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'Iron Man 3' gave life to southeastern NC business

A nearly year-long battle to attract and successfully create Wilmington's largest movie production ever has come to an end, a victory that state and local film officials say will make North Carolina more competitive with other film-producing states.

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, StarNews of Wilmington
WILMINGTON, N.C. — A nearly year-long battle to attract and successfully create Wilmington's largest movie production ever has come to an end, a victory that state and local film officials say will make North Carolina more competitive with other film-producing states.

Much like industrialist-turned-superhero Tony Stark in his next big-screen adventure, when the state's "Iron Man 3" prospects seemed their darkest, a team with Gov. Beverly Perdue at its helm sprang into action, meeting with the film's producers.

"North Carolina had it all; the stages, the crews and the incentives," said N.C. Film Office director Aaron Syrett.

That trifecta convinced Marvel, part of the Walt Disney Co., that the Port City and its movie studio, EUE/Screen Gems, could take on "Iron Man 3."

The result has been a movie with a budget of more than $200 million - by far the biggest film ever made in the state - and a shoot that showed Wilmington can manage such blockbuster-sized productions, Syrett said.

Film officials and local lawmakers hope Disney, which recently purchased Lucasfilm, will spread the word about what Wilmington's crews and businesses can do.

"They've been extremely impressed, and from my perspective, a lot of production companies are looking here because of 'Iron Man,' " Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo said. "I know a significant amount of film production has taken place here, but Marvel is a brand that's known all over the world. To be able to produce that here is kudos to our local film office, our crews and our facilities. It demonstrates that Wilmington can do this on the biggest scale you can do."

The actors and an entourage of drivers, vans and storage trailers have departed southeastern North Carolina, and the production's warehouses, scattered about town and packed with millions of dollars worth of cameras, set decor, computer equipment and costumes, have been packed up and shipped back to California or sold.

But when the movie is released May 3, and Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) battles tech-savvy terrorist The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), residents will know that the fight between good and evil took place in their own backyard.

And the skies above them.

Filming took place in June in Cary, and in July, actors and stunt crews hung from cables above the Cape Fear River in downtown Wilmington, while others with parachutes glided to the Earth from aboard helicopters on Oak Island. 

"They contacted us six months before they came," said Brian Strong, owner of Southport's Skydive Coastal Carolinas. "They wanted to see what our rates were and what the facilities were like." Strong said crews brought in their own stunt performers, planes and helicopters but needed to use his company's building and equipment.

"We're the only skydiving place around that had riggers and sewing machines that allowed them to make modifications to the suits, so that when they jumped out of the plane, the rigs are hidden, creating the illusion that they've fallen out of the plane."

The sky-dive company was just one of dozens of local businesses to benefit from the production, which some state film officials estimate infused $89 million into the local economy.

"I consider that, personally, to be a conservative estimate," said Wilmington mayor Saffo. "I believe it will far exceed that. They haven't shared specifics about all the people they've hired locally, but I know it's paying dividends to the entire community and the state."

On the state level, the production had hired 2,573 people as of Sept. 1, according to Syrett.

About 500 of those jobs are expected to be full-time crew positions, while others are likely to be employees such as set builders and drivers. The figure also includes part-time background extras, who are typically paid around minimum wage.

State officials won't know specific details about "Iron Man 3's" economic impact until production wraps and an audit by the N.C. Department of Revenue determines what the filmmakers spent and which wages are tax-deductible, Syrett said. The production will then file a North Carolina tax return.

Under the state's film tax incentive program, among other perks, productions receive a 25 percent refundable tax credit based on their direct in-state spending on goods, services, labor and other costs.

An audit typically takes about two weeks, though it could be longer, Syrett said.

Although state officials have access to the film's taxes, productions aren't required by state law to disclose detailed employee information.

One local film official says early job estimates could raise more questions than answers.

"Over the years, it's been very hard for us to come up with specific job numbers because construction expands and contracts and other employees work overtime, " said Wilmington Regional Film Commission Director Johnny Griffin. "I think gross payroll figures are something that's concrete, and those won't be available until the audit. Aside from that, I hear anecdotally from businesses in town that they've been hired by the production."

Master Craftsmen Services, a furniture restoration company at 97 Heathcliff Road in Wilmington, has created nearly 10 different set pieces for the film. Designers there upholstered furniture for billionaire playboy Stark's mansion, including a bed, sofas, chaise lounges, ottomans and chairs, owner Ed Mayorga said.

The company, which has been restoring furniture for 15 years, also upholstered about 22 theater seats that will be digitally replicated to create an entire theater on-screen. The theater will then appear to have been bombed during a terrorist attack in Afghanistan, Mayorga said,

"Most of the time, we make three pieces for each scene - one's a spare and two will get blown up," he said, chuckling.

"Iron Man 3," Master Craftsmen's largest movie contract to-date, was responsible for 10 to 15 percent of the company's business this year, Mayorga said.

"We spent a number of weeks doing movie studio work," he said. It's been a great experience. The employees are excited to see things in the film."

Although audiences won't notice the influence of Wilmington's Tidewater Storage Trailers, the containers were a staple during the film's shoots, said General Manager Burt Sampson.

The trailers were used as storage containers and stacked like LEGOs to create a backdrop for a variety of scenes, he said.

"They call it a green screen - it's a backdrop for filming," he said. "They used them for the true nature of the business, which is secure, portable, weather-tight storage, but they also had other jobs for them."

Containers were rented by five of the production's divisions, including construction crews, transportation and set design. Effects specialists also tapped the containers for a scene in Rose Hill in which hundreds of gallons of water were sent spilling onto the set, Sampson said.

The contract, one of many film jobs in the company's 32-year history, was about 10 percent of its business in the past six months, Sampson said.

"It was a gradual build up," he said. "They started with five or 10 containers, but at the height of it - in the middle of the summer - they probably had about 120 units at one time. There were close to 80 units just at the Gypsum plant set. It was a big jump."

Before director Shane Black and his team of graphic designers, set decorators and editors could start work at EUE/Screen Gems Studios in Wilmington, the studio had to make some changes, including updating its Internet broadband capabilities.

"Having never done a film on this scale, it's led us to learn an awful lot of ways to be more efficient," said Bill Vassar, the studios' Executive Vice President. "We kept seeing production companies increase the amount of bandwidth they needed on each production. It gets faster and faster. We have clients, such as this one, who need to move artwork all over the world. We had to be on our toes."

Starting about a year ago, studio executives began to install new cable on the lot - so that the movie's crews were always within 100 feet of an Internet connection - and made sure it was possible for any production at the studio to have its own network and encryption, Vassar said.

"We couldn't build for what we would need today. We needed to build it for 10, 15 years out," he said. "Plus, we have wireless service that's a similar speed blanketing the lot. Connecting at these speeds has been a necessity on every production."

In the past, if someone in the art department wanted a builder to make a design change, they would have to take the drawing to the set.

During "Iron Man 3," artists could send the image digitally in seconds, Vassar said.

"It's much more efficient," he said. "We're like a hotel, we take care of you."

Work on the movie will continue for a few more months as it's scored and edited. Crews also are expected to gather footage in China, according to the Hollywood Reporter.

Meanwhile, no new productions have signed contracts to film at Screen Gems in the coming months, but that could change quickly, Vassar said.

"Right now, I have what I call a lot of 'tire kickers,'" he said. "There are people who say they'll be here in January to film, but I don't have a contract."

In the meantime, the hundreds of locals who worked on the film must bide their time till May - and fend off questions from family and friends.

Extra Lindsey Yow, 24, of Wilmington, is one of the film's employees who signed a nondisclosure agreement when she was hired, a process she'd never experienced during her other film work.

The University of North Carolina Wilmington graduate and her husband, Roderick, worked on a two-day shoot in Rose Hill in July. They were paid $8 per hour with time and a half after 12 hours, she said.

"They took all of our cell phones," Yow said. "They didn't want people to take pictures or text during filming. I have kept the secrets. It's hard, though. My mom keeps asking what I did. I said, 'Ask me in May.'"

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