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Keeping Film Alive: Newly planned Wilmington Film Museum aims to celebrate the Port City’s legacy

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Wilmington has long been termed “Hollywood East.” Aside from the beautiful locations, which boast a mix of urban sprawl and nature, the locals can thank the homegrown crew for bringing countless productions to the Port City. Walking by Delphinas Dos downtown means it’s not uncommon to hear, “That’s the restaurant that Dawson’s parents owned!” But Wilmington was cultivating a reputable film industry long before “Dawson’s Creek” aired.

Cape Fear Independent Film Network (CFIFN) president Rich Gehron, his wife and education director for CFIFN, Kathleen Gehron, and special effects veteran Jeff Goodwin aim to showcase long-standing industry success with a new Wilmington Film Museum. They will hold an open-to-the-public meeting Friday, July 11th; Rich will give a brief overview of the venture’s plans for the next two years and seek community support and input.

“We would love to find some individuals willing to volunteer or even head committees,” Rich states. “ Bringing this into existence is going to be true group effort.”

The project has already acquired community support through the Downtown Business Alliance and the New Hanover County Public Library. Currently, they are talking to UNCW’s Film Studies Department, Cameron School of Business, EUE/Screen Gems, and Cape Fear Museum. The visionaries have even extended their efforts beyond the Cape Fear area and seek support from the UNCG Graduate Public History Department and the NC State History Museum.

“We want to include as many programs and groups as possible in the development, so nothing gets left out,” Kathleen comments. “[We] will continue to reach out to the schools, groups and businesses that help create and support our thriving film industry.”

Rich’s idea for a museum took off in 2010 with the sale of Orton Plantation.“I was actually producing a local gardening show with Dr. Bruce Williams at that time and Orton Plantation was a frequent shooting location for us,” he tells. “Since 1983 Orton had been home to so many productions and with the signing of a pen, it went from ‘current’ film location to ‘past’ film location.”

Dino De Laurentiis and Frank Capra Jr. discovered the plantation while location scouting for “Firestarter.” Their work in Wilmington led to the creation of a studio complex associated with De Laurentiis Entertainment Group (DEG). The operation churned out a host of productions before going bankrupt in 1988. The building is now owned by EUE/Screen Gems; however, Rich maintains the ‘80s set the stage for the burgeoning film scene now found in the area.

He was also inspired by the 15th anniversary of his short film, “Murder in My Shorts.” “Short films tend to fly way under the radar, but many of the people I worked with on that short went on to great success and have been a part of incredible projects,” he explains. “They all connect back to that short film, 15 years ago. It’s my history, for sure, but it is also a part of the local film community’s history.”

A prolific film editor, Rich notes the job entails a level of archiving. It goes hand-in-hand with the museum’s needs. “You have to organize and archive not only finished works, but all of the individual’s assets that went into creating that work,” he says. His work has culminated in a deep knowledge of Wilmington’s cinematic history.

Early museum incarnations will yield a temporary exhibit next year. They plan to utilize already existing gallery space downtown and hope it will aid them in generating support for the actual museum. Current business models aim for free admission, and the nonprofit will be completely volunteer-operated. They want the museum will feature screenings, props and photos. “The star of the show will be Mr. Ear, the ear from ‘Blue Velvet’ that I made almost 30 years ago,” Goodwin quips.

Several other offers have been made, though it’s to early to confirm any displays. It also will expound upon the industry’s employment of Wilmington’s diversified landscape.  The makers plan to house an interactive digital timeline, which comes as a personal project for Kathleen. Highlighting the evolution of local films and filmmakers, she intends to make it an open-source project by allow cast and crew to contribute to the timeline by uploading files, links and photos.

“Leveraging smartphone and tablet technology, we want to utilize QR codes, snaptags or augmented reality apps to allow visitors to further explore different parts of the exhibit that a traditional space would not allow,” she describes.

Their efforts come at a time of uncertainty for the local film industry, which makes preserving its history all the more poignant. Gov. Pat McCrory long has been associated with underhanded attempts to undermine the thriving scene. Recently, in a maneuver coated with political agenda, NC house speaker Thom Tillis thwarted attempts to reach a compromise in the ongoing film incentives debate. Film industry supporters agreed to lower the tax credit from 25 percent to 22 percent, cap payouts at $15 million each year and extend the incentives into 2017. Those behind the film industry were told the measure would pass; however, Tillis went back on his word and pressured other state Republicans to stand against it.

Countless phone calls and emails have poured into the offices of those threatening the incentives, which are vital to attracting productions to the area. Hollywood legend Robert Downey Jr. (“Iron Man”) even expressed his support by snapping a photo while wearing a North Carolina T-shirt (bought from downtown Wilmington’s very own Edge of Urge). The film incentives’ fate remains up in the air as debates continue as to whether to simply use grants—a program that would cripple North Carolina’s ability to compete with other states—or extend the credits for another year before making a permanent decision.

The debate will have no immediate effect on museum plans, but its future will certainly be impacted if incentives aren’t renewed. “If the industry does take a big hit, it will affect what we can exhibit past 2014 in the timeline,” Rich laments. “Fewer productions equals fewer choices for future exhibits.”

The film enthusiasts’ celebration of the local industry ideally will shed light on its importance, and remind studios, weary of the government’s recent attacks, just why the area is so special. “I hope it serves as an inspiration for producers to keep bringing projects here and independent filmmakers to keep creating,” Gehron says. “[I hope it will] let everyone working in the industry know their work is appreciated far beyond the brief life it has on the silver screen.”


Wilmington Film Museum Involvement Meeting

Friday, July 11th, 6 p.m.
Giant Cafe, 1200 N. 23rd St.
Open to the public

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Encore Magazine regularly covers topics pertaining to news, arts, entertainment, food, and city life in Wilmington. It also maintains schedules and listings of local events like concerts, festivals, live performance art and think-tank events. Encore Magazine is an entity of H&P Media, which also powers Wilmington’s local ticketing platform, Print and online editions are updated every Wednesday.

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