A United Front: Film industry leaders look to improve new grant program

Feb 19 • FilmNo Comments on A United Front: Film industry leaders look to improve new grant program

“There’s no way we’re going away,” Bill Vassar, executive vice president of EUE/Screen Gems, emphatically assured at the beginning of today’s press conference on the film industry, which took place at 10:30 a.m. at the studios. “We’ve weathered storms like this—not just here, but in other states where we own facilities. We’ve got two great clients here right now, and we have no intention of closing. We will weather this storm, and we’re going to move ahead.”

Wilmington has been abuzz about the film industry for the past couple years. Debates surged, protests were launched and enthusiasts rallied. Until last year, North Carolina remained a prime competitor in the nation’s film industry. The state offered a 25-percent refundable tax credit to NC-filmed productions that spent a minimum of $250,000, and there was no cap to the payout. However, Republican leaders in the state, namely Pat McCrory, upstarted an attack on the incentive program—instead favoring a $10 million grant program.

While locals and government members—such as Rep. Ted Davis, Rep. Susi Hamilton, Rep. Frank Iller,  Sen. Bill Rabon, and Sen. Michael Lee—fought tooth-and-nail in 2014, the dawn of 2015 officially sunset the tax-credit program. State leaders from our Republican-majority legislature voted in October, favoring the grant program. It replaced, as New Hanover County Commissioner Beth Dawson put it in today’s press conference, “the highly successful tax-credit policy that had helped propel this 30-year statewide industry’s rapid growth in recent years.”

As expected, Wilmington’s film industry has taken quite a hit. Industry workers and mainstay productions, like the Fox hit “Sleepy Hollow,” already have turned  to our Southern neighbors, South Carolina and Georgia, for work. Productions’ interest in NC has dropped 70 percent. Normally, close to 15 productions will already have inquired about filming here, but this year only three productions have seen NC as a potential home. As well, $170 million was spent on film in 2014, and 2015 projections estimate only $40 to $50 million.

Despite these troubling figures, industry leaders remain hopeful and are continuing efforts to ensure this economic staple triumphs over the hardships. With little support for reestablishing the tax-credit program in their grasp, the Wilmington Regional Film Commission, EUE Screen Gems Studios, the City of Wilmington, and New Hanover County have taken a united front on improving the current film-grant program set forth by the NC General Assembly.

SAFFO'S SUPPORT: Mayor Bill Saffo announces his support of the film-grant program, as well as ongoing efforts to improve it. Photo by Christian Podgaysky

SAFFO’S SUPPORT: Mayor Bill Saffo announces his support of the film-grant program, as well as ongoing efforts to improve it. Photo by Christian Podgaysky

“We do have a bill that has been introduced by Rep. Susi Hamilton that still is pursuing the credit, but we feel the leadership in the house and […] the leadership in the senate, at this point and time, has made it very clear to us and the commission that the grant program is the one they would support,” Mayor Bill Safo said. “What we are trying to do as a commission and as business leaders here is ask the legislative delegation, as well as the legislative leadership there, to increase the grant program to a level we think could be competitive and we can still be completive here in the city and the county, as well as throughout the entire state.”

Though nothing is concrete, one thing is sure: The film industry still has fight left in it. Rhonda Bellamy, executive director of the Arts Council of Wilmington, voiced her and the organization’s continued support at the conference. As well, Mayor Saffo reminded attendees of the industry’s resilient nature, which in part is what makes it so important.

“The film industry is one of the only industries that isn’t affected by recessions,” he stated. “Think about it: Even through the great recession that we’ve been through, film production was still increasing every single year. You didn’t see that with manufacturing.”

He also took note of the impact the tax-credit sunset has had on small-business owners. Film productions have a long history of utilizing local establishments for their myriad needs—food, props, costuming, storage, equipment, construction, etc.—and the loss of film business clearly will generate a significant economic hit. Screen Gems’ unit production manager Chris Bromley called attention to www.smallbusinessforfilm.com, a website that beseeches small businesses across the state to voice their support for the industry. Thus far they have 489 businesses on board.

While Mayor Saffo assured that local government leaders already have been in contact with the governor’s office about securing allocated funds in the budget, he maintains it’s still an uphill battle. “Obviously, now we are going to be involved in an appropriation process, and we’re going to be competing with a lot of different interests that are also going to be competing for appropriations,” he said. “It’s going to be a legislative battle. We’re going to still need the support of you folks that live here, work here and are trying to stay here.”

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