Don’t Fail This Screen Test

May 16th, 2019

People who make movies – people like Francis Ford Coppola, the late Milos Forman and Sydney Pollack, and our own Craig Brewer and Willy Bearden – and people like me who write and produce TV spots and videos all have something in common. We know just how damn good Memphis looks through a lens, we know how deep the local talent pool is for actors and crew, and we know how wide the choice is for great locations.

We once had the bright lights and attention. It’s time to shine again.

Published in The Daily Memphian

(photo, Jimmy Smits)

Jimmy Smits


Note to both Mayors, the City Council, the County Commission, the Governor of Tennessee and both chambers of the State Legislature: the show has started and you’re missing it.

Jimmy Smits and NBC want to come to Memphis.

The whole cast and crew of his new series called Bluff City Law wants to come to Memphis. A big-time series focusing on the contemporary battle for civil rights wants to come to Memphis. Mainstream network NBC has approved the series for fall release and wants to come to Memphis.

So far, the Bluff City and Tennessee aren’t buying a ticket.

As usual, Linn Sitler is fighting like an alligator gar (local reference) to bring the series production here. No one fights harder than Sitler, starring as Memphis & Shelby County Film Commissioner since 1987, but our state and local inability to see the wide shot for the close-up has given her little to work with. Louisiana, Georgia and others get it and they’re getting the big cameras. All Memphis is getting is money-whipped by every state around us and ignored in Nashville.

A little history might be instructive here. We once had it made in the movies, and we blew it. Nine years ago, I wrote about our all too brief starring role.

I wrote about Gene Hackman’s big head.

I’m not talking ego, the man really does have a head the size of a medicine ball. I know because I stood next to him one morning in Court Square chatting about the Hebe Fountain. Okay, he wasn’t actually talking to me; he was talking to the little guy on the other side of him – Tom Cruise. Maybe 5-7, depending on his shoes. They were here shooting The Firm.

They brought some friends – Hal Holbrook, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Holly Hunter, Wilford Brimley, and Sydney Pollack, to name a few – and they brought a ton of money, recognition and local pride our way. Millions and millions saw Tom run down Tuckahoe in all those blowing leaves, and they saw Memphis looking good for the whole movie.

That was just the first movie that the best-selling breeze of Southaven native, John Grisham, would blow into town. Susan Sarandon, Tommy Lee Jones and The Client would soon follow and start shooting in Evergreen, The Med, and The Arcade. Then The Rainmaker would pour Matt Damon into a house on York, into an office in The Pinch with Danny DeVito, and into an all-star cast directed by Francis Ford Coppola including Jon Voight, Mickey Rourke, Danny Glover, and Roy Scheider.

I wrote about a time when moviemaking in Memphis was as hot as, well, Memphis.

The People vs. Larry Flynt and Woody Harrelson held court on Front with Edward Norton and bad girl Courtney Love.

Tom Hanks and Helen Hunt washed ashore right here with Cast Away, with a non-speaking part for a volleyball named Wilson and a speaking part for FedEx founder Fred Smith.

Naomi Watts, Sean Penn and Benicio Del Toro brought dark despair to Chickasaw Gardens in 21 Grams.

Memphian Craig Brewer wrote, directed and shot both Hustle & Flow with Terrence Howard and Black Snake Moan with Samuel L. Jackson here. Three 6 Mafia won an Academy Award working on Hustle & Flow, following in the large chops of Isaac Hayes who, ironically, acted in the movie.

Like much of what this city has and doesn’t see, we took all of that for granted. And since all of that, we can’t catch a cold. Nashville got the series Nashville with a good, long run and plenty of local and state incentives. The exposure and promotion helped Nashville gain a spotlight while we went dark.

The Loss Of A Teardrop Diamond, from Tennessee Williams’ unpublished play about Memphis, and Memphis Beat, a bad TNT series, were both shot in Louisiana. Blind Side was all about Memphis, and it was all shot in Atlanta. The country saw none of us, we got none of the money, and they faked The Peabody, Beale Street, the barbecue contest, our schools, and even our housing projects.


A couple of years ago, CMT did shoot a series called Sun Records here, but it was so bad it made the birth of rock ‘n roll boring and didn’t get a flip side season. Good or bad, we didn’t give it much help. We yawned.

Bluff City Law is about fighting for civil rights in Memphis, and there’s a very real chance it will be made somewhere else. As Sitler said in an article in The Daily Memphian last week, “If the money is not found and the series bases in another state, it will be to the everlasting shame of Tennessee.” She estimates filming here will bring about $55 million a season to Memphis and Shelby County.

To paraphrase from Mr. Coppola’s body of work, it’s time we made NBC an offer they can’t refuse.

I’m a Memphian, and let’s turn the cameras back on.

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