Entertainment

Producers, directors try to prevent NC film industry from fading to black

Posted October 12, 2017 7:03 p.m. EDT
Updated July 13, 2018 1:40 p.m. EDT

— Once thriving with TV and movie makers, North Carolina now struggles to bring back the lights, cameras and action.

From the coast to Cary to Charlotte and the mountains, North Carolina was one giant movie studio for several years.

There were 18 productions filmed in the state in 2010, and the industry reached its peak in 2013 with 34 productions. In 2017, just one TV show was filmed in the state, which is facing an uphill battle to get back into the movie game.

“It’s a scary time, and my crew is very scared right now,” said local producer Dale WIliams

Driven by a general tax incentive program, the state enjoyed a record year in 2012 with $377 million in movie and TV spending. That year, productions qualified for $60 million in tax rebates.

State lawmakers soured on incentives the next year, trimming the total amount to $10 million in grants.

“Going from an incentive program that was one of the best in the country to a grant program had a chilling effect on the business here,” Williams said.

Williams handled movie and TV operations for 30 years in North Carolina, including two seasons of TNT’s “Good Behavior” which was filmed in and around Wilmington.

“Good Behavior” recently wrapped production, leaving 10 sound stages essentially dormant, and Screen Gems is scrambling to fill the void.

“The word out in Los Angeles that they were hearing is that we were getting rid of incentives altogether,” Williams said.

Iron Man 3, The Hunger Games and Sleepy Hollow - all filmed in North Carolina - are long gone, but a new law signed this week extends the state’s film incentive program.

Even though North Carolina revived incentives to $31 million, business hasn’t rebounded.

The state now offers grants on 25 percent of total production costs. Grants are capped at $5 million for movie productions and $9 million for a TV series, a fraction of what used to be offered.

States like Georgia offer far more in incentives with no caps, so money-minded production companies are flocking there. Studios in Atlanta now dwarf Wilmington’s Screen Gems stages.

“It’s been very disappointing,” said Johnny Griffin, who runs the Wilmington Regional Film Commission.

Griffin said the state needs a reliable incentive program to lure business back.

“What we need more than anything is just consistency, so our clients know what they have. It’s the same thing this month as six months from now as it is a year from now,” he said.

Griffin said convincing lawmakers to remove the 2012 sunset for film incentives was crucial in sending a message.

“What we’re doing is just trying to stay in the game at this point and do what we can to try and level the playing field as much as we can,” he said.

North Carolina Film Office Director Guy Gaster said that means recruiting smaller budget films and steady TV shows by selling the state’s experienced production crews, studio space and diverse shooting locations.

“I don’t see us having another Iron Man 3 or that kind of tent pole feature,” Gaster said. “People look at film and television shows and they look at it like it’s entertainment and art, but for those behind the camera, even the actors and actresses, it’s a business.”

Many blame incentive uncertainty and even national criticism over House Bill 2 for the stumbling TV and movie business in North Carolina. Those who love the jobs, the energy and the art want to save it before it fades to black.

“I’ve been in this business for 30 years. I feel like, now more than any other time, I’m in the trench. I’m in a trench just digging my way out,” Williams said.

Critics argue that tax incentives and grants unfairly pick winners and losers. State film leaders argue it’s the current reality of recruiting productions to come to North Carolina.

North Carolina recruiters are in Los Angeles this week, hoping a film grant program with no end date will help bring back business.