knows firsthand that the Memphis and Shelby County
Film and Television Commission affords potential clients
a view of the river and a short walk to Beale
There's a hip feel to 245 Wagner Place in downtown Memphis.
The building has high ceilings and track lighting. The walls
are a rich palette of dark purples and forest greens. Balloons,
streamers and other remnants of a New Year's Eve party
have been swept to the center of the main room.
Through a door and into the office of the Memphis and Shelby
County Film and Television Commission, the atmosphere remains
largely the same. Life-sized cutouts of Elvis, autographed
photos of movie stars and film festival posters are everywhere.
Linn Sitler, commissioner of the organization, dismisses these
treasures as clutter.
Sitler (MA '78) acts as a liaison between film companies
and the community. Since she began her post in 1987, many
movies, television shows, commercials and music videos have
been filmed in Memphis, bringing millions of dollars into
the local economy. Two feature-length films, 21 Grams
and John Grisham's A Painted House, were filmed in
the Bluff City last winter.
allure of Memphis
Memphis has experienced a silver screen renaissance during
Sitler's watch. Aside from King Vidor (1929),
A Face in the Crowd (1957) and The Reivers (1969),
the film industry had little involvement in the Mid-South
before the commission was created in 1985. But more than 20
full-length movies have been filmed here in the last two decades.
A film commissioner is admittedly a rare breed there
are only about 250 film commissions worldwide. The work is
continual; Sitler is basically on call at all times when a
big production is in town. She says life as a film commissioner
is more or less an around-the-clock job.
"There is no such thing as a typical day here,"
she says. "I sleep with this by my bed, like a doctor,"
she adds, waving her cell phone. "Big movies have a tendency
to have big problems."
That might be an understatement, says Dr. Richard Ranta,
U of M dean of the College of Communication and Fine Arts,
as he recalls the time Sitler arranged for the Hernando DeSoto
Bridge to be closed for a shoot.
"It caused a massive traffic problem," Ranta says.
"Unbeknownst to her, Arkansas had decided to close most
of the Memphis-Arkansas Bridge at the same time, even when
construction there was not scheduled for that day. The shot
went very well, but traffic was backed up for hours and plenty
of people were hot under the collar."
left, 21 Grams director Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu,
former Tennessee Film Commissioner Pat Ledford, Sitler
and actor Benicio del Toro.
The risks are worth the benefits of bringing movie productions
to Memphis. A big production can spend more than a million
dollars during a shoot, primarily in the local hotel and restaurant
industries. Sitler says Memphis cuisine plays an important
role in seducing potential filmmakers to the Mid-South.
"We used to take out print ads," she says, "but we learned
sending Cozy Corner barbecue or Rendezvous ribs goes a lot
further." Milos Forman, for one, decided to shoot The People
vs. Larry Flynt soon after a trip to Memphis' annual barbecue
festival. And director Michael Housman gets Cozy Corner's
cuisine FedEx'd to him each year as a birthday treat.
But Ranta says Sitler herself is the main reason production
companies journey to the city.
"There is no question that Memphis has had several films
shoot here because of the friendly, go-out-of-your-way service
she gives to the scouts and producers looking for the right
place to shoot, and then to the cast and crew when the film
locates here," Ranta says. "She is very respected
in the film and television industry for her knowledge of film
commission business, and she has an engaging personality that
puts people at ease."
Saying that Sitler is well-traveled is like saying it's
dark at night. Here is how she describes where she's
lived: "I was born in Massachusetts, then I moved to
Alabama, then I moved to Denver, then I went to kindergarten
in Pittsburgh ..."
Because her father was in the Air Force, Sitler's family
spent several years in Germany. They moved to Memphis when
she was a teenager, and after she graduated from Central High
School, Sitler left for UT Knoxville and got her undergraduate
degree in English. She attended then-Memphis State University
with dreams of becoming an actress.
The dean at the time, Dr. Jack Sloan, encouraged her to take
communications courses in addition to her theatre classes.
"If all you take are acting classes," he warned,
"you'll end up typing in a TV station."
Sitler says she loved the theatre classes but experienced
some "technical difficulties" in the communications
"I was horrible with the equipment," she says.
"[Classmate] Jarvis Greer would have to put my hands
on the audio boards and say, Now Linn, don't move
your hands until I give the cue.'"
But Sitler played to her strengths production and
people skills. She received an internship at WKNO-TV where
she interviewed and produced segments of Montage, a show about
the arts. After college, she made career stops at WMC-TV,
PM Magazine, the Tennessee Film Commission in Nashville,
and finally the local commission.
When Sitler returned to Memphis, she went back to the U of
M, this time as a teacher. She taught an
introduction to film class for four years. She also helped
the College of Communication and Fine Arts bring in movie
directors to give special lectures to U of M film students.
Sitler even got to fulfill her original acting ambitions
in a roundabout way. Several directors have given her small
roles as a thank you' for her diligent work. That's
her as "svelte reporter" in The People vs. Larry
Flynt, "realty agent" in Great Balls of Fire
and "news anchor" in The Client. Aware of
the conflict-of-interest the roles could cause, she has faithfully
poured all residuals into the U of M's Linn Sitler Acting
Scholarship Fund and the Memphis and Shelby County Film Foundation.
When Sitler was hired, she worked by herself on a shoestring
budget. Now that big and small productions alike are regularly
rolling into Memphis, the budget has increased and she has
a deputy film commissioner, Sharon O'Guin.
"When I first met Linn in 1989, she inspired me with
a talk she gave about her work at the film commission,"
O'Guin says. "A couple years after that, she offered
me an internship at the commission that eventually led to
this job. I have learned everything I know about this job
and this field from Linn."
Grams publicist Quinn Donoghue, Sitler and assistant
location manager Damon Gordon meet on location in
The 22-member Board of Directors is also a great asset. Board
members serve as advisers, and some of them, like Ranta, share
Sitler's sense of hospitality.
"Dr. Ranta is extremely committed," Sitler says.
"A lot of times when a movie is being shot, he'll
be on location at 3:30 in the morning, before the union even
Sitler knows Memphis better than most and knowing
the Mid-South inside and out is a crucial job skill.
Filmmakers look for two things when deciding where to film
good hospitality and good locations. The first comes
naturally for Sitler, but the second requires some legwork.
The commission has collected and archived thousands of photographs
for scouting agents. If scouts can't find scenes that
match the script, the movie has to be shot elsewhere.
A classic example is when producers of The Firm wanted
ludicrously! to film in Chicago, even though
Grisham's novel was set in Memphis. Sitler and a handful
of free-lance photographers set out around town to find matching
locations, and she convinced filmmakers that they could use
low-angle shots to make downtown Memphis appear more ominous
No matter how big the photo archive gets, location scouting
will remain a priority, Sitler says.
"Filmmakers generally want 'virgin' locations," she says,
"so if you tell them, 'Five films were shot here,' that will
just scare them away."
Memphis has enough versatile locations to make it attractive
to different projects, Sitler says. Nearby, there are cotton
fields, swamplands and forests. The city itself has everything
from antebellum homes to 21st century architecture and much
in between. Beside starring as itself, Memphis has posed as
Chicago, East St. Louis
and Columbus, Ohio.
Sitler knows how important being a good host is, too. Her
aim to please has not gone unnoticed.
"I've never been in a city like Memphis where they
make it so easy for you, and where your needs are anticipated,"
says Sydney Pollack, who directed The Firm. "I've
never felt so welcome. People knock themselves out for you."
For Sitler, going the extra mile is not just part of the
job, it's a personal obligation.
"I'm just very eager to prove myself and prove
the city to the filmmakers," she says. "I take it
as a personal defeat if something bad happens that could've
But the defeats are few and far between. It's a trend that
will likely continue as long as Sitler remains "the commish."
in the Movies"
than 20 movies have been filmed partially or wholly
in Memphis since the film commission's
creation in 1985, and Sitler has a hard time choosing
a way, its like a boyfriend,"she says. "It's
the one you're dating now. But I think that the group
that was here [for 21 Grams] will certainly be one of
my top favorites. They were so unbelievably friendly
and nice and appreciative."
are a few memorable movies made in Memphis:
Great Balls of Fire! (1989), The Firm
(1993), The Client (1994), The People vs.
Larry Flynt (1996),
The Rainmaker (1997), Cookie's Fortune
(1999), Cast Away (2001), 21 Grams (2003)