TN taxpayer-subsidize Robin Williams movie set in anonymous city

By Chris Butler | Tennessee Watchdog

NASHVILLE — Although the new Robin Williams movie “Boulevard” was filmed in Nashville, it never references where it takes place, so you’d think state officials, who gave $302,000 in taxpayer money to the project, would feel upset.

They evidently aren’t.

Tennessee Economic and Community Development officials gave the money away in the hopes enough audience members would see the movie and feel curious enough about Nashville to visit and bring tourism dollars with them.

But if you don’t know where the movie takes place, then perhaps you can figure it out on your own — after all, the movie does feature the Nashville skyline at one point.

Robin Williams filmed the movie “Boulevard” in Nashville last summer.

As Tennessee Watchdog previously reported, “Boulevard” producers accepted the ECD’s money last year in exchange for their agreement to film entirely in Nashville.

One ECD official, Laura Elkins, said last summer that “Boulevard” would take place in Nashville and that it, like ABC’s “Nashville,” which also accepts taxpayer money to film, would attract tourists to the city.

But the Williams’ movie differs from the ABC series in one key respect.

“The film was shot in Nashville but takes place in an unnamed American city,” said Sara Serlen, a New York-based publicity agent affiliated with the film.

The upcoming Nashville Film Festival will premiere the film April 24, but outside of that it has no release date and no distributors have thus far purchased it, Serlen said.

If the movie never references Nashville or Tennessee in any way then what are the benefits for taxpayers?

ECD spokesman Clint Brewer told Tennessee Watchdog the $302,000 was a worthwhile investment.

“After viewing the director’s cut and having a conversation with the production company it is our understanding that the film clearly takes place in Tennessee and specifically Nashville,” Brewer said.

“The film includes very obvious shots of the Nashville skyline. The city and the state are also recognized in the credits. In addition, the production company is marketing it as being shot in Tennessee.”

There are other benefits to taxpayers, Brewer said.

“Robin Williams is one of the greatest actors of his generation. The department felt it was a real branding opportunity to have Mr. Williams make a film in Tennessee.”

Will enough audience members outside of film festivals, assuming they sit through the credits or recognize Nashville’s skyline, even see the movie?

“Presently, the film is on the festival circuit, and that is a common business tactic for independent films to take in winning distribution,” Brewer said.

“Furthermore, in a changing entertainment industry, theater releases are far from the only channel of distribution available to filmmakers. While we feel confident this film will see a theatrical release, an entire global audience will no doubt have access to it through streaming services at some point.”

During last year’s shoot producers put out a casting notice for “freaky and nutty” extras to appear in the film to represent Nashville residents.

BOULEVARD: A casting call sheet for the new Robin Williams movie, which was taxpayer-subsidized.

When asked if ECD officials enforce any guidelines on how filmmakers may depict Tennessee residents on screen, especially for the purposes of tourism outreach, Brewer said this: “ECD was aware in advance that the film would contain these types of characters. Based on the script we received and the rough cut we reviewed the overall content of this production was not obscene.”

As previously reported, ECD officials awarded $12.5 million to ABC’s “Nashville” for its second season.

What Elkins and Brewer call “branding opportunities,” whether for “Boulevard” or the ABC series, are the same as tourism outreach.

Officials with the “Boulevard” production company, Camellia Entertainment, told state officials they would spend $1.2 million in Tennessee.

The Tennessee Comptroller’s Office released a report last year highly critical of the state’s film incentive program. The report said out-of-state production companies took advantage of the state’s generosity with taxpayer money, perhaps as much as $18 million, and redirected that money to California, without spending a lot in Tennessee.

Elkins told Tennessee Watchdog at the time that state officials have since put new controls in place designed to keep that money in state.

“We are mindful of the need for a better return on investment from the state’s film program,” Elkins said. “We also do not plan to try to compete with states like Georgia and Louisiana, which spend hundreds of millions annually competing for major motion picture productions.”

Contact Christopher Butler at chris@tennesseewatchdog.org. or follow him and submit story ideas on his official Facebook page.

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