Katrina Kinder assumed she would one day need to leave Mississippi to get ahead in her career in the film industry.
But the 24-year-old camera assistant from Jackson is starting to think she can have it all: the career she loves in the state she loves.
Kinder, a Jackson native going on four years in the film industry, has never had another year in which so many of her gigs were booked in her own backyard. She’s recently had to turn down local jobs because she’s already busy with something else filming in the state.
“I’ve been going non-stop since the summer of last year,” she said.
That’s been true for most of Mississippi’s film and production workers, a small but growing workforce. Mississippi film workers are used to a career that calls for regular trips out of state, but times are changing thanks to a recent renaissance in Mississippi movie and TV productions.
There have never been more TV, film and commercial productions traveling to shoot in Mississippi than over the last year. In 2020, nine feature films were shot in Mississippi. By the end of 2021, 12 will have been shot in the state — and that’s not counting at least a dozen more shoots and TV productions scheduled through December.
“I talked to people who assume COVID slowed everything down for us,” said Nina Parikh, the director of the Mississippi Film Office. “Actually, it sped it up more.”
Major film director Tate Taylor put Mississippi on the production map with “The Help” in 2011, but then by continuing to bring his work to his home state. The Mississippi Film Office has a $20 million budget for its rebate program that gives back money to productions based on how much they spend in-state. The office used its entire rebate program budget during the fiscal year that ended in June.
It’s the first time that’s happened.
Parikh said much of the film industry relies on word of mouth, and that has been especially true for Mississippi during the latest uptick.
Last summer, a film starring Oscar Isaac and Tiffany Haddish — “The Card Counter” — returned to wrap up shooting at the Gulf Coast’s casinos. Mississippi was among the first, if not the first, state to reopen to filming after productions halted nationwide due to the pandemic.
Mississippi’s early reopening got producers’ attention. Filmmakers soon discovered other perks to filming in the state — chief among them, its affordability.
Things started literally booming from there: Bruce Willis did action scenes with actual explosions outside the Governor’s Mansion in downtown Jackson in April. There has been a range in scale from big-name productions like ABC’s “Women of the Movement” which premieres in Jan. 2022; to segments for the History Channel, including one hosted by Morgan Freeman; and locally produced feature films.
Parikh said out-of-town productions will typically come in with about a dozen of their own crew members. Ideally, they’d hire upwards of 50 local workers. But with the sudden hike in productions, finding enough Mississippi crew members can be a challenge.
“Right now, I have every production coming to us asking for previous crew lists,” Parikh said. “And they’ve exhausted those lists now and can’t find anyone because we have six or seven productions on top of each other.”
Out-of-state productions want to hire local film workers in part because doing so adds to the rebate money they can get back from the state rebate program.
Clark Richey, of Baldwyn, was a recent field producer for a History Channel reenactment in the Delta. The crew had to call in someone from a nearby state for one of the shooting days because none of the usual Mississippi crew members he works with were available.
“That was kind of eye-opening,” said Michael Williams, who worked on the shoot with Richey. “We’re running out of people, but it’s also a good problem to have.”
Richey and Williams also worked together earlier this year on feature film “Mysterious Circumstance: The Death of Meriwether Lewis.”
Richey, 56, wrote and produced the film with his company Six Shooter Studios. Richey — well aware of his bias as a native — never considered filming somewhere other than Mississippi.
“I wanted Mississippi to reap the benefits of the film,” Richey said. “But the second part of that is that…you can make a movie here and not spend a lot of money.”
From food and props to rental fees and costuming, costs are lower here. There is also good old fashioned southern hospitality. A property owner let Richey film on his land for free — the cost to access that area in other markets could have easily been $25,000, he said.
Richey’s film budget was about $300,000, and the bulk of that money went back into Mississippi. His crew took up every room in a Belmont hotel and spilled over into nearby Airbnb rentals. That same budget film wouldn’t make the same economic impact in a big city.
“But it was significant for a small town of 67,000,” Richey said.
Other parts of the state have seen the same sort of benefits, even before the last year. The town of Laurel is still the star of HGTV’s home makeover show “Home Town.” The TV show not only helped Laurel revitalize its downtown but also turned the town into a bit of a tourist hub.
Taylor, the famed director, has had much of the same sort of impact in Natchez, where he has not only filmed but started a nonprofit that helps pair locals with professionals in industry. The nonprofit, Film Natchez, hosted a recent training workshop with more than 70 attendees.
Vincenzo Mistretta, who teaches film at University of Southern Mississippi, had five students work on local productions during the spring semester.
“If productions are looking for people to work and work hard, they’re going to find them here in Mississippi,” Mistretta said. “They’re eager to work on sets and have an eagerness to find something bigger.”
Randy Kwan, who teaches film tech at Hinds Community College, said Mississippians have long struggled with staying in the film industry because there usually are not continuous productions. But he has seen how the film incentive program, which went unfunded for a couple years, is hitting its stride and bringing steadier work to the state.
“To foster local production, I think we really need Hollywood-style production here,” Kwan said.
Studio space would help guarantee steady work and continued growth in the local industry, according to Kwan.
For now, it seems Mississippi has found its sweet spot. It’s not like the state could convince a massive Marvel movie to come here — the incentive program not only isn’t enough to lure them here, but the production crew base isn’t large enough to sustain such a big production.
“We don’t have the infrastructure yet to support something like that,” said Parikh, “but we’re strong and we’re growing and we have a partner in the state to grow.”
The influx in film work hasn’t been just a blessing for Kinder, but her family. She helped her husband learn skills to be a rigging and electric technician on set. He had a background in biology. Now, he has film work booked through the end of the year.
Kinder most recently worked on a five-week shoot in Jackson for a movie called “The Inspection” with A24, one of her favorite film and TV companies. It was a bit of a dream job.
And she didn’t have to go to New York to do it.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the proper spelling of Randy Kwan’s last name.