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magazine home > archives > spring 2003 > features

U of M alumna Linn Sitler is helping movie directors put Memphis on the map ... and the silver screen.

The Commish
by Benjamin Potter

Film Commissioner Linn Sitler

Sitler 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.

The 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."

Sitler with members of 21 Grams production
From 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."

Acting ambitions

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 classes.

"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.

Dedication and commitment

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."

Sitler with members of 21 Grams production

21 Grams publicist Quinn Donoghue, Sitler and assistant location manager Damon Gordon meet on location in Midtown.

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 gets there."

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 and intimidating.

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 been helped."

But the defeats are few and far between. It's a trend that will likely continue as long as Sitler remains "the commish."

"Memphis in the Movies"

More 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 favorite.

"In a way, it’s 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."

Here 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)

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