Canton became a town in 1936 but became a Hollywood star in the 1990s. The county seat of Madison County has long been a gathering place for business and the legal doings but the central Mississippi picturesque hamlet has become a favorite of the motion picture industry. Ever since Matthew McConaughey came to town to conquer his first leading man role in a feature film, A Time to Kill, the first John Grisham novel to get the Hollywood big screen treatment, the city has had key lights and gaffers and more scurrying about.
Jo Ann Gordon was instrumental in getting that first film to town, with plenty of help from the Mississippi Film Commission, volunteers and many others who helped make Hollywood executives smile with success.
“I came to work for the Canton Redevelopment Authority in 1987 and we kind of took on the role of the economic development agencies,” Gordon said. “We had films start to look at us. The first one, was ‘A Worn Path,” a Eudora Welty film. From there it followed one right after the other.”
Gordon, a Winona native, came to Canton after attending Memphis State University (now University of Memphis). Her memories of the local Winona theatres whet her appetite to hopefully become a Hollywood actress. The family trip to visit relatives in Los Angeles only heated that desire.“This was all I wanted to do,” she said.
Her parents instructed her to write a letter to her LA cousin asking her to contact Hollywood studios on her behalf. Cousin Bobbie then wrote back informing Gordon that she had indeed talked to every studio and they had offered some sound advice for the young thespian.
“They all want you to come and be a part of acting. But they want you to do is finish school first. Get your education and then they’d love to have you come and audition and be part of that world,” she said.
After high school where she took part in plays and musicals and watching her dreams on the big screen each Saturday, she kept working toward her own Hollywood dream. But after college, she decided acting wouldn’t be her world and she came to Canton.
“I always helped community theatre there and ‘A Worn Path’ came and that tweaked my interest again. Then I had a producer and director contact me from ‘In the Heat of the Night’ (TV show),” she said. “They were moving it from Hammond, Louisiana and were looking for a new location.”
After considering Canton where Gordon set the entertainment table with as much benefits as possible, it came down to the production choosing Covington, Georgia where the work crew had a home base. But her tenacity to get them there, gave the TV production the idea to create a character in Jo Ann’s honor.
“I decided to zero in on film as an economic engine for the community,” she said. “And that was before the tax incentives.”
Major motion pictures, independent films, commercials, documentaries and more found their way to Madison County to explore Canton and all it had to offer film makers. When A Time to Kill set up in town, a 36,000-square foot soundstage was built as well as other sets. One, the coffee shop, still remains as one visitors can tour and is a museum. The rest of the sets are still in town as well.
“We have what’s real and you don’t have to build as much,” Gordon said. “They built the court room set and the rotunda set.
Gordon noted that all four major literary influences from Mississippi – Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, John Grisham and Willie Morris have all had their writing work memorialized in film and filmed in Canton.
Morris’ “My Dog Skip,” was filmed in 1998, creating 996 jobs and had an economic impact of more than $2.8 million dollars. In 1999, “The Rising Place” was filmed in town but the jobs created and economic impact figures were not calculated. Also in 1999, George Clooney spent plenty of time in the area filming “O Brother Where Art Thou,” creating 1,483 jobs and bringing more than $5.1 million dollars to the local economy. In 2000, “The Ponder Heart” was filmed but the impact numbers were not calculated.
When A Time to Kill was made in Canton in 1995, it created over 500 jobs and brought a $5,308,340.93 economic impact to the area. Even more to the entire state. James Franco filmed a version of Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” in the area in 2013. Canton became known as “The Film Capital of Mississippi.”
The area has become a favorite for in the film industry. Even those visiting while working have come and gone with a great impression of Canton and it’s filming capabilities.
John Samson, Construction Coordinator for “A Time to Kill” and a 40-year film industry veteran, enjoyed coming to the Magnolia State and Canton in particular to work.
“All of the people we met and worked with over the six-month project were most hospitable and helpful,” Samson said. “Each and every one of our local crew members, local hardware, lumber and paint vendors and especially the Canton film office graciously assisted us throughout the building of the scenery, often filling our unusual orders for products unique to the film business and finding different local materials as superior substitutes. It was a refreshing change from the ‘business as usual’ we become accustomed to in Hollywood.”
Samson enjoyed being “adopted” by the local community and experienced true southern hospitality.
“Many of us were from the Los Angeles area and were made to feel right at home throughout the late spring, summer and fall,” he said. “The base of operations provided for us on the square allowed a unique opportunity for those of us in the Art Department to feel ourselves a part of the community, something that is uncommon in most filming locations. The people in Canton opened themselves up to us and our project, making the experience and the product much better for it. I know that I echo the sentiments of many of my fellow department heads with whom I have worked in the years since. We recall our time in Canton, Mississippi with fondness and gratitude for the people of the town and with a great deal of satisfaction about the quality of the film, ‘A Time To Kill.’”
With so many productions taking place in and around Canton, the area has become a destination for many to explore making it an industry all its own.
“Jack Phillips from Phillips Tours in Winona, Minnesota brings a group to Canton for the Movie Museums,” Gordon said. “He was just here in February and has already booked for 2023.”
The film industry in Canton continues to thrive and seeks to educate young minds interested in it all. The Canton Young Filmmakers Workshops seeks to teach and reach out to youngsters.
“We partner with the Mississippi Film Office and that started back in 2003,” Gordon said. “I have many students who have gone through our program who have gone onto major in film. Some are working in the industry.”
A recent movie came to town in December and wrapped in March. Others are also on the books to make Canton their movie home. With all of that interest over the years, the Wall Street Journal and even CBS’s 48 Hours Program have been in town to tout the Canton movie industry story. Gordon is continually looking for more film partners to visit.
“The challenge is to get them to town and pair them with the right locations,” Gordon said. “It’s like paring a glass of wine with the right entrée. I’m trying to marry the right fits. If you do that, they have a tremendous experience.”
Canton – the Hollywood of the South for generations to come.