It's the classic underdog story. This month, Hollywood will descend upon Baylor School's campus to film "Will to Succeed," rumored to star Helen Hunt. But the David-and-Goliath story line doesn't lie with Will Kling, the 14-year-old main character forced to leave home and attend boarding school.
Instead it's the back story of how a major motion picture decided to use Baylor as its location. "As soon as I read the script I knew Baylor was perfect, but I looked at locations all over the Southeast because I didn't want to seem biased," says local Lisa Wheelous, 34, one of the movie's first local hires.
Her work as a freelance location scout takes Wheelous all over the Southeast, but just last year she was navigating very different terrain-the cubicle maze at UNUM. Her new career began when she took the professional film and television training class at Chattanooga State last fall. Since then she's found steady work with major networks like A&E, National Geographic and the Travel Channel, as well as local commercial work. And Wheelous is just one of the successful graduates. Open to anyone, the class census runs the gamut from high school students to retirees.
"A thriving film community starts with building a local crew base," says adjunct professor Dave Porfiri, who also owns a successful production company, Mindflow Media.
When he relocated here in 2005 after a decade in Hollywood, he witnessed an acute need for training. While shooting a Super Bowl commercial in town with Peyton Manning he noticed only three of the 60-plus crew-members were local. "I thought this is just wrong. Here we have major money being spent and it's going into the pockets of people from Nashville and Atlanta," Porfiri explains.
In recent years however, the tides seem to be turning. In 2009 the local film community coalesced to form the Chattanooga Film Society, a nonprofit dedicated to encouraging film-making in the area. There seems to be a groundswell of enthusiasm around film in Chattanooga, helped in no small part by last year's "Water for Elephants" shoot. But the excitement extends beyond Robert Pattinson star sightings. Hosting a feature film means a pachyderm-sized shot in the arm to the local economy.
The Lost Valentine, 2010
Water for Elephants, 2010
Heaven's Fall, 2006
Straight Into Darkness, 2004
The Adventures of Ociee Nash, 2005
All Over Again / Against Time, 2001
Love Potion #9, 2001
October Sky, 1999
Forces of Nature, 1999
The Jungle Book, 1994
Christopher Columbus: The Discovery, 1992
The Big Blue, 1988
A Winner Never Quits, 1986
The Bear, 1984
The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia, 1981
The Rain People, 1968
Wild River, 1960
Keep Your Powder Dry, 1944
The Man Trail, 1915
As a general rule of thumb, the financial impact is two-and-a-half times the amount spent in production. "Water for Elephants" left more than a $1 million impression, and that was just a few weeks of filming with very little local crew. On "Will to Succeed," the production company plans to shoot the entire film at Baylor and has already said they're committed to hiring as many locals as possible. Porfiri estimates they'll spend upwards of $10 million, not including the director's or stars' salaries, meaning it could have a $25 million trickle-down effect for local hotels, restaurants, stores and more-not to mention local jobs.
Of course, the whole picture isn't rosy. While there are other projects on the horizon, the odds aren't in our favor for sustaining a healthy film industry says Jan Austin, executive director of the Association for the Future of Film and Television in Tennessee. "As a state, the outlook is pretty bleak and getting worse I'm sorry to say," she says, placing the blame on a lackluster tax-incentive program. "Right now there are 40 states that have incentives trying to recruit film and television projects, and ours are pretty near the bottom of the barrel."
Early to hop on the Hollywood bandwagon, neighbor state Georgia is enjoying its blockbuster years. At any given time, three to four movies are being shot in Atlanta, and production houses in Los Angeles are opening Atlanta satellite offices-bad news for a city perched on the state line. To make matters worse, money for former Gov. Phil Bredesen's incentive package is all but gone, says Austin.
When Gov. Bill Haslam unveiled his economic development plan this spring, the entertainment industry was identified as a key industry cluster according to Bill Raines, interim director of the Tennessee Film, Entertainment & Music Commission. So far there's been an initial investment of about $2 million, but much more is needed.
Even so, Chattanooga's burgeoning film community remains undaunted. This against-all-odds attitude is nowhere more apparent than in Missy Crutchfield's office at the city's Department of Education, Arts & Culture. In 2005 she helped launch the city's first film commission with a next-to-nothing budget. Today it's one of only two left in the state, with Nashville and Knoxville shuttering their offices in recent years. "Chattanooga is in the preliminary stages of developing its production community and the local film commission will play a big role in growing the area's entertainment industry," says Raines.
Serving as a clearinghouse of information, the commission's main focus is to assist out-of-town producers interested in shooting in the area. And while the scene has yet to completely play out, Crutchfield remains eternally optimistic. "Chattanooga is known for its can-do spirit and making incredible things happen," she says. "The movies we've been able to attract so far are like ambassadors for our city. Filmmaking is a very small world and they tell each other everything-good or bad. So far the response is all good."
The Trickle-down Effect
When a movie comes to town, money floods the city faster than a scene from a disaster flick. Three local Hollywood insiders provide a snapshot of how money was spent while shooting two of the city's biggest projects.
Water For Elephants
As one of the few remaining entities in the country maintaining historic trains, the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum played a lead role in attracting the feature film to the area.
Hires: Nearly 100 freelancers were hired from around the region, but only a few were local, including the alterations person. About 10 locals were hired for set and office production.
Hotels: Approximately $100,000 spread across the Sheraton Read House, downtown Marriott, Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel and Courtyard by Marriott. Roughly 150 crew-members came from Los Angeles.
Set Construction: Approximately $10,000 total.
Mountain Creek Village Laundry: One of the last shots was a rain scene, meaning Stark had to dry the costumes at a local Laundromat before packing up to ship back to L.A.
Big & Tall Shop, Brainerd Road: $100 for a last-minute shirt.
WalMart: Provided on-set necessities including distilled water, trash bags, towels, rain gear for the crew and an ironing board.
New United Missionary Baptist Church: Served as staging area during train scenes and was paid a site fee for three days worth of shooting.
Lee Paint Center: Nearly $700 worth of paint helped age the Chickamauga farmhouse.
EMS Services & Lift Truck Rental
Produced for National Geographic, CSI: Me is an eight-part docu-series that follows three forensic science experts as they try to identify someone based on sparse clues. Chattanooga served as set headquarters, where a warehouse was converted into a crime lab.
Hires: Approximately 40 local people including set builders, production assistants, prop persons, camera assistants, location manager, gaffer, key grip and electricians.
Hotel: $45,000 was spent at the Sheraton Read House Hotel, lodging the production team.
Set construction: Approximately $20,000 total.
Local catering company: $30,000 for on-set meals.
Staples: $2,000 for chairs, light kits, filing cabinets, odds and ends.
McKays Used Books : 20 boxes of old medical books totaling $400.
Thrift Stores: Coffee pot, mugs, odds and ends.
Home Depot: Mini fridge to hold drinks for the crew, lumber and other building supplies.
Erlanger Medical Center: Provided old X-rays with the names removed for props.
Restaurant Supply Store: Approximately $1,000 worth of steel tables.
Pier One: Approximately $400 on miscellaneous props.
Bed, Bath & Beyond: Approximately $300 on miscellaneous props.
Medical Supply Company: X-ray lights.
Lisa Stark, 45
A Chicago native, Lisa Stark moved to Signal Mountain 14 years ago for her husband's job. She was a stay-at-home mom to their three teenage children for many years before taking the production assistant class at Chattanooga State, seeing it as a new way to utilize her art degree. After hand delivering welcome baskets to the "Water for Elephants" production team she was hired on the spot as wardrobe assistant.
Caara Stoney, 48
Caara Stoney has worked in film off and on for about 20 years, primarily in Atlanta in the '80s and '90s. She moved to Chattanooga in 2003 thinking she would take a permanent hiatus from the entertainment world, but recent opportunities drew her back to it. As a scenic artist she's in charge of everything in camera's view whether that means adding dust to outdoor plantings or aging the side of a building by 50 years.
Dave Porfiri, 44
Dave Porfiri has worked in the industry since age 13. After graduating from the University of Southern California's prestigious School of Cinema and Television he spent a decade in Hollywood before moving to D.C., where he served as full-time professor of film-making. He moved to Chattanooga in 2005 - his wife's hometown - where they've established a successful production company, Mindflow Media.