City, university look toward local film industry
by Paige Rentz
Oct 15, 2012 | 4861 views |  0 comments | 14 14 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Instructor Jeffrey Nichols explains staging to his class, including camera operator Anaceli Marias, on a mock film set in JSU's Stone Center. (Photo by Paige Rentz/The Anniston Star)
Instructor Jeffrey Nichols explains staging to his class, including camera operator Anaceli Marias, on a mock film set in JSU's Stone Center. (Photo by Paige Rentz/The Anniston Star)
JACKSONVILLE — About a dozen Jacksonville State University students huddled around a couch in a windowless room in the Stone Center basement last week, learning skills that might shape the future of the city’s economy.

Enrolled in a film production minor program now in its second year, the students were taking a hands-on approach to staging a set under as close to real-world conditions as possible. Under the guidance of Jeffrey Nichols, a longtime industry professional, the students set a camera, adjusted lighting, directed their actors and set the production rolling with a stopwatch ticking.

“The way he was going about was, ‘This is how it’s going to be on a set,’” said Araceli Macias, the camera operator in Nichols’ Thursday Introduction to Film Technology class. She said the fast and furious session was typical of Nichols’ teaching style — trying to prepare students for the stresses of real-world film sets.

Launched as part of the Northeast Alabama Entertainment Initiative’s mission to lure film production to the area, the program’s initial pair of classes offer students an introduction to films and the film industry and then the chance to apply that knowledge with hands-on equipment training.

Real-world comes to town

Ultimately, the goal is to bring Hollywood to Calhoun County, simultaneously providing a ready-made workforce for production companies who choose to make films here.

According to Pete Conroy, chair of the Northeast Alabama Entertainment Initiative, a deal is currently in the works to secure a studio space in Jacksonville.

“The idea is to create a one-stop shop,” he said, noting that the ideal scenario would be to build a studio accompanied by storefronts for local businesses that could provide essential services to production companies: catering, sound and lighting, hair and makeup, props and set design.

“A lot of the students don’t know where they want to fit in in the industry,” Nichols said. A local studio would give his classes the opportunity to interact with professionals — an aspect of the filmmaking life that he emphasizes to his students. “I think once productions are in place here in Jacksonville, that’s when they’ll [see] the full spectrum of how it works,” he said.

Eventually, he hopes, the program will expand to a full major for students interested in entering the industry.

That’s what Zack Annesty would like to see as well. As a member of Nichols’ technology class, he has been taking advantage of every opportunity to film outside of class, heading to Mississippi and Birmingham for meetings and shooting a commercial.

“I’m pretty excited and stoked to be working on all these projects,” he said. His dream is to work on major studio productions from the likes of Paramount and Universal, and he feels he’s getting the experience he needs to eventually do that.

“If JSU students can get their foot in the door locally, they can move on and up through contacts they make,” he said. “As long as your reputation is good, you’re set for life.”

A local industry

Although Conroy couldn’t provide specifics about the impending deal, he said the members of the Northeast Alabama Entertainment Initiative will be meeting this week to discuss and hopefully come to a consensus on a lease agreement for a studio space in Jacksonville.

Conroy said the hope is that by creating the studio and providing a ready workforce, the state can more readily leverage film incentives authorized by the state in 2009 to lure filmmakers to the area.

“The idea is to create synergy where productions are utilizing student labor and students are getting real-world experience,” he said.

In order to make this happen, the initiative has hired Chuck Bush, a former actor and current Louisiana film consultant, to study the needs in the Jacksonville and Anniston area and find ways to build or import any key elements missing for ready film production.

Bush explained that a number of secondary businesses need to be developed to sustain production, such as financial firms that deal with the funding of productions, which he is working to bring into Calhoun County.

Bush is being realistic and measured with his approach to the creation of a new industry here.

“We believe this is show business and not show art,” he said. “We don’t try to create art and sell it; we bring companies that are already in this market, who are already buying these kinds of films.”

Bush is specifically targeting productions for cable networks — SyFy, Lifetime, ABC Family — with budgets of between $300,000 and $500,000. Films of this size, he said, typically produce between 30 and 50 well-paying jobs.

He said the approach of the initiative is very measured as they work through this pilot industry-building approach. “They are walking a step at a time, making sure every step is successful before diving right in.”

A successful model built in Calhoun County, he said, will ultimately be applied throughout the state to bring new jobs to Alabama.

Local officials welcome studios

Jacksonville Mayor Johnny Smith is excited by the prospect of a studio opening in his city. “We need jobs pretty much more than anything else right now,” he said. Smith and other council members have expressed interest in making Jacksonville appealing to the industry, including the possibility of providing property tax breaks for business that would be unique to the city.

“The whole point is they’re going to be spending money in town if they come here,” he said. “It produces sales tax, jobs, and that’s what we’re looking for.”

One local public official holds a unique position in pushing this industry locally. Councilman-elect David Reddick, who recently won the Ward 2 Anniston City Council seat, was manning the monitor Thursday in Nichols’ class in his other role as a JSU student.

Although Reddick said he needs to get inaugurated and learn his way around city government before making any promises, he said he does see a great deal of potential for filming in a city with a variety of landscapes, architecture and demographics. He specifically pointed out the so-called “starship” buildings at McClellan, which are of unique design and could function well as sound studios.

“We have the property, we have the buildings, we have the potential studio space and all the ideas,” he said. “All that’s left is to pitch it to the people who want to bring film to the area and see what they think about it.”

Star staff writer Paige Rentz: 256-235-3564. On Twitter @PRentz_Star.
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