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LIVE LOCAL, LIVE SMALL: Morsels of a returning film industry offer our economy hope

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Film is making a comeback and that’s great news for businesses like Gwenyfar’s bookstore and local economy all around.

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“Film = Jobs! We are rented for Filming Thurs. and Fri. $$$ spent locally! We will reopen Saturday @ 10 AM with a smile! Thank you.”

QUIET ON THE SET! EUE/Sceen Gems’s Stage 10 features 37,500 sq ft of column-free sound stage/production space and can be designed to accommodate a special effects water tank. It is one of the largest east of the Mississippi and was one of the reasons “Iron Man 3” was able to locate in Wilmington. Courtesy photo, EUE Screen Gems

QUIET ON THE SET! EUE/Sceen Gems’s Stage 10 features 37,500 sq. ft. of column-free sound stage/production space and can be designed to accommodate a special effects water tank. It is one of the largest east of the Mississippi and was one of the reasons “Iron Man 3” was able to locate in Wilmington. Courtesy photo, EUE Screen Gems

It has been a while since I have been able to write a sign like that. Instead, at least once a week, I get to explain to people how, up until a few years ago, North Carolina was just behind L.A. and New York for filming.

“What happened? Why is it not now?” people tend to ask in response.

It took me a long time to calm down and respond to the question coherently. Some days I get worked up about it and I have to apologize. It is hard to remember everyone doesn’t have the same lens; they aren’t all paying attention to the same issues I am. Also, people continue to move here and have arrived after the exodus of over 4,000 professional-level jobs from the state. Folks who weren’t here won’t notice it happened.

But it did.

Just to recap a little:

In 2011 “The Hunger Games” filmed in Charlotte, with an estimated budget of $78 million.

In 2012 “Iron Man 3” filmed here with a $200 million gross budget.

In 2013 “Under the Dome” began filming here. Vulture reported each episode cost $3 million.

The TV show “Banshee” filmed the first three seasons in North Carolina beginning in 2012.

The TV show “Sleepy Hollow” began filming here in 2012.

The TV show “Homeland” was also filming in the Charlotte area from 2011-2013. During 2015, the season “Homeland” filmed in Germany, the impact of $45 million USD spent by the production was so profound the mayor of Berlin announced an increase in the subsidy the city would offer.

In 2011 the L.A. Times reported $220 million was spent in North Carolina on film and TV production.

The film-incentive program we had in place at the time was enacted in 2005, to compete with programs in Georgia and Louisiana. In 2013 companies would get a rebate of $0.25 for every dollar actually spent in N.C. 2013 produced $61 million in rebates through the film incentive.

Film money flows everywhere: tent and Porta John rentals, chair rentals, location rentals, props and set-dressing purchases, catering, purchasing lumber, paint, hiring security, extras, transportation, the list goes on and on. As I have said on many occasions, our small businesses benefited from film money in several ways. We rented and sold a lot of books as set dressing and props over the years. To put it in perspective in 2011-2014, the amount of business we did with films funded one entire staff position at the bookstore.

We also have been rented as a filming location several times. That pays for the day of shooting, and dividends for years later with tourists coming to visit as a result of our film history. For an area as tourist-oriented as ours, that’s an important piece of the pie.

With the 2012 election, Pat McCrory became governor of North Carolina, and both houses of the general assembly were controlled by the Republican party for the first time in over 100 years.

Among many programs in their crosshairs was the film incentive program. Filming picked up and moved to Georgia. The last two seasons of “Sleepy Hollow” moved to Georgia. “Banshee” moved to Pennsylvania. When “Homeland” returned to the United States (after filming abroad), it resumed filming in Virginia, not in North Carolina. Over the next two years, 4,000 film industry workers moved to Georgia in order to sustain their families. So they weren’t working here, paying taxes here, investing in the local economy, or participating in the community.

But don’t think everyone gave up without a fight.

The legislature was lobbied—and hard nonetheless—to keep the film industry. In a weird moment of irony, the NC Museum of History, located across from the legislature building, opened a stunning exhibit on the history of film in North Carolina that shone a light on filming back to the early part of the 20th century. Perhaps the most important piece in the exhibit was the interactive map, which showed where different films were made in North Carolina and illustrating how every single county in the state had benefited from film money.

In 2014 the incentives were replaced by a grant program, which meagerly offered $10 million as a compromise on the lost incentive package. The fight continued, and the grant was modified. The Raleigh News and Observer reports:

“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.”

A fraction indeed.

But part of that is being used for filming “Words on Bathroom Walls,” an adaptation of a young-adult book by Julia Walton. WECT reported, “The production is expected to spend $9.3 million in the state while creating more than 650 job opportunities, including 120 well-paying crew positions.”

My first inkling the film was coming was when the bookstore’s psychology section was sold in one fell swoop. Then a chunk of National Geographic Magazines went. Now we have been rented as a filming location for the adaptation. Apparently, it has a scene in a bookstore. (I tend to think that is a good sign for a film, but I am biased.)

To be blunt, the combined sales, to the set dressing department and the location rental, are going to cover payroll for the month of May. That’s six adults who will then turn around and spend money in the local economy on rent, food, taxes, clothes, and other expenses of daily life.

We hope later there will be the additional tourism piece of people traveling here to visit as a result of the film and to see the locations. We are just one small business in the area that feels the effects. In addition, the crew employed and spending money here is a boon. Let’s not forget actors coming in from out of town who need housing, transportation, food, and have their per diem to spend on location.

Governor Cooper, who defeated McCrory in the 2016 election, assumed office in January 2017. Since, Governor Cooper has signed the expansion to the film grant and elimination of the sunset (slated for 2020) on the grant program. He has been to Wilmington to visit filming-in-progress and has been a vocal supporter of the industry. Already, we can see the fruits ripening of those labors.

Front Street is blocked off with trucks parked outside. Lighting equipment is getting set up. Whole swaths of the bookstore have been photographed for continuity. Now, we are just waiting for the camera to roll and the magic to happen.

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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, 910tix.com. Print and online editions are updated every Wednesday.

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