ABC's Nashville ended its first season with a cliffhanger last night, leaving its audience around the world to wonder if a key character will live to see another pin-drop Bluebird Cafe performance. But even though ABC renewed the prime-time soap for a second season, there's another crucial character whose return is up in the air — and that's Music City itself.
What the show's production company, Lionsgate Entertainment, and the network have not announced is whether they'll continue filming the show on location.
"I just didn't see how you could [shoot the show outside Nashville]," creator and executive producer Callie Khouri told the Scene before the series premiered last fall. "Nashville really bent over backwards to give us the tax credits and make it possible for us to do it here."
Some might say the city bent over forward. The show ultimately scored a 17 percent tax credit from the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development and a 15 percent refundable tax credit from the Tennessee Department of Revenue. As a result, the show reportedly recouped 32 percent of its hefty production costs in its first season.
Now, though, the city and state might not be able to bend over quite as far, as state law now imposes a 25 percent cap on reimbursements. Consequently, Lionsgate is reportedly threatening to relocate the show — perhaps to L.A., where many on the cast and crew are based, or perhaps to somewhere like Georgia, which is quickly becoming the Studio City of the South.
"I think it's strictly [about] money," says Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau president and CEO Butch Spyridon, a tireless champion of the show. On behalf of the CVB, he's willing to help the city and state make up the difference.
"Nashville's made a pretty good offer, from what I know," Spyridon says. "And we have even said we would consider [contributing] some cash, and we've put a fair amount of marketing behind the show, and you won't get that in L.A. ... We'll [still] tell people to tune in, but not with near the zest."
In addition, according to The Tennessean, the state's ECD department (which houses the state film, music and entertainment commission) plans to allocate $11.25 million toward an incentives package for Season 2.
So far Nashvillians haven't had to watch the show to be fans. Filming in Nashville has been an economic boon of incalculable proportions for the city. Beyond the approximately $4 million an episode the show spends shooting, building sets, renting locations and hiring hundreds of extras and local crew, the show has made an international musical landmark of The Bluebird Cafe — which has seen attendance and merchandise sales skyrocket since becoming a regular fixture on the show.
A Gray Line bus routinely takes tourists by other locations. Fans can also check out Nashville wardrobe items and artifacts at a current Country Music Hall of Fame exhibition. And that's not to mention the show's potential as a music-industry cash cow, with multiple soundtracks, robust iTunes sales, lots of opportunity for the city's tunesmiths and hit-millers, even a proposed package tour featuring some of the show's breakout stars.
Certainly this is an economic engine the city and state don't want to lose, and Lionsgate knows it. Sources close to the show speculate that Lionsgate is rattling its saber and threatening to relocate production as a negotiating tactic, to pressure city and state officials and wring out every tax credit they can.
"It's bullshit," says one behind-the-scenes source, while another elaborates a bit less bluntly: "Tax incentives are key for Nashville to stay in Music City long term. There's a game Hollywood plays where they don't want you to know how much they want you. In order for you to want them. But in Nashville it doesn't work that way. It's a small town where everyone knows everyone. You play games, they walk away."
In other words, idle threat or not, production companies are used to getting what they want. In a written statement to the Scene, Mayor Karl Dean seems confident the show will remain in Nashville.
"Nashville has injected millions of dollars into our local economy through employment, production and infrastructure investment, strengthening our local film industry," he says. "The first season of Nashville has been a huge success by all measures, and we look forward to Nashville continuing to film right here during its second season."
"Moving a location of a production, while not unprecedented, is rare," says Variety TV critic Jon Weisman, who despite being a non-country listener from Los Angeles says he tunes in to Nashville each week. "Shows tend to stay where they started. ... If and when they do move, there's a lot of economic forces at play, I'm sure."
But production sources who spoke on condition of anonymity speculate that additional logistical and creative factors are forcing Lionsgate to consider relocating the show's production.
"I think Connie [Britton] would prefer to be in L.A.," one source tells the Scene, explaining why the season finale's car crash cliffhanger was manufactured to give writers the option (though unlikely) of killing off the show's central character.
That raises the question: Which is harder to imagine — Nashville without Rayna Jaymes, or Nashville without Nashville? Is either scenario even feasible for the show, which has built and branded itself on those characters?
"I wouldn't sell anybody short in terms of their ability to make one place look like another place," Weisman says. "But I can't imagine it hurts the show to be done in Nashville."
Weisman points out that if ABC and Lionsgate are disappointed with the show's ratings — which, after starting out at a high of 2.8, have dropped down to but held strong at 1.9, with a viewing audience of roughly 6 million per week — they shouldn't be.
"The show maybe could've done a little better, but it could have done a lot worse," Weisman says. "Most shows get cancelled. ... The fact that this show essentially gave ABC 20-odd weeks of trouble-free television, in terms of ratings, is solid."
But not everything has gone smoothly for Nashville. If the show does indeed return to Music City for Season 2, line producer Loucas George and production supervisor Don Bensko won't be returning with it. While sources on the show's side say that's in part due to Lionsgate's unhappiness with spendthrift shoots and episodes cutting close to deadline, others say that wasn't the fault of George, Bensko or the crew. They argue that delayed scripts, slow turnaround on the show's music, and the fact that Lionsgate generally has little experience producing a network series led to a rigorous series of 16-hour days and unforeseen expenses — such as hemorrhaging a fortune in overtime pay.
George declined to comment for the artlcle. But sources behind the scenes say he caught flak for his candor with the media and for saying too often how pivotal the Nashville location shooting was to the series — something the network and studio might take as undermining their bargaining position. With George gone, so too may be the show's strongest advocate for remaining in Music City.
"Obviously the game changes with Loucas George not being reupped," Spyridon says. "Prior to that, I'd say I felt pretty good about if the show was renewed, they'd film here." And if they don't?
"It'll be extremely disappointing," he says. "I'd be pretty pissed."
Spyridon won't be the only local lamenting if Nashville indeed packs up and rides off into the sunset. "I think people would be slower to embrace [the show]," he says. "There is a sense of pride, and ownership, and maybe endearment to it being here."
Mayor Dean echoes those sentiments.
"The show made a smart, strategic decision to film in Nashville in order to capture the authenticity of the sights and sounds of Music City," he says, "It's hard to imagine a show called Nashville being filmed in any other place than the show's rightful home — Nashville."
Production of Season 2 is slated to start in July. So far, no one on the local crew has gotten the call.
"I'm optimistic," Spyridon says. "The strength of the show as much as anything is its music and its authenticity, and access to all that music isn't near as easy from L.A. ... Unfortunately, I'd say if they do this show from L.A., it's got a short shelf life."