We’ve Been Expectin’ Y’all: Why The South is Such a Popular Filming Location
The South is one of the most heavily romanticized regions, not only in the U.S., but throughout the world. With a proud culture and traditions maintained over hundreds of years, this rich land and those who live there can boast a massive cultural output, birthing some of the nation’s most revered writers, poets, musicians, actors and filmmakers. Indeed, it was the Southern states that produced such acclaimed writers as Harper Lee, William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams, who have become household names the world over.
That cultural richness has continued throughout the modern era, with the region boasting a virtually unrivaled musical heritage and spawning a whole host of star actors like Sandra Bullock, Matthew McConaughey and Julia Roberts, to name but a few. But while few would challenge the South’s claim to musical preponderance, it is Hollywood that takes most of the plaudits for filmmaking. What is perhaps overlooked when we consider the vast cultural output of the U.S. is that the South is an iconic filming location in its own right, the backdrop to movies from the 1988’s iconic “Rain Man” to modern classics like “The Hunger Games” (2012) and “Gone Girl” (2014). The same goes for television, with hit shows like Donald Glover’s “Atlanta” and Netflix nailbiter “Bloodline” filmed here. So, why is the South such a popular place for filming, both as a location and a setting? The answers will come as little surprise to those who live there as we explore the reasons filmmakers are flocking Southward.
“Did you ever see the beauty of the hills of Carolina / Or the sweetness of the grass in Tennessee?” – Lynyrd Skynyrd
Surely the most important reason for the South’s frequent appearances before the camera is the most obvious: its beauty. An important consideration here is the sheer vastness of the place, a subcontinent in and of itself. The state of Texas alone is bigger than most European countries. With such vastness comes a huge variation in climate: the rolling hills of the Carolinas, the scorching desert of Texas, the river delta of Mississippi and the tropical coasts of Florida. As such, the region offers diverse scenery for whatever story a director would like to tell. Not only does it provide locations of historic significance (like Ava Duvernay’s now-classic “Selma“) but, with the right shots and lighting, Southern sets can be made to look like nearly every region in the world.
Now we move onto another massively important, albeit less glamorous, reason for the expansion of the Southern film industry: rules and regulations. For years, the American film and TV industry led the rest of the world essentially uncontested but, during the 1990s, other nations such as Canada and the UK began to catch up. This led to an increase in “runaway productions” aimed at U.S. audiences but filmed in foreign locations to save money. Canada, for example, launched a subsidy program in 1997 that started enticing production companies north of the border, leading to an outflow of jobs and an estimated $10 billion, mainly from California.
In a bid to regain a competitive age, many U.S. states launched their own production incentives, allowing them to compete not only with foreign rivals but with Hollywood itself. Where was the first state to adopt such a program? Louisiana! After the Pelican State started offering generous tax breaks and filming subsidies from 2001, many others followed their lead. This triggered a new boom in the Southern film industry with Georgia, Texas, South Carolina, as well as aforementioned Louisiana, adopting similar schemes and emerging as rivals to mighty California.
Nowadays, production companies can enjoy cash rebates, generous grants, tax exemptions and access to a number of state-owned locations free of charge if they comply with laws that ensure varying percentages of their profits remain in the state. While these schemes are by no means devoid of controversy, they have undoubtedly allowed the Southern film and TV industries to grow. This can be seen above all in the indie scene, with the rise of a new genre, the American “Southern” (Nicholas Cage’s “Joe,” McConaughey’s “Mud” and HBO series “True Detective“) and film festivals like the Southern States Indie Fan Film Fest.
As we hinted at earlier, the South’s emergence as a prominent film and TV location has not always been the smoothest of rides. Some argue that the state-led financial incentives appear far more beneficial on the surface than they are in reality. Since several different incentives can often be accessed at the same time by a single production company, there has been a tendency by executives and politicians to present the reported positives to the state selectively, giving a potentially inflated impression of programs’ actual benefits. And, with tax regulations, in many cases so loose, it has been called into question whether filmmakers are paying any significant tax at all. Similarly, while the motion picture and TV industry generate plenty of jobs, many of these only exist in the short term whereas permanent work migrates from one location to another with the production company. If a state is to train a wide pool of specialized workers, it relies on attracting a constant stream of productions which, with each state competing with one another, is very difficult to achieve.
Another area of difficulty has been found in the significant cultural differences between the characteristically liberal film industry and the deeply traditional, generally conservative Deep South. From marijuana legalization to gun control, the South frequently pulls in a different political direction to Hollywood and this has been a source of dispute. Some Southern states maintain sensitivity standards that productions must meet to qualify for grants, which can lead to issues of censorship. While, admittedly, this was a far bigger issue in the past than it is now, as such regulations have gradually been watered down, this is still a source of disagreement. Occasionally, the liberal-conservative clash has escalated further. As many will know, there is a tense conflict between those who are pro-choice believing abortion should be legal and the pro-life camp who do not, a position many conservatives such as Dennis Bonnen fiercely defend. Surprisingly, streaming giant Netflix waded into this debate last year, threatening to pull filming from Georgia if its controversial fetal “heartbeat” bill was approved. Although the bill ultimately did not stand and Netflix has since resumed filming, this indicates a clash that might rear its head again in the future. When these factors are considered, the South’s prowess as a filming location suddenly seems far less of a surprise. The only surprising thing, I am sure you will agree, is that it hasn’t gained the recognition it ultimately warrants.