Conyers, Scalise: Stars of state-based movie biz

When the economy’s down and people are glum, what’s a country to do? Make movies!

House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) touted their states’ burgeoning film industries Tuesday at the Motion Picture Association of America’s (MPAA) “Business of Show Business” symposium.

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From the way Conyers and Scalise spoke, all aspiring thespians should rip up their one-way tickets to New York or L.A. and head for Detroit and New Orleans to bust into the entertainment field. Shoot, even this flagging job market’s down-and-outers with remotely useful skills — can you hold a boom mic? — have a shot at gainful employment in the growing on-location film industry, they said.

“The term they now use is ‘Hollywood South’ to refer to Louisiana,” said Scalise, sitting on a panel moderated by journalist Nick Clooney (himself an indirect beneficiary of the film industry as actor George Clooney’s father).

Louisiana has become the third-largest film-production state in the country, behind California and New York, according to Scalise.

He and film businesspeople from Illinois, Pennsylvania and Georgia boasted of the tax incentives their states offer to production companies to lure them out of Hollywood soundstages and into places as far-flung as Juliette, Ga.

“We think that some of the filmmakers are looking for fresher locations, so they’re going into the rural areas and way out in the mountains and down on the Georgia beaches,” said Bill Thompson, the deputy commissioner for Georgia Film, Music and Digital Entertainment. “They’re really spreading the love throughout the state.”

A little film-industry love can go a long way, Thompson said. The town of Juliette had four citizens remaining before “Fried Green Tomatoes” was filmed there, he said. Now, Thompson said, 100,000 tourists visit the town every year.

And in this time of economic uncertainty, the prospect of steady work is a big victory, Greater Philadelphia Film Office Executive Director Sharon Pinkenson said.

Film production jobs “ are quite good salaries, and they’re certainly family-sustaining salaries,” she said after rattling off a list of professionals needed on set, including “dressmakers, dyers, manicurists and … special-effects people.”

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Aside from the benefits these state film projects bring to the average American, Conyers, Scalise and the other businesspeople experience a few perks and win some bragging rights, too.

“Last summer in Highland Park in my congressional district, I got a chance to talk with Clint Eastwood about our mutual enjoyment, which is jazz,” Conyers said nonchalantly. “And so while he was filming ‘Gran Torino,’ we got a change to catch up on the music — a lot of which came out of Detroit, incidentally.”

Scalise boasted about “Ray,” the biopic of singer Ray Charles and, according to the congressman, the first movie made in New Orleans after the state enacted tax incentives for production companies.

“Jamie Foxx won the Oscar,” he said, using the award to prove that high-quality movies can come out of his home state.

But Scalise deftly returned to his central message that the movie business can have a wide economic impact in his state and around the country.

“The film industry is recession-proof,” he said, “because people like the fact that they can just get away for a little while.”