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Billy Bob Thornton: Arkansan Bringing Hollywood Home

9 min read

Arkansas has sent talent to Hollywood ranging from silent film cowboy “Bronco Billy” Anderson and Golden Age crooner Dick Powell, to Academy Award-winning actress Mary Steenburgen and up-and-coming director Jay Russell.

But the cinematic figure most closely identified with Arkansas is Billy Bob Thornton, a Malvern native who has made his home state and its unique people a frequent backdrop for his films.

Nominated for acting Oscars twice (as best actor in “Sling Blade” in 1997 and as best supporting actor in “A Simple Plan” in 1999), Thornton actually took home the award for writing the screenplay for “Sling Blade.”

Though his personal life, including five marriages, and off-screen antics are enough to make more conventional Arkansans wince, Thornton’s loving, authentic portrayal of Arkansas and its people in “Sling Blade” and his earlier sleeper hit, “One False Move,” cover a multitude of sins. Not to mention the dollars dropped by film crews in Cotton Plant, Benton and, most recently, Eureka Springs, where he and Jacksonville product (and Oscar-winning short-feature producer) Lisa Blount filmed “Chrystal.”

Many people never get any closer to Arkansas than the movies they watch — or the TV shows, in the case of last year’s Fox phenomenon “The Simple Life.”

Arkansas has been a player in the film industry with its scenery depicted and people appearing as extras or main characters in more than 70 movies and countless television episodes since the early 1900s.

Still, many negative stereotypes remain, and the state’s film office — yes, it does exist — is trying to change that by appealing to the visual senses of movie watchers worldwide. The Arkansas Film Commission, created in 1979, is working hard to place its product — the state of Arkansas — in front of a hugely varied audience.

For years, the Natural State has been embedded, albeit subconsciously, in the minds of thousands of people with films such as “Gone With the Wind” (1939), whose opening scenes include a glimpse of North Little Rock’s Old Mill, and “Tuskegee Airmen” (1995), which was filmed in Fort Smith.

Consider also the epic “The Blue and the Gray” filmed in 1982 on the streets of Van Buren. Shooting for the television miniseries altered the lives of Van Buren residents for more than six months and brought in millions of dollars in extra revenue.

Other cities made famous by film include Lepanto, population 2,133, which was the backdrop for the made-for-TV version of Arkansas native John Grisham’s best-seller “A Painted House.” Calico Rock was the site of “The Bootleggers,” filmed in 1973. Altus, of course, embodied “The Simple Life” in last year’s “reality” series.

But Arkansas first made its way onto the movie screen in 1929 in the all-black film “Hallelujah,” whose budget was a reported $600,000. The movie was shot in east Arkansas and floundered at the box office, according to the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism.

Arkansas currently does not require registration for filming, said Arkansas Film Commissioner Joe Glass, nor do all producers work with the film office to secure locations. Requiring registration is left up to the cities, so there’s no way to know exactly how many films are under way in the state at any given time.

But one can be sure, Glass said, that not a month goes by without Hollywood studios or novice filmmakers somewhere in the state, using its scenic beauty as a backdrop and local talent in various scenes.

In November, the Arts & Entertainment Television Network sent three crews to Eureka Springs to film a two-hour TV special called, “Ultimate Holiday Town USA.” The eccentric city on a hill occupied seven minutes of the cable channel’s program, giving the community of 2,000 a heck-of-a-lot of free advertising, said Eureka Springs’ director of marketing Lynn Berry.

“You just can’t buy that kind of exposure,” she said.

Seven minutes of commercial air time in the December program would have cost the tourist destination upwards of $350,000.

Eureka Springs isn’t a stranger to the big screen. Everything from automobile commercials to feature-length films like “Chrystal” have been shot in the Victorian village. An independent film will be shot there beginning in February, said Berry. Eureka Springs — with its landmark Christ of the Ozarks statue — is also expected to be a stop in the road-trip story line of “Elizabethtown,” a project of Oscar-winning writer-director Cameron Crowe.

“The impact [of shooting in Eureka Springs] will be wonderful,” said Berry.

The Simple Life

Not since the TV series “Evening Shade” (which was actually filmed in Los Angeles) ended its four-year run in 1994 has an Arkansas town played a major role on television. Not, that is, until “The Simple Life.”

Filming began late last spring for the “reality” show starring heiresses Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie. The debutantes spent six weeks in Altus (population 817) trying to assimilate into their new surroundings, performing various jobs while becoming the talk of the small Ozarks town.

Arkansas officials say shows such as “The Simple Life” aren’t demeaning; rather, they exhibit special qualities about the state’s people.

“I think (‘The Simple Life’) shows how friendly Arkansas’ people are and how patient we are,” said Jim Pickens, the former director of the Arkansas Department of Economic Development. “It would be a stretch to make fun of Arkansas with those two clueless, young spoiled brats.”

Indeed, the young women’s antics tried the patience of their host family, the Ledings, as well as their employers at a dairy farm and a local Sonic Drive-In.

“(They) turned out to be real sweet girls. They were still spoiled, and I think the town probably had all of them and their special needs that they wanted to see for a while,” Film Commissioner Glass said.

The heart of Arkansas’ wine-making country in Franklin County, Altus was one of 25 finalists vying to host the Fox network show. Seven Arkansas cities were in the running, a figure that elated Film Commission officials and stumped network executives, Glass said.

“The Simple Life” generated $2.5 million in publicity by October, a month before show previews began. Since the show’s debut, Altus has received many thousands of dollars in free publicity, including increased Internet traffic.

The state has benefited from the exposure as well, as it works toward its goal of debunking stereotypes, said Jay Harrod, communications manager for the Department of Parks & Tourism.

“We know that what hinders travel to Arkansas are misconceptions, and we devote a bit of our advertising — especially in 2004 — to combating those negative stereotypes,” he said. “If these movies help in that effort, we know it’ll bring more visitors and tourism dollars to Arkansas.”

Another victory in the battle for a favorable Arkansas image: the monthlong television series featuring Arkansas Children’s Hospital and its internationally renowned medical staff on ABC in 2002. ABC featured Dr. Jonathan Drummond-Webb and his surgical team on a television miniseries called “ICU: Arkansas Children’s Hospital,” which also received worldwide attention.

Hollywood Dollars

In addition to a positive image, movies and television series also bring lots of Hollywood money.

“When a movie is made in Arkansas, it’s (equivalent to) a convention for the location in which they are filming, but it lasts longer. It’s not just a two- or three-day event,” Pickens said.

Crews stay in local hotels, eat at local restaurants, pick up souvenirs and buy loads of supplies from hardware stores, florists and fabric shops.

“There are a lot of expendables that they don’t bring along with them, but they purchase them locally,” Pickens said.

During the half-year filming schedule of “The Blue and the Gray,” the producers dropped an estimated $12.15 million into the northwest Arkansas economy. “Chrystal,” like Billy Bob Thornton’s earlier “Sling Blade,” contributed upward of $5 million, Glass said.

“In lodging alone, (the crew of ‘Chrystal’) spent in excess of $70,000 in our city,” Eureka Springs’ Lynn Berry said.

But large projects are few and far between; the smaller film productions impact the local economy more often. A half-dozen smaller movies may contribute $200,000 each, but it’s these more frequent amounts that have city officials clamoring for movie rights.

To bring both large and small budgets to the state sometimes requires fancy maneuvering and negotiating.

Arkansas currently offers a 33 percent tax credit for film financing in the state, a move that “will generate publicity worth far more than our budget would allow us to buy,” according the film commission.

The Arkansas Motion Picture Incentive Act was passed in 1997 to encourage filming in the state and provides a sales tax refund on expenses up to $500,000 in a six-month period of filming or up to $1 million in 12 months.

Bringing in more films would boost employment and wages, according to the ADED.

Electricians working on film sets earn an average of $24.52 per hour, roughly twice the average manufacturing wage in Arkansas.

“The number of jobs being lost in manufacturing is sobering,” ADED spokesman Mitch Chandler said. “Creating jobs in the film industry is one way to replace these jobs.”

Arkansas, like many other states, has to do much more than just offer tax breaks to keep production crews interested.

In an effort to keep the film production industry from crossing international borders, U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., and Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., in 2001 encouraged the adoption of legislation that would provide a two-tiered wage credit for film and television productions in the United States.

The bill, called the “United States Independent Film and Television Production Incentive Act of 2001,” called for the credit to be equal to 25 percent of the first $25,000 of wages paid or 35 percent of those costs if they were incurred in low-income communities. The credit could be applied to projects between $200,000 and $10 million, according to the bill that bounced around for two more years and was referred to the Senate Committee on Finance.

A second bill sponsored by Dreier is moving simultaneously through the House Ways and Means Committee in an effort to stop filmmakers from producing their works in other countries for economic reasons. This process, called “runaway production,” deprives the country of billions of dollars each year, according to a Lincoln press release.

“Film production and distribution generate at least $18 billion in direct and indirect export revenues for the United States and well over $20 billion in economic activity in the United States,” according to The Creative Coalition’s background summary on Lincoln’s bill.

“The Natural State of Arkansas is an ideal location for independent film production,” Lincoln said in 2001. “Arkansas has been proud to host the production of many feature and television films, with benefits both economic and cultural. This legislation will make it possible for us to continue this tradition, and we hope to encourage more of these projects to come to Arkansas.”

And to keep the future of movie-making alive and attractive to Hollywood, Arkansas officials are encouraging an initiative called “My Community” that enables students in digital media education programs to create documentaries about their communities. These films may be used to further the ADED’s objectives of selling the state to filmmakers, businesses and tourists and may be aired on television and promotional ads.

The program is part of the EAST — Environmental and Spatial Technology — initiative that began in Arkansas in 1995 as a partnership between education and industry. It currently involves 212 schools in seven states and teaches youth about computer-aided drafting, animation, Web page design and other technical aspects.

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