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February 05, 2009

In October of 2008, the Lifetime Network and Sony Pictures Television announced that they were beginning production of the television movie The Natalee Holloway Story. The movie will be based on a book, written by Beth Holloway and Sunny Tillman, about Natalee Holloway's much publicized disappearance in Aruba while on a high school graduation trip. The search for Natalee instantly became a cable TV news sensation, and for over a year much of that drama originated from the Birmingham suburb of Mountain Brook. Interestingly, The Natalee Holloway Story will be not be filmed in Alabama, but in Capetown, South Africa (for the Aruban scenes) and locations in the state of Louisiana (for the Alabama scenes).

That irks plenty of people in the Alabama film business, but this is certainly nothing new or unusual. Our local film industry is consistently overlooked by filmmakers in New York, Hollywood, and elsewhere. In Forrest Gump, scenes from the fictional town of Greenbow, Alabama, and football scenes from the University of Alabama were filmed in North and South Carolina. In Fried Green Tomatoes, scenes ostensibly featuring Irondale's Whistlestop Café were shot exclusively in Georgia. The rural Alabama scenes in Sweet Home Alabama were shot primarily in Georgia. In December of 2008, the Montgomery Advertiser reported that Alabama native Lee Faulkner will bring author Watt Key's Alabama Moon to the big screen, but due to competing incentive packages, the movie will be made in Louisiana instead of here. Adding insult to injury, the title will be changed to Louisiana Moon.

"Like other stories such as this, I would offer that The Natalee Holloway Story is an Alabama story and it deserves to be filmed here, but I'm sure the location for the Mountain Brook home will be filmed in another state," said Alan Hunter of Birmingham's Hunter Films. Hunter is one of many local film advocates who have proposed developing aggressive incentives for the state and local film community. "There is no secret to what needs to be done. If you are going to receive a major incentive program for rental cars, hotel rooms, or sales and use taxes to shoot in Georgia, Tennessee, or Louisiana, if you were a filmmaker, where would you take the business?"

A limited group of economic incentives for filmmakers and the entertainment industry were passed by the Alabama legislature in 2001, but they expired in 2006. In 2008, the Alabama legislature let die a bill that would have greatly expanded that package. Today, 41 states offer filmmakers substantial incentives to shoot films in their locale; Alabama is not one of them.

Two new bills, HB356, sponsored by State Representative Richard Lindsey, and SB404, sponsored by Senators Roger Bedford and Tom Butler, are scheduled to be introduced this month in Montgomery. The bills are modeled after successful legislation in other states. They provide sales tax, use tax, and lodging exemptions to qualified production companies that meet specific guidelines. The total incentive program for 2009 is capped at $7.5 million, and $10 million for fiscal year 2010. Based on legislation initiated by neighboring states, it is hoped that these expanded initiatives could eventually bring $80 to $100 million in new film business to Alabama.

Sunny Tillman, president of Birmingham's SunVideo, and a writer, producer, and editor for the last 25 years, assisted Holloway in writing her recent book and engaged in several conversations with her about the upcoming movie. "I think it is a shame that we can't have the movie made here because we have everything we need to get these kinds of productions done here professionally. We have an extraordinary amount of untapped production expertise that I consider to be phenomenal—from writers, producers, camera operators and photographers, editors, grips, craft services, studios, state-of-the-art production trucks, satellite uplink and connectivity—you name it, we've got it. And should anyone come up with a need, we also have the professional networks to get it done or find a way to get it here quickly. We have the ability to compete with anyone."

Birmingham News writer Bob Carlton recently reported that the rights for Birmingham native Warren St. John's 2004 book Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer, had been optioned to a company that develops films for HBO. The book's title is based on a long-established tradition of fans singing "Rammer Jammer" after the Crimson Tide defeats an opponent. The song taunts fans and players from the opposing team: "Rammer Jammer, Yellow Hammer, Give 'em hell Alabama, we just beat the hell out of you!"

If things don't change in the film business anytime soon, the irony of this story could be that the movie Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer will be filmed outside the state of Alabama and someone will need to teach that song to South Carolina, Georgia, or Louisiana residents. &

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