When Dino De Laurentiis came to Wilmington in 1983 to shoot “Firestarter”, there were no tax incentives, no Hollywood East. There was hardly even a recognizable Front Street, save the Barbary Coast and a few others. Regardless of the location, crews were flown in from Hollywood, they shot their film, and left. Before he started filming, Dino had been looking for a place to build a studio outside of California. He fell in love with the Azalea Coast, and decided this is where he would make his factory, as it were. Now, it’s next to impossible to find someone in town who doesn’t know about Screen Gems, or any of the myriad films and television shows that have been shot here.
“If they haven’t been here personally, they know someone [in the industry] who has,” says Johnny Griffin, Regional Film Commissioner. “Everyone that’s been here has fond memories of the place.” It’s amazing to think that a small city (without a direct flight from Los Angeles, mind you) could even show up on the map of so many Hollywood executives, but Wilmington and the state of North Carolina have been a constant part of the conversation in California. “We’re lucky Dino decided to build the studio here,” says Johnny, adding that anywhere else he had chosen would have had a similar experience. It brought people within the business to Wilmington from all over, and attracted newcomers who were determined to break into the industry. Now we have such a foothold in the business that every spot in the credits can be filled by a local.
Like many others, Johnny’s track to the film industry was motivated in part by De Laurentiis himself. A North Carolina native from Gastonia, Johnny graduated from UNC Chapel Hill with a degree in TV, Radio, and Film. While in school, he always thought he might work in television somewhere in the state as film hadn’t begun to develop yet. “I moved down here to work under Dino,” he says. He started out as a driver and working in craft services, then moved up to a location scout. He worked on many of Wilmington’s early films, including “Cat’s Eye”, “Blue Velvet” and “Crimes of the Heart”. After managing locations for fifteen years, he had the opportunity to work for the film commission in 1999, and he’s been there ever since.
When the General Assembly ended the film incentives last year, many people both in and out of the film industry thought that North Carolina’s part was lost forever. “They definitely got scared,” says Johnny. With a fifty percent drop in business from 2014 to 2015, the gloomy outlook wasn’t unwarranted. However, there are still a few reasons why the Tar Heel state, and the Port City in particular, shouldn’t be counted out just yet.
Regardless of whether you call it an incentive, tax credit, or grant, the bottom line for the industry is just that: the bottom line. “Producers look at the budget, and a piece of that has to be what is called ‘soft money’,” says Johnny. “If that’s not there, they can’t afford not to shoot somewhere else.” On a trip to Los Angeles in July of last year, everyone Johnny talked to assumed that production had been shut down completely, even though the grant program was already in the works. “Regardless of the reality, the impression was that things had sort of come to a halt,” he says. When he went back in October, the conversations were a bit more positive, but a lot of his work has been reversing people’s perceptions. Thanks to Wilmington’s reputation among the film world, he still had plenty of help from crews on the ground.
Still, there were big concerns about the crew base. Many productions have started setting up in neighboring states, so the assumption was that most of the talent would pack up and leave. Some of them did move on, says Johnny, but “if there’s work here, this is where they want to be.” Naturally, people are going to travel to wherever their work takes them. However, a lot of the crew base have families around Wilmington and made this their home; they aren’t ready to give that up so quickly. Complementing the crew, the infrastructure that has been built up over the past three decades makes things run smooth. There’s plenty of high class equipment, sound stages, as well as a plethora of well-known shooting locations. “Having everything here at the studio that they would have in California makes them feel comfortable,” says Johnny.
Far from becoming a barren wasteland, Wilmington has recently become home to two new television series that are taking advantage of the grant program. The TNT drama “Good Behavior” had its pilot shot here in September; after being picked up by the network for eight episodes, production will continue here through June. “Six” is an A&E series produced for the History Channel that chronicles the adventures of famed Seal Team Six. Their production will begin filming this month and wrap up in the summer.
There’s a lot of excitement about the shows coming to the Port City, especially as television tends to be the most stable productions in terms of longevity. “This is very much a copycat business”, says Johnny, meaning once a few companies are working here, the rest tend to take notice. This phenomenon was apparent in the past with feature films like “Iron Man 3”, and the Cape Fear is even better equipped for television. “The way we’re geared here with the local crew, department heads, and sound stages really works well,” says Johnny. Neither of the crews for the new shows have been to Wilmington before, but they have already been impressed with what they have seen, says Johnny. “Whether out on a location scout, or speaking with local talent, they’ve been blown away.”
Whether you’re talking about incentives or production, a lot about film in North Carolina is based on perception. Take the tax credit program for example; just the wording can play a large part in how it’s received either by legislators or voters. “The current climate in Raleigh is one that doesn’t necessarily favor incentives of any type,” says Johnny. The issue is highly ideological, and unfortunately many people use other state’s failures as an argument against the incentive. By the time Beverly Perdue signed the credit into law in 2010, the infrastructure for production had already been in place for over twenty years. “Other states started incentive programs as a panic move when they saw other states making money,” says Johnny. Without a crew base or production facilities, those states soon realized that those measures wouldn’t generate any local income.
When talking about film the industry, the Commission and their lobby has put the focus on the benefit to the local economy. The new productions in town are hiring now; by the time they’re done, it is going to be ninety-five percent local crew. “Now consider that these two shows are scheduled to spend 55 million dollars,” says Johnny. It’s not just the actors and executives eating up all that money; it’s the clothing store that has wardrobe coming in, hardware stores that supply set materials, or the hotels that house the crew. Everyone gets a little piece of the pie, and for a town that thrives on tourism, that slice can be even more delicious in the slow winter months.
Of course, the excitement for the new grant program will be limited by the program itself. “We’re not going to get back to where we were a couple of years ago [with this program],” says Johnny. Production will certainly move forward from last year, but with a much smaller cash limit and stricter review process, feature films are not likely to come to town. The grant was actually designed with television series in mind, so those productions could spend less and get more funding back in the long run. That also helps add to the tourism benefit; fans of a television series will have several years’ worth of filming locations to visit, usually while the show is still being broadcast.
Though some sort of incentive is necessary for productions to operate, the most attractive thing we have to offer the crew. “Not just in numbers,” says Johnny, “but the depth of talent and the experience they have.” When executives come in from L.A., sometimes they immediately assume they won’t be able to find talented people elsewhere. “Slowly, they realize that the talent they’re looking for is in Wilmington,” says Johnny. It’s that connection that really benefits the crew base in the Cape Fear area. When that same executive is filming in another location and needs help, “they’ll call in the crew from Wilmington, because they know that they’re top-notch,” says Johnny.
As for the future of film in our state, only time can tell, but Johnny hasn’t given up by any means. “There’s been all sorts of ups and downs in the 30 years we’ve been in business, so you have to look at it in the long term,” he says. It can be hard to see what problems might occur in the next four or five years, but the industry has already been part of the fabric of the local community for the past three decades. Aside from Screen Gems, it’s things like the UNCW Film Department and festivals like Cucalorus and the Cape Fear Independent Film Festival that show the people in Hollywood (and Raleigh) that the community fully embraces all aspects of the industry. “They’re not going to just look at film as a cash cow; they’re going to really value us,” says Johnny. While the incentive program might waver, the love that the Port City has for film never will.
For more information on upcoming productions in our area, visit www.wilmingtonfilm.com.
By Adrian Gerth