside of Jasper. He gets out and he literally turns a circle and he says, "Wow. This is Arkansas". And it really was one of those moments that it just captured everything that that story that Nic Pizzolatto had written to.
Christopher: That was the beginning, once we got them here, and that's pretty much the case in any economic development project. If we can get somebody here, Arkansans are warm, they're welcoming. We're amazingly articulate most of the time. I think it surprises some people in the fact that we're well educated and articulate, and people want you to succeed here which is unlike any other place. So the communities in and of themselves helped in establishing the relationship with HBO. And then the community of Fayetteville...Mayor Jordan and his team opened their arms and it became a place that was going to be very difficult for them to leave. They had decisions to make. So the process not only was financial for them but it was about a place that they knew that they could effectively create their content and truly match the script. It was a no brainer.
Jeff Moore: I think that's a good segue into the next question. One of the stars of True Detective season three, Mahershala Ali, described northwest Arkansas as being like one of characters in the series. Not just a venue or a site but a character in the series. What do you think he meant by that?
Christopher: Well, that was discussed during the recruitment stages as well. One of the things that we have to guard against, and when I say guard we're not necessarily there to censor content. But we want to make sure that Arkansas is looked upon in a positive light, but more than that in a realistic positive light. And like the rest of the crew, Mahershala was blown away by the topography. Just the simple beauty. To capture the fog rolling in across the beautiful hills and just the bucolic setting that Arkansas is, is fantastic.
Christopher: So Arkansas is going to play a character in that regard. The setting in and of itself is a character. There are very few places that you can step out of, off of the highway and go into a place like Devil's Den, which plays a huge part in this series. And then from there you go to West Fork, which is a really small community, and then you're into the town of Fayetteville. The character that Arkansas is going to play is one of beauty and it's one of kind of mystery because you have those hidden caverns and the outdoor aspect. Then you also have that cross section of urban and rural together. I think that that's something that they all loved.
The Business of Film Production
Jeff Moore: Well we were fortunate to take the tour. You took us along on the bus and of course we were in Fayetteville at the headquarters there right? Is that what they referred to?
Christopher: Yeah, the production office.
Jeff Moore: Production office and then we took a little remote trip out to Mountainburg and saw first hand how it's kind of sprawled out. Like you get to see a good representation of the whole northwest Arkansas. I remember just thinking, "This must really impact a greater area than just Fayetteville where their production offices were, but all across that portion of the state".
Jeff Moore: So obviously film production is a business in the end right?
Jeff Moore: And deciding on a location is a business decision. So, why was Arkansas a good business decision for HBO in this case and for other film and television productions?
Christopher: I think piggybacking on where we were, that's a good segue.
Christopher: First of all anywhere you are in Arkansas, if you go 30 minutes outside of what we might call an urban center, you change locations and you can change locations to fit pretty much any script. Sans a beach and an ocean, we've got a little bit of everything. It's always going to make sense in a topographical standpoint I believe. I'm a little biased, but I love Arkansas and I think she's a beautiful state.
Christopher: As far as just business decision. One of the things that we touched on a minute ago. We, I think, are set up in a unique position unlike any other state. While we do have some competitiveness, if you have a project like True Detective and it films in northwest Arkansas, Little Rock's still a part of it. Jonesboro's still a part of it. We're literally one phone call away from getting anything done in the state. That falls back on everybody wants you to succeed when you're here. Everybody loves success in Arkansas.
Christopher: So, doing business just isn't about an incentive program. It's not just about the dollars and cents. Yes we have a low cost of doing business and you can get some amazing prices and deals on the goods and all of those ancillary services that it takes to produce a film. Also have the ease of doing business and the fact that the Governor's door was open. We have relationships with pretty much every county, judge and mayor in the state. We can get things done because people understand that we're all in this together. I think that that's, truthfully, what sends us above the rest of the crowd when it comes to the way that we approach economic development in the state, is that it's relationship-centered and that we're all in it together.
A Symbiotic Relationship
Jeff Moore: That seems to even come back to your role. You've mentioned before that these kinds of productions can disrupt traffic and there's need to make a phone call, as you mentioned, you're one phone call away. Your role seems to be very critical in that respect wouldn't it be?
Christopher: Oh my gosh yeah. I'm on the phone every day, and depending upon what's going on, what production, it could be morning, noon or night. Walking into church with my wife, I got a phone call that a particular road wasn't shut down on time. So she went in and gave glory and thanks, and I sat out in the parking lot and took care of the film industry. So I think that as far as getting things done in the state it's a concerted effort. Again, the business aspect of it, people want film in their community.
Christopher: One of the things that we often say is that it's like recruiting a couple of month convention to your community. Except it's a convention that comes in and they repaint the houses and they repave roads and there are all kinds of things that are truly positive. And it's a green industry. I so take great pride in the fact that I work for an industry that leaves a community better than when it first set foot in that community. I also take great pride in the fact that we make sure that all of our locals are taken care of and we make sure that the production's taken care. It's got to be a symbiotic relationship. From a producer's standpoint, they appreciate what we try to do to make sure and take care of our community. But they also really are appreciative I’m taking care of them.
Jeff Moore: So you've been doing this 12 years or so right? Since 2007.
Christopher: Oh has it been that long? Yes. When you hear the creaking. My bones.
Jeff Moore: So any good stories? What's one that comes to mind?
Christopher: Oh my gosh, I have so many. I can tell you a story.
Christopher: First of all, let me tell you a film story about Mud. If you've seen Mud, I won't give too much of the premise away if you haven't. But one of the major plot points in this is that the two young boys go out and they find a boat in a tree. So, first of all when you're searching for locations, one of the things that you don't expect. I should expect it from Jeff. But he said, "I've got to have this tree. I'm looking for this tree". He knew what he had in his mind because he wanted such a realism and he wanted every single aspect of this film to be correct. So, we set out to find this perfect tree. We talked to arborist across the state. We had some ideas, et cetera. It took a month and a half of scouting to give Jeff Nichols, "How about this tree?" "Nope, nope, nope. I don't like the way that branch hangs". "How about this tree?", "Well, you know, it's got too many branches. We don't want to cut any. This is the way it has to be".
Christopher: So we finally found the tree and the tree was in the middle of nowhere. It was in the middle of nowhere down by the White River. One of the problems in film is the fact that you have to, even if you have the perfect location and the perfect set piece, you have to get everything to it to film it.
Jeff Moore: Company move.
Christopher: So you have a company move, that's exactly right. You have transportation. We're talking about all these grip and electric trucks and generators. For a film that size, we had three semis, and it was just a huge show. So how do you get it there?
Christopher: So we went to the property owner and we said, "Well, have you ever thought about having a road built down to the riverside"? And he said, "I've thought about it, but I've never been able to afford it". And we said, "Well, you can now". So the production of Mud spent $35,000 to build a gravel road all the way down to that property line just to film that tree and that road still exists today, and the man uses it.
Christopher: So very, very positive story that came out of much angst and anguish in trying to find that dang thing. But there are lots of stories like that.
Jeff Moore: Now referred to as Season Three Avenue.
Christopher: That's exactly right.
Jeff Moore: Gravel but one day it will be paved.
Christopher: That's right.
Jeff Moore: Speaking with Christopher Crane, who is the film commissioner for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, and it's been a wonderful time looking back at the films that have been produced in the state and how they're done and how they contribute to the economy. We're so grateful to you Christopher for being here with us today.
Christopher: Thanks for having me.
Jeff Moore: This has been the Arkansas Inc. Podcast. I'm your host Jeff Moore. To learn more, visit our website at arkansasedc.com. Thank you for listening.
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