The Magic City is not quite Hollywood, yet.
But Birmingham’s economy is getting a show business-sized boost with millions of film dollars flowing into the local economy. The city’s Red Mountain substituted for the Hollywood Hills, wearing the famous HOLLYWOOD sign in “Bigger,” one of dozens of films made in metro Birmingham in recent years.
Capitalizing on Alabama’s incentive program for film productions, the city is recruiting a growing number of projects, said Buddy Palmer, president and CEO of Create Birmingham and its offshoot Film Birmingham.
From 2016 to 2017, the number of film projects in metro Birmingham increased 200 percent, he said. Three feature films and 24 other projects, including commercials and videos, were produced in Birmingham in 2016. By 2017, when Film Birmingham officially began recruiting projects with support from the city and other sponsors, Film Birmingham assisted 55 projects. Of that total, 30 film productions were completed in Birmingham, including eight feature films.
“In 2016 and 2017, about $32 million in film production activity translated into, conservatively, a $10 [million] to $12 million impact on the local economy,” Palmer said.
In 2018, Film Birmingham assisted 67 projects, including 30 productions, of which nine were feature films, said Jessica Moody of Film Birmingham. Final dollar amounts aren’t yet available for production budgets or local spends in metro Birmingham in 2018. However, 2018’s production totals represent an increase in the number of productions and the number of full-length feature films being produced here, Moody said.
Film-related economic impact, or the ‘local spend,’ includes “crew payroll, lodging, food, transportation and rental of vehicles, equipment, office space and locations,” said Palmer. He said the state of Alabama’s incentive package for film productions helps attract projects and helps document the film productions’ impact on local economies.
When it comes to economic impact from film productions in Birmingham, Don Lupo, director of the Mayor’s Office of Citizens Assistance, said money spent directly by film production companies multiplies many times, so that true local impact is several times the actual local movie budget.
“For instance with the movie ‘Live!,’ that production company spent $2.3 million in Birmingham during filming. Economic impact is usually figured by multiplying by six. That means that the true impact of the one film is more like $13 million,” said Lupo, who is film production liaison for the mayor’s office.
“That’s huge, and with nine feature films in 2018, at let’s say $10 million in true economic impact per film, we can estimate that $90 (million) to $100 million has been added to our economy,” Lupo said. “If we can do that again in 2019, it’s going to be fantastic.”
In the long run, film investments come back around to directly benefit the city’s budget when film dollars are paid to vendors, then to their employees, then spent and spent again. “This money makes it possible to fix streets and infrastructure, as all those dollars get pumped back in to the general fund.”
Another direct economic boost is Birmingham’s growing pool of trained and talented crew members who are finding repeat employment on subsequent productions in the city. Word is spreading among producers that Birmingham has this trained personnel, plus varied architecture and landscape options and a reasonable cost of living. Every production that films in the city as part of the state’s incentive package tracks its expenses and documents the number of local crew members employed.
Alabama’s incentive package for film productions – the Entertainment Industry Incentive Act of 2009 – offers a tax credit of up to 35 percent on qualifying expenses, including payroll paid to Alabama residents. The law was signed by former Alabama Governor Bob Riley in 2009. The law requires production expenditures, or project budgets, to equal or exceed $500.000. A $20 million cap applies, so that incentive rebates do not exceed $2 million per project.
“Alabama was late to the game on film incentives, but we benefitted from knowledge gained in other states’ programs and experiences,” said Kathy Faulk, manager of the state’s Alabama Film Office that administers the program and helps recruit productions of all sizes. Incentives cover movies, television programs, documentaries, commercials and music videos.
Faulk, a 43-year state employee who worked with the governor’s office for 23 of those years, from Gov. Guy Hunt to Gov. Riley, helped develop the incentive package and pitched it to state lawmakers who passed the legislation in 2009. Then Riley appointed her as manager of the AFO, which operates out of Montgomery with a small staff.
Since then, more than 100 film projects have used the incentive program that requires production companies to sign up in advance and keep detailed records and receipts of expenses and payroll.
“Incentives are driving film making,” Faulk said, estimating that three-fourths of those projects likely would not have come to Alabama without the incentives. “Most of the time it’s about the money.”
The incentive program has an annual budget of $20 million for incentive benefits that are paid out as rebates to production companies. “At the end of production, the production company files a state income tax form and turns in all the receipts – there are binders full – to a CPA who audits the documentation,” Faulk said. Then, the audited material is reviewed again by the Alabama Film Office incentive coordinator. When a film’s documentation is approved, it’s sent to the state Department of Revenue and then to the Department of Finance.
The production company, which also must register with the Secretary of State’s Office, eventually gets a check that rebates 25 percent of qualifying expenses and 35 percent of payroll paid to Alabama residents, Faulk said. The filmmakers in the incentive program also receive a state tax exemption number that can be used with any in-state vendors and other businesses.
In addition to money saved with incentives, film production companies also often find that operating in the state is less expensive than traditional filming locations. “Productions come in under budget after filming in Alabama,” Faulk said.
City and state film recruiters also credit other factors for the surge in film productions in Alabama. These include the availability of residents with production expertise, plus the wide variety of landscapes and architecture and the welcoming nature of local residents.
“What our state has to offer is a vast diverse landscape. Alabama can double for almost any location (except a desert). There is ease of movement, virtually no congestion and complete and full cooperation from friendly locals who have proven our Southern hospitality is real and genuine,” Faulk said.
Faulk said Alabama’s people remain an asset to film recruiting. “We hear it all the time from film folks,” she said. “The people are so nice and eager to help us and such good manners.”
The state also has historic and modern architecture, urban and rural settings and talented people to hire as crew, she said.
Like in Birmingham, the state’s numbers tell the story of a growing film economy in Alabama since the incentives became law. “In 2011, there were seven projects that took advantage of the incentives and spent $12.1 million in the state,” Faulk said. “In fiscal year 2018, which ended Sept. 30, there were 19 major projects and a direct spend of $68.5 million.”
With Birmingham pursuing its goal of becoming a sports and entertainment destination, the mayor’s office needed a film point person, and Lupo “wanted to be that person,” he said.
With the backing of Mayor Randall Woodfin, Lupo’s role is to “navigate and make sure production companies are getting what they need when they need it,” Lupo said. “We try to make it as easy as we can, bend over backwards and be welcoming.”
Lupo’s work with production companies goes back to the filming of “42” and has earned him the nickname The Fixer, a moniker the “Bigger” production staff had printed on the back of a director’s chair for him.
Being a part of film making is “just fun and exciting to see productions in action and then to see our landmarks on the screen,” he said. Once something “gets put down on film, it lasts forever.”
As part of his regular job heading up the Mayor’s Office of Citizen Assistance, Lupo manages the city’s warming stations. “We showed ‘42’ the other night, and everyone was pointing out local landmarks and extras they recognized. That’s pretty cool.”
The number of experienced crew members available to work in Birmingham and across the state continues to increase, film recruiters said. “It’s been a game changer,” Palmer said of the growing number of local residents who are repeat hires by film producers.
“Trained local talent has been an incredible marketing tool,” he said, noting while crew members are listed on data bases at Film Birmingham and the state film office website, it’s now often word of mouth from previous film producers that leads to repeat jobs for local crew members.
Where filmmakers once depended on Atlanta for crew and equipment when filming in the South, Alabama is earning its own reputation for talent and know-how.
“Our crew base has probably tripled since the incentives were put into place,” Faulk said. Alabama Film Office’s website, with its theme of “The Country to Film In,” includes an online production directory that lists available crew members. “Crew members register with us and are typically located through this directory,” Faulk said.
“Once they’ve worked and are established, much of the hiring can be through word of mouth,” she added. AFO and Film Birmingham also post casting and crew notices on their websites.
“We hear from production companies that they are pleased with the well-trained crew members who are available,” Faulk said. Alabama IDT has offered crew training in the past and still does if requested, but by now, most crew members in the data base are veterans of the business.
Film production companies have put many local residents to work, said Lupo, agreeing that the development of an experienced workforce for crew and other film-related work has helped the city continue to lure projects.
The hiring of extras for a fight scene in the film “Embattled” “put 500 people to work for several days. That’s huge,” he said.
Some of the extras, he said, have made a fair amount of money. One local extra who played a home plate umpire in “42” and had a speaking part, “still gets a check every time the movie is shown. The checks are now decreasing in value, but here’s a man who was in one movie and he’s still getting checks.”
Film Birmingham, an initiative of Create Birmingham, officially began in June 2017. “But we began unofficially assisting the Alabama Film Office in early 2016,” Palmer said. “Already several films had been made here, including “Woodlawn” in 2014 and other films by Birmingham filmmakers Jon and Andrew Erwin.” The Sidewalk Film Festival also helps spread the word about Birmingham’s creative community.
Today, Birmingham and Mobile have the only city-based offices actively recruiting film projects and working with the state office. “Our job is to recruit productions, help with location-scouting and connect filmmakers with crew members and other resources, including incentive and permitting information,” Palmer said. “We want to make Birmingham as efficient for film work as possible.”
That includes helping coordinate with city or county services when a film needs a road closed or a high-speed chase on local roadways. Statewide, the Alabama Film Office also works with state agencies.
“Our first job is to lure the project here,” Faulk said. “Then we work with state departments, including state parks, the department of transportation, historical societies and the department of labor (if there are young performers involved) to connect production crews with needed resources.”
Faulk also noted that many filmmakers come to Alabama to film, even when they do not qualify for the incentives. HGTV films in Alabama on a regular basis, she said, including episodes of Lake Life and the Beach House series. Videos, documentaries and commercials also use the state as a backdrop.
Once filmmakers do decide on Birmingham, they are pleasantly surprised, said local location scout Greg Womble. “Filmmakers come to town and are just amazed at what they see. They say they can’t believe they’ve never made a film here before.”
The city’s film recruiters agree that Birmingham, its people, buildings and landscapes offer many filming options. “And the thing that’s always true is that Birmingham is not what people think it is,” Palmer said. He says film producers rave about the city’s food, architecture and hospitality.
In addition to mountains and lakes, historic buildings and neighborhoods of all kinds, some of Birmingham’s landmarks have been backdrops for many films. The Alabama and Lyric theaters were used as locations for a Mr. Universe contest in the film “Bigger” and for “Let There Be Light,” filmed here by director and actor Kevin Sorbo, TV’s Hercules. Sloss Furnace also offers a location and backdrop not available elsewhere.
The availability of diverse locations is a definite reason Birmingham has been successful luring film projects, said the city’s Lupo. “There’s not a corner in New York City or L.A. that they have not filmed on. We can show them some fresh corners.”
“Filmmakers come to Alabama because of its natural wonders and scenery,” said location scout Womble. “And Birmingham has architecture and landscapes that can double and have doubled for a number of cities and locations.”
In “Bigger,” the movie about the making of the Montreal-born Weider brothers’ fitness empire, producers were able to find every look that they needed in downtown, including buildings that easily doubled for Montreal. Instead of traveling to L.A. to illustrate the Weiders’ move into the big time, Red Mountain was dressed with the Hollywood sign. That sign and other Birmingham locations can be seen in the trailer for “Bigger.”
“Bigger” covers the back story to an earlier made-in-Birmingham film, “Stay Hungry,” filmed in 1975 and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.
In addition to locations for shooting, film companies also need offices and warehouses, which they rent locally for months before, during and after filming.
After a production company is in town and filming with locations and crew secured, Film Birmingham’s official work is done, Palmer said. “Our job is so much on the prep side that by the time production offices open, we’ve done our ground work and are not involved other than to check in and make sure they are happy.”
So far, small independent films have been where Alabama and Birmingham really compete, Palmer said. And, that includes original productions being made by today’s growing entertainment streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu,
Bringing a television series to Birmingham is a goal, Palmer said. “We are chasing TV series. Bringing one here could be a game changer, with a full year of work for crews and business for locals and an incredible marketing tool.”