By Dwain Hebda
“Unfortunately, I could not sing.”
So begins Kathryn Tucker’s tale of life in the arts. The veteran director and producer of film and television, who’s worked at the elbow of some of the giants of the business, found early the trailhead of her career at her hometown Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock (now Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts).
There, the harsh indignities inherent to that field were revealed almost immediately.
“I was in plays there. I was part of the Children’s Theatre,” she says, “but I was usually cast as a rock or a tree or something. My career as an actor was brief.”
Fortunately, Tucker proved as gifted in visual arts as she was lacking in vocal talent, specifically painting, which she continues to this day. Then, while attending Central High School, her parents bought her a Nikon FM2, and her course was set.
“I absolutely fell in love with photography,” she says. “Looking back on it, if you put theater together with a camera, that’s basically film.”
Many years later, the light in Tucker’s voice while discussing the art form that became her life’s work is undimmed. It is a journey that took her from the Natural State to the East Coast and then California, searching for various ways to bring her vision and creativity to reality. Over her career, those outlets have included still and movie photography, television series and feature and independent films.
Today, the frame is considerably wider, her focus sharper, as she seeks to bring cinematic art more fully to life in Arkansas. It’s no pet project, either, nurturing the state’s nascent film industry as she is into a reliable economic engine.
“Film is the art form of the 21st century and the most accessible art form,” she says. “And, it’s an art form that you can make a living doing here. I think Arkansas is catching on to that.
“What I tell people about working in Arkansas is this: If you’re a filmmaker in Arkansas, you really love both things. It’s not easy to be a filmmaker here, and it’s not easy to make a living. If that’s something you’ve chosen and you’ve chosen to stay in Arkansas, you’re really, really committed to both.”
If the thought of movie and television production leaving industry hubs and migrating to places like Arkansas seems oddly out of place, consider that it’s happened before, albeit not for more than a century. Thomas Edison, who perfected much of moving picture technology, birthed the wildly popular art form as silent pictures in New Jersey. Better regarded for his mechanical genius than his people skills, Edison was highly opinionated on how the burgeoning industry should evolve and its practitioners behave.
In 1908, he corralled the patent holders of all significant technology related to producing and screening motion pictures under the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC). Through that body of cronies, Edison ruled the industry like an oligarch.
“If you wanted to be in the movie business,” Dan Lewis wrote in Mental Floss, “you did so at the pleasure of Thomas Edison.”
Inevitably, maverick producers would chafe under MPPC’s thumb and looked around to set up shop elsewhere. As a February article for the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) noted, Los Angeles was an ideal landing spot, providing cheap labor and land, great weather and enough distance to keep the MPPC at arm’s length. By the end of World War I, the tide had turned, and LA became the undisputed epicenter for American film, seemingly forever.
But over the last three decades or so, Hollywood has steadily lost its grip on the industry for which it is famous. Sky-high costs tied to real estate and labor unionization have grown worse with time, until the 1990s when some flyover states decided the time was ripe to start beckoning.
Louisiana and Georgia led that charge, offering sweet deals to producers in the form of various incentives. What began in dribs and drabs is now a full-scale exodus; FEE noted in 2017 just 10 of the top 100 movies that year were made mainly in California. Meanwhile, Georgia’s film industry is an $80 billion juggernaut and growing.
Tucker was one of the LA crowd who, after years of working on major motion pictures and television programs, wanted to get back home. She was surprised to see what had sprouted in her absence.
“When I was working in Hollywood, I was working on $100-plus million films, and there’s a lot of luxury in that. I loved traveling all over the world with these highly competent film crews. Those experiences were pretty amazing, obviously,” she says. “But there’s also a lot of pressure in that because every day you’re just slow-burning hundreds of thousands of dollars. As an assistant director, you’re the one in charge of making sure everything goes as smoothly as possible, so that job is really stressful, and we have the longest hours of anyone on the crew.
“I got out of that because I missed Arkansas. I came back to visit, met my husband, who’s a cinematographer. There was a small but awesome group of filmmakers that were making really great content, and I was very impressed by what they were doing. It kind of intrigued me, and that’s why, ultimately, I moved home.”
Tucker initiated various projects upon her return, including producing All the Birds Have Flown South, shot in Arkansas in the winter of 2014. In 2016, she produced the feature film Antiquities, shot entirely on location that fall in Little Rock and North Little Rock. Working these projects convinced her all the more how well-positioned Arkansas was to get a bigger slice of the cinematic pie.
“I had been working with all of this Hollywood talent, and I found the talent to be equal or better in Arkansas,” she says. “There’s a difference in attitude, in my opinion, in working on an Arkansas film and an LA film. In Hollywood, they’re not necessarily in it for the art, they’re in it because it’s a well-paying job. When you hire a film crew here, they’re so grateful to get the work, they bring their A-game. That’s the really cool thing. Even the prop intern is some incredible artist.”
Historically, the state’s film credentials are a mixed bag. Although Arkansas can list inclusion in seminal works Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Gone With the Wind to its credit, through the 1970s much of its library files under low-budget redneck tire-squealers like Boxcar Bertha, White Lightning and Two-Lane Blacktop. Here and there, the 1980s had its nuggets — Biloxi Blues and A Soldier’s Story, for instance.
Since 1990, however, the amount of work and quality consistency has improved markedly. Sling Blade, shot in Saline County, was one of the best films of 1996, earning Arkansan Billy Bob Thornton two Academy Award nominations and winning Best Adapted Screenplay. Mud, starring Mathew McConaughey, was shot entirely in southeast Arkansas. Played at Cannes and Sundance Film Festivals, it was named one of the Top Ten Independent Films of 2013 by the National Board of Review.
Arkansas started to gain more attention thanks to an incentives package passed by the legislature in 2009 and the street cred of numerous film festivals, notably the Little Rock Film Festival. But when that event lumbered to a halt in 2015, industry and government movers and shakers feared the state’s film industry would stick in idle or worse.
In response, Tucker launched the Arkansas Cinema Society in 2017, the founding board of which included Gov. Mike Beebe, actress Mary Steenburgen and screenwriters Jeff Nichols and Graham Gordy, to help regain momentum.
“The spark for the Arkansas Cinema Society came from the Little Rock Film Festival closing in 2015,” Tucker says. “If you look, there’s a direct correlation between filmmakers making films and having a place to screen them. If they don’t have a place to screen their films, they are not going to make films.”
“So, when the Little Rock Film Festival closed after a very, very successful nine years, a group of filmmakers and city leaders got in a room and were like, ‘Yes, we should have a film festival in Little Rock. But we should also create a statewide film network that models what the Austin [Texas] Film Society has done there, which is about developing the film community and being more community-based.’”
It was as they were fleshing through the details of those projects, Tucker says, that board members began to think bigger.
“We just decided that Arkansas is too small of a state to silo its film resources,” she says. “What I really want the Arkansas Cinema Society to do is to connect and support all of the different film communities — Central Arkansas, Northwest Arkansas, Hot Springs, etc. — and be a resource for one another.”
In addition to this, the Society serves as a connecting point for Arkansas expats to reconnect with their home state. Educational programming is another priority, to teach and inspire the next generation.
“It’s wildly fulfilling to teach young people about film and introduce it as a possibility for a career,” says Tucker, the mother of two. “We’re basically giving all of these young people a decade’s worth of heads-up on getting into the industry, something I didn’t have.
“We’re doing screenwriting for fifth graders. I lead a filmmaking lab for teen girls every summer. As soon as COVID’s over, we’re hoping to start these more robust weekend workshops, where we bring in industry experts. Our pillars have always been ‘Watch, Learn, Make.’”
In 2021, the Society was behind a bill introduced in the Arkansas legislature sweetening the incentives package for filmmakers originally passed in 2009. HB-1743, sponsored by Rep. Charlene Fite (R-Van Buren), adapts the law to provide the filmmaker the choice of a rebate or tax credit (contingent upon the governor’s “rainy day fund”) and provides additional perks for projects employing veterans and filming in economically disadvantaged Arkansas counties.
“The marketing one-liner for [the bill] is that we’re doing our best to make these incentives more sustainable,” Tucker says. “Converting [to the option] means the state won’t [always] have to write a check to filmmakers. Tax credits are a lot more palatable compared to allocating funds in the state budget, which has been the trouble with the current incentive.”
On April 6, the bill passed the Arkansas House by a vote of 87 to 2 and was sent to the senate.
Another improvement backed by the Society, though not part of the House bill, is streamlining the application process for filmmakers through the Arkansas Economic Development Commission.
“When a producer comes here, they have to go through a fairly extensive approval process,” Tucker says. “Not to speak negatively about what we have, because what we have percentage-wise is actually pretty competitive. We’re just trying to streamline it to make it a little bit more accessible.”
As enthused as she is about the possibility of growth, Tucker is keeping a measure of perspective when it comes to goal setting. Which isn’t easy, considering the myriad opportunities she sees to build a thriving and fertile film industry ecosystem within the Natural State.
“We’re not trying to be Georgia. We don’t think we’ll ever be Georgia. It’s really about the people who live in Arkansas having jobs.” she says. “What we’d really like to have is four to five $2-$5 million films a year. That would not only employ a lot of people, we could partner with universities, given they’ll have places to have internships. Once you get on your first film and you work hard and get along with people, they’ll take you along with them. That’s how we see creating a sustainable economy — even if it’s small — for filmmakers in Arkansas. That’s the idea.
“You know, for theatres and streaming channels and YouTube, everybody, there’s a need for new content. A lot of the independent films that are truly, truly very low budget, were still able to create throughout the pandemic. Already this year, there’s been a couple of productions in Little Rock, and I’m seeing production companies pop up both in Central Arkansas and Northwest Arkansas. I see Arkansas as about to explode.”
*This article was updated on April 7 to note that HB-1743 passed the Arkansas House after the April issue of AY Magazine published.