MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) _ A development that organizers say “is poised to become the second-largest Black-owned film studio in the United States” moved one step closer to fruition June 10 when the Land Use Control Board approved the zoning adjustments necessary to build “BLP Film Studios,” an 85-acre production facility in Whitehaven.
“Our goal is to make Memphis the international epicenter for producing films and projects led by Black and brown creators on the production and directing side of those projects,” said Jason A. Farmer, 52, a former Marine and business executive who for the past few several years has been working to launch BLP, which he said “is poised to become the second-largest Black-owned film studio in the United States,” behind Tyler Perry’s facilities in Atlanta.
In one of his first interviews since news of the project became public in May, Farmer said last Thursday he believes BLP _ the name is an acronym for Black Lens Productions _ will attract investors as film and TV companies work to address the “diversity, equality and inclusion” concerns that have sparked debate within the entertainment industry.
“Black and brown consumers are becoming more savvy,” he said, “and we find ourselves with none of the legacy production companies” that produce most of the high-profile content that brings customers to move theaters, cable channels and streaming service.
“We did quite a few years of research to look at this market shift that’s occurring and to determine what some of these driving forces are,” said Farmer, BLP founder and CEO. “We asked, `What is the best package we can put on the table that will reposition Memphis? That will allow Memphis to develop our own unique niche in the market?”’
The ambitious BLP plan calls for a compound with 12 sound stages of various sizes, a commissary, editing suites, a recording studio, an executive office building, a multi-purpose event center, a hotel and more, to be erected near the southwest corner of Elvis Presley Boulevard and Holmes Road on vacant land previously owned but never developed by Shelby County Schools.
The cost would be millions of dollars.
Farmer and the studio’s co-owners _ chief financial officer Carolyn Nelson Henry, general consul Cecilia S. Barnes and Farmer’s son, Jason A. Farmer II, a filmmaker who currently is a student at Morehouse College in Atlanta _ declined to put a price tag on the development or to explain how it would be financed, but said they have a number of private funding partners that will be named at a future date; are actively recruiting further backers; and plan to take advantage of various funding opportunities available for minority and arts business projects.
He said groundbreaking is scheduled to begin in the fall. The studio is scheduled to be completed in three phases over 24 to 30 months, with some of its sounds stages expected to be open for business within a year.
Famer said his team determined that Memphis could be well-situated to film and television projects budgeted in the $500,000 to $20 million price range.
“By Hollywood standards, those are considered small to no-budget films,” he said. However, a Memphis studio could provide enough benefits to bring such projects here in large numbers, he said, even if some other states continue to offer tax rebates for film production that are more generous than the recently upgraded incentives offered by Tennessee.
Such a studio would attract “not just films that are centric to Memphis,” he said, referring to the John Grisham adaptations, musical biopics and other projects that come to Memphis because of the story’s subject matter, not because Memphis is an economically advantageous location.
Farmer said his interest in the business of filmmaking is due to the movie love of his son.
“When I was about 7 or 8 years old, I was fascinated by the first `Iron Man’ and the first `Transformers,`” said Jason A. Farmer II, 19, who has contributed to several local independent film projects. “So BLP was born out of my dreams to be a filmmaker.”
In a letter to the Land Use Control board recommending approval of the BLP Film Studios plans, Linn Sitler, head of the Memphis & Shelby County Film Commission, which recruits film projects to Memphis, wrote that “bigger productions in Memphis” have had to `make do’ with such existing spaces as empty warehouses and factories.”
For example, producers of the NBC-TV series “Bluff City Law” constructed their courtroom set inside a former skating rink and department store showroom, “mile away” from the production offices, Sitler wrote.
“The traffic noises of Summer Avenue were right outside the space, but it was the best we could offer… With the new state production incentive effective July 1st, we hope to work with our partners in Nashville to recruit many bigger-budgeted productions to Memphis/Shelby County. With that in mind, more suitable, plentiful soundstage spaces are a priority.”
The BLP Film Studios is by far the most ambitious of several competing ideas for Memphis sound stages and production facilities. A team has purchased and plans to redevelop the Malco Majestic multiplex in Hickory Hill into a studio, while another group hopes to convert the Memphis Masonic Temple into a sound stage. In addition, Joel Weinshanker, majority owner of Elvis Presley Enterprises, has long hoped to establish a production sound stage in Whitehaven, on the Graceland campus.
A lifelong Memphian and graduate of Whitehaven High School (which is one reason he wanted the studio to be in Whitehaven), Farmer said his service in the Marines from 1987 to 1992 helps explain his confidence.
He said a Marine motto is “Improvise, Adapt and Overcome.”
“You can apply that to any number of scenarios,” he said. “Memphis is a grit-and-grind city. We get ahold of an idea and then we figure out how to make it work.”