I am extremely excited about all of the accolades that have been coming to those involved with the movie “Winter’s Bone,” including Tuesday’s Oscar nominations for Best Actress, Jennifer Lawrence, and Best Supporting Actor, John Hawkes. To me it is icing on the cake that Debra Granik and Anne Roselleni and the movie were nominated as well.
As most every Southwest Missouri resident is aware, the movie was filmed entirely on location in Taney, Christian and Greene Counties, and included more than 52 local musicians, actors and crew members. It is based on the novel of the same name by award-winning West Plains author Daniel Woodrell.
When I was selected to serve as the Director of the Missouri Division of Tourism, I did not have a good appreciation for the connection between the film industry and the tourism industry. But I have since come to appreciate how they are indeed interconnected. More on that in a moment.
We were still living full-time in the Branson area when “Winter’s Bone” was filming. Neighbors and friends were involved in many aspects of the film, opening their homes, helping find clothing for the cast’s wardrobe, offering advice on hunting and animal husbandry, providing special effects, music, and most importantly, providing lodging at local hotels, meals and entertainment for the cast and crew.
This local support was rewarded financially, as reports of more than $800,000 being spent during the 24 days of on-location shooting was a welcome addition to the local economy during what is historically a slow travel season. They even held a pre-production kickoff to give cast and crew an opportunity to meet each other as well as to visit with the author at Branson’s Bleu Olive restaurant.
I was invited to attend the Sundance Film Festival last year as this movie made its premiere. I joined nine other supporters, who camped in a crowded condo provided by one of the same owners who has condo property in Branson. Joining us was Bill Tirone, the sales manager of the Hilton Promenade on Branson Landing, who made a great pasta meal to share after the premiere.
Most of the cast made it through the snow of Utah to join us in the crowded condo as we celebrated the successful premiere. That is when the above picture was taken of me and John Hawkes (Uncle Teardrop) and Kevin Braznahan (Little Arthur). I was also able to meet Nixa residents Cody Brown and Casey MacLaren who were cast in the film, as well as Dale Dickey, Lauren Sweetser, and most memorably, Granik, the film’s director. I also attended a seminar with other state tourism and film office staff who provided insight on how to market to the site selectors similar to how we market to potential tourists.
At the conclusion of the festival, the movie won the 2010 Grand Jury Award and Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award. It later won Best Ensemble Performance and Best Feature at the Gotham Independent Feature Awards in November, among other awards. In December, Jennifer Lawrence was nominated for a Golden Globe as one of the nominees for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture Drama.
This movie does not qualify as a film-induced tourism activity. I don’t think many will want to find the Ozark back roads you see the lead character, Ree Dolly, walking through. It does, however, provide an argument for encouraging film production activity in our state. Along with the 2009 movie starring George Clooney that filmed in St. Louis, “Up In the Air,” film production is seen as beneficial for the ancillary benefits it creates in terms of destination awareness.
In my mind, film production becomes another tourism business segment to be pitched to, catered for, with special requirements that need to be met. Furthermore there are significant synergies between tourism and the servicing of film production, beyond film-induced tourism. This is apparent in the sharing of expertise and infrastructure; tourist destinations are critical to the branding of places as production locations; for the opportunities presented by significant tourism and leisure economies for retaining a flexible workforce that can accommodate the fly-in-fly-out nature of film and television production.
There is continual discussion about the film industry in Missouri. Does it take special incentives to get producers to consider Missouri? Does our diverse state offer enough options for the site selectors? Is it enough that we can be rural and urban, and that we have architecture from around the world right here in Missouri to provide the look that any would need for their scenes? Our geography can provide any backdrop desired (except an ocean, but we do have many sandy beaches along our beautiful lakes). Does our Midwestern hospitality, quality and committed work ethic, easy access to both coasts via air, and diverse population provide enticements when the financial incentives are taken off the table?
Think Jesse James. The notorious outlaw performed most of his dastardly deeds around Missouri. So it makes sense that Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda came to Missouri to film Jesse James in 1939. And Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil transformed an abandoned Pattonsburg into the shooting gallery that was 1856 Lawrence, Kan. However, in 2003 The Outlaws of Missouri was filmed in Canada. And despite the fact that Jesse James was killed in St. Joseph, the Academy Award nominated The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was also filmed in Canada. At least the producers cast a Missouri actor, Brad Pitt, as the Missouri outlaw.
The first Jesse James was one of the two biggest milestones in Missouri film history. The next is thought to be the 1916 silent film Tom Sawyer, starring Jack Pickford, Mary’s brother. There are other milestones, such as the 1941 classic, Shepherd of the Hills, John Wayne’s first movie filmed in Technicolor. It’s one of four movies with the same title, all filmed in Branson. In 1959, The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery, a true story, was filmed in its namesake. The movie features Slater native Steve McQueen and many of the actual bank employees and St. Louis police officers. The film enjoyed much critical praise.
And it is important to note that there are Walt Disney footprints all over Missouri. His early work in Kansas City’s Laugh-O-Gram Studios often gets overlooked. Besides feeding a now famous rodent, Walt produced a body of work in this studio that includes a seminal 12-minute combination of film and animation called Alice’s Wonderland. Disney starred in this feature, along with fellow Kansas Citian and collaborator UB Iwerks. The effort is notable because it’s the granddaddy to unique film-animation projects such as 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
So besides the tourist angle, what about Missouri’s infrastructure for building not only a film industry, but a motion media industry? It all comes down to the classic chicken-egg situation.
If you don’t have the stage, you can’t attract major productions. But if you have a major soundstage but no production companies, it will stand empty and the millions of dollars required to build it could be lost.
The same is true of trained crew people. You need the films to help train and nurture their skills. But without a regular set of local productions, the crew will leave to find work elsewhere.
I have read advice to start slow and let each arm of the industry grow together. But can we continue to be patient, or should we all agree to highlight films made elsewhere with the successful community film festivals that are held each year in St. Louis, Kansas City, Springfield, the new Fault Line Film Festival at Southeast Missouri State University, and the highly successful Citizen Jane Festival and True-False Film Festival held in Columbia?
Can our state leaders work closely with economic development officials to make this happen? Are they motivated to do something? Or will the tax credit debate silence everyone?
My advice is to think very broad.
Can students be taught to use the high-speed computers to create 3-D architectural images? What about the video game field and the opportunity to surpass traditional film making in terms of jobs? Do our collegiate programs use a multi-disciplinary approach, preparing students for careers in film, advertising, industry, even military training applications? What about the android phone options, phone applications, and the next big thing that we don’t even know about today?
Do we want to build a sustainable motion media industry in Missouri? If so, what will that take?
Maybe more award-winning films. Congratulations cast and crew of “Winter’s Bone.”