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Special Report: Hollywood Arkansas

It's not often you see Reese Witherspoon on a motel balcony in Dumas, Arkansas.
It's not often you see Reese Witherspoon on a motel balcony in Dumas, Arkansas.

"It kind of looks like Hollywood some mornings,” Toby Bailey said, “With all the stars, excitement and people."

Bailey cuts hair next door to where the movie "Mud" and it's multi-million dollar budget is filming.

"Couple of stars come through and socialize with a couple of people and get to meet a few people," Bailey said.

Those stars include Reese Witherspoon, Matthew McCoughney, Michael Shannon and Sam Shepard.

Writer and director Jeff Nichols grew up in Little Rock. Mud is his third film, the second shot in Arkansas.

"Being in Arkansas is just like a breath of fresh air,” Jeff Nichols said. “I'm home and there's a certain amount of confidence. I'm sure-footed here. Yeah, I wouldn't pick any other place."

"The state really had to step up to the plate and help our project specifically to get it here."

Nichols is talking about tax incentives. In 2009, the legislature dangled a carrot for production companies to shoot in Arkansas. A 15% rebate on all production costs and 10% of the salaries for all Arkansas based crew members.

"It helps me if there's a crew base here, it helps me if there is some type of infrastructure for the industry here,” Nichols said. “and the only way that is going to happen is for me and other film makers to continue to make movies here."

Brent Renaud is in the middle of the Arkansas film industry. A documentary filmmaker and co-founder of the Little Rock Film Festival, he is now branching out year-round with the Argenta Film Series in North Little Rock.

"We're becoming competitive, but we're not there yet." Renaud said.

"A lot of films coming to this state, people get experience making that film, the tax incentives, everything is coming together at one time and that's why you're seeing this explosion of film-making in the local community."

At the Arkansas Film Commission, Christopher Crane heads a state agency supporting everything from small student films to big-time hollywood productions.

"The film industry, in and of itself, is blossoming," Crane said.

His take on tax breaks:

"It is a component, it is not the most important component."

Most important, he says, is Arkansas' people and it's beautiful locations.

"Do I feel that this current film is making a great economic impact? of course I do," Crane said.

Towns including Stuttgart are reaping the benefits.

An elementary school is serving as crew base for the two-month shoot, and a spot to find emerging talent, like 19-year old Johnny Cheek.

"They were looking for someone like an average kid from Stuttgart that would go out wearing regular stuff I think that's why I got it," Cheek said.

"We're happy to have them,” Stephen Bell said. “We hope we become Hollywood of the south and we have more production companies come to arkansas and to Stuttgart."

And those who know the Arkansas Film scene say a lot is riding on Mud and Jeff Nichols.

"He's a film-maker on the edge of becoming famous, of becoming a major big deal,” Renaud said. “If this film is successful, more films are going to come here to Arkansas. More people are going to be employed and will be a real win-win for the entire state."

Which means you might just run into a Matthew McCoughney at a gas station or a Reese Witherspoon at a Dollar Store or up on a motel balcony again in the future.
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