Desoto County News

Making DeSoto County a ‘film capital’

DeSoto Arts Institute teaches future filmmakers, plans October film festival

Sunday saw the Oscars again being handed out, also known as the 95th Academy Awards, honoring the best films, actors, and producers of the year.  

Would there ever come a day where a production company from DeSoto County won an Oscar? Who knows, but there is a film community active in DeSoto County that is training aspiring filmmakers in the art right now.  

The DeSoto Arts Institute (DAI) is a non-profit media arts training organization providing exposure, education, and hands-on experience in film production, video production, screenwriting, acting, music production, and audio production. It is based in part of the SouthPoint Church building in Southaven.  

DAI Founder Robb Smith, aka Robb Rokk, and Program Director Jesaiah Burnett recently sat down with DeSoto County News to talk about the DeSoto Arts Institute and their plans for the DeSoto Film Festival to return in October.  

Burnett said Film School 101 has started up again and at least 30 students are now learning the basics of filmmaking.  There are weekly classes and weekend workshops available.  

“It’s a certificate program but we’re working on getting certification through the state and eventually want to get accreditation behind us,” Burnett said. “There are five phases of filmmaking and we’re giving them an overview of each step.”

Burnett said the phases of making films range from the development of a story, figuring how to put together all of the elements, writing the story, pre-producing it, getting it ready to shoot and all of the things that entails. Then, shooting it, the production and post-production, which is editing and everything that happens after you have everything in the can, and distribution, and advertising.  

Rokk added a holistic approach to making films is the approach they take.  

“We want them to be understanding everything as an overview, but then getting into things that everyone loves to do, wants to do, and wants to learn,” Rokk said. “There’s a balance between high-level and then getting into the weeds pretty hard with some detail.”

Early response to the DAI film programs has been good, Burnett said, to the point where future plans include specific programs tailored for specific ages. Right now, of the 30 students in the program, there are a few in the mid-teens, several in the mid-20 age range, and even a few 40-year olds.  

“It’d be good to target specific demographics because they learn so differently,” Burnett said. 

Rokk and Burnett discovered that four years ago when they taught at a summer camp connected with the Oxford Film Festival, where a short film was actually put together.  

“We had help from the Oxford Film Festival group helping manage things, but it was a great learning lesson for us to understand how to be working with young people,” Rokk said. 

During the year-long DAI Film School 101, each student works in each role in a film’s life cycle. 

The attractive part of Film School 101 is that it is free to the students with funding provided by sponsors.  DAI asks churches, nonprofits and local businesses to partner with them by “sponsoring” a student at $99 a month per student. 

“We know that the value of what we’re offering is huge, we clearly understand that,” Rokk said. “We are teaching them ‘why this works this way,’ and then let’s get hands on.” 

Because of that, Rokk and Burnett continue to seek sponsorships and contributions for partnerships that would help cover the school’s cost.  Part of what the DeSoto Arts Institute has envisioned for the future also is an expansion of the studio facilities and program size. 

“Right now, we’re at about 5,000 square feet between two rooms and we’re wanting to increase about another 3-4,000 square feet, but it’s going to take some serious fundraising and some area recognition and support,” Rokk said. “If we built out this area, we would be the only ‘big, small’ studio in North Mississippi.”

Students who go through the program can actually be considered for work on major productions that come through the Mid-South, such as “Young Rock” and “Bluff City Law.”  

“When productions like ‘Young Rock’ came here to film, they hired people from all over the country and flew them out,” Burnett explained. “What we want is for them to come to Mississippi and Tennessee, hire locally and have a big film community to choose from.”

Rokk added that it would be advantageous to the production company to look locally because it would also mean savings in the cost of production.    

“Part of the reason it would be appealing is that in Tennessee they get tax incentives,” said Rokk. “When you spend a certain amount of dollars you get a third of that back. In Mississippi we have some attractive tax incentives too, so it’s only wise for them to hop across the line and ‘double-dip.’”

The public will have a chance to see some of the school results and also view film submissions from the region during the third DeSoto Film Festival, set for October.  

The DeSoto Film Festival is designed to bring thoughtful entertainment to families in the Mid-South as well as give exposure to filmmakers desiring to reach the widest audience of viewers – the entire family.

“At our annual film festival, we’re going to show a lot of films from all over the world, but we’re going to do a showcase of Mississippi films,” Rokk said. 

Burnett and Rokk say they do the Film School to pour back into the lives of the students. Part of being in a church is intentional, because they want their future filmmakers to know that you can produce great films while staying true to your faith.  

“We have a lot of them here who have faith and when they go into film they lose their faith so we want to tailor it to ‘you should be growing stronger in your faith, and still film,’ Burnett said, with Rokk adding, “The filmmaking environment can be pretty harsh, surrounded by people who are putting in long hours and are so focused on that work that they’re not doing other things.”

For more information about the DeSoto Arts Institute, visit the website.  

For information on the DeSoto Film Festival, visit the website. It should be noted that the site still has March dates on it, although the actual festival is being held in October. The specific dates of the festival were still being finalized.  

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