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Live Local, Live Small: Fighting for the film industry that pulses throughout Wilmington

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couple of years ago we had two women excitedly burst into the bookstore and announce that Steven Spielberg was scouting for a movie down the street! This seemed surprising because one assumes that if Spielberg showed up in town, someone in the film world would have snapped a picture and put it on Facebook, Twitter, or perhaps it would have been on the front page of the paper. The ladies stood inside our front window and watched in rapt attention as a few minutes later a short man with curly hair and glasses, wearing a flack jacket and carrying a director’s mega phone, walked past the store. He pointed to the building at the end of the street that had been one of the standing sets for “One Tree Hill” and held forth on the art and practice of on-location filmmaking. The ladies jumped up and down with excitement; they had now seen Spielberg in action! This was part of the excitement of life in a movie mecca.

Stock photo

Stock photo

And then it became clear what had happened: They had encountered “Speil Stevenberg,” the persona Mike Hartle adopts when he conducts the Hollywood Location Walking Tour.   

WHQR recently ran a story that reminded me though we have lost the battle of film incentives, there is still a possibility for winning the war. In it Rachel Lewis Hilburn reported on the decision to locate a Mercedes-Benz facility in Georgia rather than here, because of incentives. Reps. Hamilton and Davis both weighed in on the possibility of resurrecting a real film-incentive program (rather than the farce that is the grant proposal in place now). All this served to remind me how important film’s future is in the area and that the fight doesn’t have to stop.

One of the aspects of film’s economic impact is the tourism piece. It’s tough to measure, but we see anecdotal evidence of it all the time. I decided it was time to take the Hollywood Location Walk that the Ghost Walk runs. You can buy tickets at The Black Cat Shoppe and the tour begins at the foot of Market Street. It was a bright, sunny Saturday afternoon between Christmas and New Years. I had actually assumed that it wouldn’t be a very popular day since it was really family time and not the high tourism season of the summer. But there were 17 people besides me who turned up for the 90-minute walk through our beautiful historic downtown with Mike Hartle. I was the only local; everyone else was visiting from afar. One young lady was actually from California.

Hartle inquired with each new group if they had a favorite movie or show they really wanted to hear about. “Dawson’s Creek” and “One Tree Hill” topped the list. Just to be contrary, I asked for “Super Mario Bros.” Though I’ve never seen it, the making of that movie plays heavily into our household’s regular routines and comes up frequently. (Jock worked on it and then wound up in court about it.)

To Hartle’s credit: He gives lots of praise to Connie Nelson and her book, “The Film Junkie’s Guide to North Carolina.” It’s a good, solid reference guide that covers the state, not just the city. But that day we were concentrating on walking the central business district downtown. “Day of the Jackal,” “Iron Man 3,” “Dawson’s Creek,” “One Tree Hill,” “Matlock,” “A Walk to Remember,” “Maximum Overdrive,” “Blue Velvet,” “Tammy,” “We Are The Millers,” and on and on they rolled off Hartle’s tongue with a reverence that seemed almost like a religious invocation for him. In the Blue Post parking lot, he pulled a ziplock baggie out of his pocket with rock candy that had been hail on a particular episode of “Sleepy Hollow” (he had come behind them and scavenged it himself). Eyes from some of the tour group bulged with excitement.

We traipsed through the Old Wilmington City Market, home of the “Capeside High” sign and the autograph wall. Our group hung on every word as Hartle recounted stories about James Earl Jones and Paul Newman. Then, we went down the ally for more Nicholas Sparks and into The Barbary Coast for “Blue Velvet” and “Super Mario Bros.” “Empire Records” came next and talks about Renée Zellweger.

Even though I’ve grown up here and almost every day see someone who is on vacation here for film locations, I was pretty impressed and surprised by the number of films we covered just in a few blocks of downtown.

Then there is the other side of the tour: “Hey, Mike,” I nudged him at the end. “We just had ‘Sleepy Hollow’ rent us for three days,” I mentioned and reminded him that “The Writers” (now “Stuck in Love”) had filmed inside our book store, too. “Please add us to the roster for the tour.” Hartle asked me a few questions about the scene, and I wasn’t much help because I don’t watch TV, but I did my best.   

“So how long have you been doing this, Mike?”

“Oh, 9 years for the Hollywood Tour,” he thumbed through one for the two over-stuffed binders he carries on tour, filled with every arcane media clipping imaginable about film in our area.

On that one day, I watched these two parts of the filming experience collide: tourism and location rental. One of the art department guys asked me about why we agreed to this when discussing the location rental. The immediate funds from the rental check were really appreciated, but I pointed out it was the longer piece we were looking at: The people who would, hopefully, walk in for years to come because of our appearance in “Sleepy Hollow.” “Stuck in Love” hasn’t garnered as much traction, but last week we did have a woman in who “just had to see where Greg Kinnear was!” She lovingly fondled bookshelves and bought a souvenir. We used to have much more of that in our old location due to multiple appearances in films there, and we have missed it.

Yes, film companies choose to film where it’s most cost-effective for them, but the money they spend goes deep and far into the community. As a small-business owner, I see it frequently. The location rental in December from “Sleepy Hollow” helped pay our property taxes, and on two separate occasions this year, I found myself wondering how I was going to meet payroll? Then, a buyer from the set-decorating department of one of the films in town entered. It was incredible. The other part of that location rental from “Sleepy Hollow” came when Mr. Mison (Ichabod of “Sleepy Hollow”) brought Christmas a little early to our bookstore by signing books that started a stampede of sales from across the country. We started joking about how long it had been since Anthony had talked to that many excited women on the phone, because the calls poured in at an unbelievable rate.

Walking home, I found a couple taking pictures on the steps of NHHS. They spotted me and crossed the street to ask if I would take a picture of them in front of the “Dream a Little Dream” house. We talked about their trip, and I was reminded that yet again they needed a place to stay while they were here and food to eat. Damn, it just keeps going. We have to keep fighting for this.

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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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