Next to its vape shops and tattoo parlors, Wilmington is perhaps best known for its beaches and film industry. Thus, it made sense to combine those things into one epic festival.
Founded by lifelong surfer Chad Davis, the Carolina Surf Film Festival returns to Waterman’s Brewing this weekend for the third time. This is the fourth year for the festival in Wilmington overall—it was first held at Greenfield Lake Amphitheater in 2016. A sister event will be held in Davis’ hometown of Charleston, South Carolina October 18-19.
Four feature films will be shown over the two nights, along with 10 shorts. Among the feature offerings are “The Electric Acid Surfboard Test,” starring seven-time world champion surfer Stephanie Gilmore, and “Dimensions,” the third film from Outer Banks wunderkind Logan Marshall. Marshall won the festival’s Carolina Surf Filmmaker of the Year award in 2017 as just a high-school junior.
Submissions are open to filmmakers from all over this world. That diversity is reflected in this year’s entries, which hail from Cuba, New Zealand, Australia, Alaska, Hawaii, California, Rhode Island and elsewhere.
In addition to the films, there will be food and drink for sale throughout both nights. Vendors at Waterman’s will include Sweetwater Surf Shop, Current All Natural cosmetics, Sea Bones eco-friendly apparel, Kanga Coolers, several different surfboard companies and more.
Doors open at 5 p.m. and movies start at dark.
Davis’s personal story sounds like something out of a movie. After graduating from the College of Charleston in 1991, he decamped to California, where he worked in the music industry—first for Maverick Records, and later for Warner Bros. “I just tired of waiting on hurricane waves,” he jokes.
While living in San Diego, Davis was approached by the surf filmmaker Taylor Steele, who needed music for a film. That began a two-decade career working as a music supervisor for action sports movies—an endeavor that took him to festivals all over the world. In 2003, he joined the Warped Tour, the groundbreaking, cross-country music festival that combined skateboard culture with alternative and punk rock music. At the end of four months, homesick and without a place to live, he took up an offer to live at his parents’ house in Oak Island. It was his first time living on the East Coast in almost a decade.
Eventually, Davis was inspired to start the Carolina Surf Film Festival after attending a similar event in Florida. By that point, he had moved back to Charleston and had established film contacts around the world. “The two guys who were running it were a firefighter and an accountant,” Davis says. “I was just like, ‘Oh, I’m in the surf industry. Why am I not doing this in Charleston?’”
Now 47, Davis has an upbeat disposition and zeal for surf culture that has earned him the unofficial title “Minister of Stoke.” The moniker began as a joke among friends but eventually stuck: it’s printed on his business cards.
Davis brought the festival to Wilmington in 2016 after seeing how successful it was in Charleston. The move was a no-brainer: “I knew the surf community here was probably a little stronger than Charleston’s, just because the surf is a little better. A lot of the Mid-Atlantic surf reps are based in Wilmington, and with UNCW and Cape Fear Community College, it’s a good surf market.” Plus, he says, “I just wanted to spend more time up here.” In March, he made Wilmington his full-time home.
Tickets for both festivals can be purchased online at carolinasurfbrand.com. Options range from single-night passes for $12 to the $35 Trident Pass, which includes admission for two nights, a festival T-shirt and a bag of local goodies. Admission for kids aged 7-12 is $5.
In addition, raffle tickets will be available for $5 each or five for $20. Proceeds go to the nonprofit Hope From Helen, which supports local and global organizations dedicated to health, education, animal welfare, the environment, and individuals and families in need. The foundation is named for Helen Buter, the late mother of Wrightsville Beach surfer Tony Butler. Raffle prizes include merchandise from Davis’ clothing company Carolina Surf Band, Rip Curl wetsuits, Smith sunglasses, Apis Mercantile CBD honey, a Blue Shark Vodka gift basket and more.
Davis credits the heightened popularity of surfing for the success of the festival, which he says drew over 1,000 attendees in 2018. He chalks that popularity up to a rise in surf schools, rapidly improving wave pool technology, and hard work by the World Surf League (WSL), which helped make surfing an official sport at the 2020 Summer Olympics.
Still, he says, there’s plenty of reason to attend the festival even if you’re not a surfer. “My dad doesn’t surf, and he loves it,” says Davis. “I hear that from a lot of people. They come to attend the festival almost on accident, and they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is so amazing.’”