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Live Local, Live Small: Ruminating on film incentives and the level of its impact on our local economy

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Without question one of the hot-button economic issues of our state, and the Cape Fear region, especially, in the last year has been the battle of the film incentives. If you are just tuning in: NC had a competitive film incentive package that offered a 25 percent  rebate on money spent in the state.To be clear: A production had to spend money here in order to qualify for the incentive and the amount of money it received back was in direct proportion to the amount of money they spent.

Film Incentives

Film industry money circulated our economy a year ago; today, it’s dried up. Photo by Shea Carver

Last year the NC General Assembly passed a bill to change the incentive from a rebate to a grant program, with a specific cap on funds available—namely, $10 million in total for productions filmed in the state. The Wall Street Journal noted last year that the $5 million per production cap would be a quarter of what locally filmed “Iron Man 3” received from the rebate, effectively ending any hope of luring additional pictures of that size and scope. WSJ also pointed out that “Iron Man 3” directly employed 2,377 people. Stop and think about that: 2,377 people, from the famous (Robert Downey Jr. and Gwenyth Paltrow) to the unsung heroes of craft service to background actors.

In comparison to the $10 million grant program, the Star News reports around $60 million was the average annual tax rebate payout to the film industry for NC.  Let’s say the announcement of the grant program—which was presented as a “compromise” between the incentive program and killing film altogether—was met with groans last year by anyone who has ever benefited financially from the film industry in the state.

However, there seems to be some good news on the horizon … sort of. A bill passed the NC House last week that would increase the film grant program from $10 million annually to $40 million. It’s not the $60 million we would hope for, and indeed the bills introduced by Rep. Ted Davis and Michael Lee asked for $66 million. But that is what legislature is about: compromise and certainly a four-fold increase over the original grant amount—all of which has been used up already. It is promising news that at least the NC House recognizes the importance of the film industry to our state and understands the impact its loss can and already has had (we’ve lost “Sleepy Hollow” and “Secret and Lies,” which were series filmed locally, not to mention an influx of films that won’t even consider us now as a location because incentives in other states are so much better). The bill still has to go to the NC Senate, which means there is plenty of time for them to gut it. The NC Senate has not held money that the film industry brings into this state in high regard.

The $10 million grant fund was allocated quickly, with the largest portion going to “Under the Dome” ($5 million). Port City Daily reported that two other productions, one in the western part of the state and one in Charlotte, split the remaining $5 million.

I knew the “slow down” in the film industry was coming, but looking back at the bookstore’s accounting for the first half of the year and comparing it to last year, I was startled by the vast disparity. Then, Beth Giles walked in from “Under the Dome” for a book rental —and I almost cried because I knew it was going to be that last one we would have for a while. Yes, there will be small, independent projects that do a few book rentals here and there, but as for doing 200 feet at a time—the kind of checks that pay for payroll for the month? No, it’s going to be while.

I say “a while” because I do firmly believe the NC General Assembly will slowly, quietly inch the incentive back to a point that brings work back to the state. When Canada and other states enacted incentives, it took NC a few years to get onboard, but we did and became competitive again. We have seen this cycle before, and eventually basic survival skills will kick in and the valuable asset that is the film package—production, tourism, education, and support services—will become too tempting to resist.

Star News reported that in 2013 film productions spent $241 million in this state. Of that, $63.5 million was received in rebates.  In 2014 our tri-county area saw $137 million in film spending.

$137 million. What was the problem again?

Oh, right. We hate prosperity that spreads throughout the entire community. I forgot.

Because film money really does spread far and wide, it is not just more than 4,000 professional jobs related to production that are impacted by its loss. The bartenders, antique-store owners, waitresses, hotel workers—everyone gets affected. But that is something we have preached so often, our encore readers can recite the mantra.

Not only has the NC House given us hope that the NC General Assembly might come around sooner rather than later, but the continued number of independent projects in production is incredibly heartening. Part of that comes from the strong film programs at both CFCC and UNCW. UNCW recently announced it received approval form the board of governors to add an MFA in film to the department. Already, we draw people from all over the country to come here for the film program. Now, the pool will expand to include older film students who will have to produce several films in order to graduate—which will put multiple, smaller projects into production in the community. But what will keep them here—to pay for housing, food, shop for basic needs, and eventually pay taxes back to our state—if there isn’t work here?

Another, unexplored aspect of this is that drawing a larger pool of people to Wilmington has long been one of the benefits of the film industry. From the Dino de Laurentiis days of the Italians and Brits (and a smaller group of Canadians), the film world has brought people here that have widened and expanded our community, its reach and world view.

And that doesn’t even cover the tourists from all over the world who come here because of “Dawson’s Creek” and “One Tree Hill.” Did you know we had a convention for “One Tree Hill” here just a few months ago? I’m not kidding: The city was overrun by teen girls trying to buy copies of “Julius Caesar” for Chad Michael Murray to sign. I had one young lady from Seattle tell me it was her only vacation this year. When someone travels that far, he or she needs a hotel room and food to eat. Not to mention, they spend money like water and take pictures constantly to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, which is an even greater draw to our area. It was so successful that another “One Tree Hill” convention has been scheduled for August. (The Diamond Ticket Package—parties with the cast, autographs, etc.—price tag? $795.   I am clearly in the wrong business. Sheesh.)

According to the NC Department of Commerce, in 2013 domestic travelers in NC spent $20.2 billion (yes, with a “B”). Obviously a portion of that is generated by film (the Nicholas Sparks Tour seems an obvious outgrowth of film and tourism). The NC Museum of History’s exhibit of NC film, titled “Starring North Carolina! 100 years, 3,000 films” is open through September. I personally, highly recommend a trip to Raleigh to see it. While you’re there, why not invite a NC Senator to join you? It’s only a few hundred feet from the NC General Assembly, after all.  If I had my way, the interactive map of NC counties that shows which films were made where in NC would tour the offices of the NC General Assembly—because every one of our 100 counties in the state have had film crews there and benefited from the money it generates.

Cross your fingers, and call your state senator about the vote on the film-grant increase. It is money that we get back over and over again in long-term spending and investment.

On a local level, a lot of organizations, collectives, independent filmmakers, and festivals still work toward strengthening our decades-long film scene. They feed a vast pool of creative talent that reside here. Though on a larger scale things may seem dismal, locally, people keep on fulfilling a passion that has defined a large portion of our locale. Meet a few of the players over the next few pages of encore—each of whom are continuing the fight and drive to keep film alive.

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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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