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Plot twist or tease? NC film industry showing signs of resilience

After a shift in state policies decimated the NC film industry, incentive changes and COVID-19 conditions are behind solid numbers this year. But will this last?
Carolina Public Press
Lifelong actress Maureen Mountcastle poses for a portrait at Port City Films studio in Wilmington on Oct. 6. Melissa Sue Gerrits / Carolina Public Press

North Carolina’s film industry is on the cusp of a major turning point. Various film and television production companies have invested a record-breaking $409 million so far this year.

The film industry in North Carolina is booming as never before, said Johnny Griffin, director of the Wilmington Regional Film Commission.

“We just don’t see it slowing down,” he said.

Combined, the film and television studios could create more than 25,000 job opportunities for film professionals and locals, according to the N.C. Department of Commerce. This year’s spending so far has surpassed the previous record of $377 million in 2012.

However, a national strike by the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees could put a dent in that progress.

The union alleges that studios and film production companies are making employees work unsafe and harmful hours and paying unlivable wages to the lowest-paid employees, according to an IATSE union statement.

Industry rebound

The film industry has had its fair share of ups and downs, said Guy Caster, director of the N.C. Film Office.

The office, a division within the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina, markets the state to outside film and television studios.

The Department of Commerce contracts the EDPNC, a nonprofit, to help recruit outside businesses and expand existing businesses in the states.

The state hosted some major films in the 1980s and ’90s, including “Dirty Dancing” and “Forrest Gump.”

In more recent years, Lionsgate filmed “The Hunger Games” in parts of Western North Carolina and Charlotte in 2011, according to the state Department of Commerce.

Marvel shot “Iron Man 3” in various locations across the state, including Wilmington, Raleigh and Cary in 2013.

Major blockbuster films can easily bring in millions of dollars in spending. Marvel alone spent about $81 million to film “Iron Man III,” according to a state Department of Revenue report on film credits and grants.

Between 2010 and 2014, the state offered one type of incentive package to outside businesses, Caster said. The state Department of Commerce offered a 25% refund on qualified spending, with a cap of $20 million.

Between 2010 and 2014, the state refunded more than $250 million, according to Department of Revenue reports. Film and television studios spent more than $1 billion in the state during the same period, reports show.

The film industry took a nosedive after the old incentive program expired on Dec. 31, 2014. The General Assembly passed a new program that drastically cut back incentives.

Instead of a refund with an individual cap per project, the new program had an annual budget limit of $10 million as part of The Current Operations and Capital Improvements Appropriations Act of 2014.

In 2014, film incentives were a heavily debated topic, said Brenda Lilly, a film and television screenwriting professor at Western Carolina University.

Republican legislators argued that film incentives should be cut altogether because the film industry did not guarantee stable jobs the way factories could, she said.

The same legislators argued that the film industry did not stimulate the local economy. Lilly disagrees, arguing that it is common for studios to hire local people to fill various roles beyond acting or production.

“I realized that this had to be political because a carpenter is a carpenter, and an electrician is an electrician.”

Opponents to incentive cuts argued that the local economies would take a major hit if the cuts went through, Griffin said.

“Folks just said no,” Griffin said. “If you do away with it, business will leave, and sure enough that’s what happened. We certainly came close to losing it all.”

State and locals lost out

In 2015, the first year of the new program, outside film and studios spent $127 million, almost a $200 million decline compared with the previous year.

Film and television spending continued to decrease, with the lowest point being $48 million in 2018. This total marked the lowest amount of investment since 2007.

Maureen Sandcastle, a Wilmington-based actress since 2008, felt the impact firsthand, she said.

The first few years after 2014, people held out hope that the industry would bounce back, she said.

She and many others did not want to give up their lifestyle to move to a major city with higher costs of living.

By 2018, about half of the people in her circles had left the area to work in New York, Los Angeles or Atlanta. She didn’t have much work in the area aside from local commercials, so she commuted to Atlanta for film work on a regular basis.

“It’s costly to drive yourself to and from auditions when you don’t even book the part,” she said. “It’s a lot of expense that we (actors) have to incur.”

Between 2015 and 2018, only three studios filmed movies in the Wilmington area, according to the Wilmington Regional Film Commission website. No outside studio filmed in either 2016 or 2017.

Curtis Theimann, director of Port City Films, also remembers the film industry in town tapering off. His studio occasionally works with outside studios by providing equipment or video production services.

After a substantial amount of people left town by 2018, the few people in the industry who stayed regularly asked for work or for some production to squeeze them in.

This year marked a major shift for Thiemann and Sandcastle. Local people haven’t called Thiemann for work in about eight months because they have found work elsewhere.

“It’s back,” Thiemann said.

“It’s slowly coming. If this year is the barometer for what’s going on, it’s going to be … great.”

Sandcastle doesn’t travel exclusively to Atlanta for film work anymore. As of this year, about 40% of her auditions have been in Wilmington.

She never had this much work in Wilmington previously.

Incentives revisited

After 2014, many legislators knew that the state would not be able to attract blockbuster films as it had in the past.

Instead of fighting to replace the program, legislators like state Rep. Ted Davis and Sen. Michael Lee advocated for smaller changes, as reported by Star-News.

In 2015, House Bill 97 increased the $10 million pool to $30 million. Two years later, Senate Bill 582 eliminated the program’s termination date of July 2020.

Previously, the termination date had especially deterred series and multiyear projects from considering the state, Griffin said.

“If somebody is doing a series, they need to be able to see three to five years into the future,” he said.

“They can’t start a series here, and then have the rug pulled out from under them a year later. They just won’t come.”

SB 582 also increased the budget to its current $31 million and guaranteed the funds annually.

The final major change occurred with Senate Bill 99 in 2018. The bill dropped the minimum spending requirement for a feature film from $5 million to $3 million. Additionally, films that aired on television qualified at $1 million.

All of these changes have made the state more competitive in attracting series and smaller films like those on Hallmark and Lifetime, Caster said.

The state Department of Commerce awards grants to eligible projects on a rolling basis and cannot exceed its annual budget of $31 million.

Of the 14 productions that the state has awarded entertainment grants for 2021, eight are scripted series either for television or a streaming platform.

Rebuilding workforce

The state does not have the film industry workforce it used to have, Caster said.

The Department of Commerce is looking at workforce development programs in areas involved with film and television production.

With a limited workforce, recent college graduates have been able to break into the industry, said Duke Fire, program director of the film and video production department at Cape Fear Community College in Wilmington.

Out of the 12 summer graduates from the program, 10 are currently employed in Wilmington. In addition, many current students work part-time jobs on sets.

He thinks the state’s focus on multiyear projects is better long term for workers and the local economy compared with the constant moving that typically occurs with larger blockbuster films.

“Everything would have been different if I landed on a 12-year run,” he said.

“That’s like a real job. It keeps motels occupied, the food service busy. It’s endless the amount of things that a film actually touches around here.”

The film industry remains a contract economy that can be both boom and bust, said Joshua Russell, program director of the film and television production at Western Carolina University.

As a result, workers can face unemployment for months even after working on a major feature production. However, he thinks the recent increase in film and studio production can help close the gaps and lead to more stability in the industry.

Long trend or short boom?

Even though the industry is booming right now, Bill Vassar, executive vice president of EUE/Screen Gems, does not think it necessarily signifies a guaranteed turning point.

“We don’t have a great incentive program,” he said.

“It’s just cyclical. Right now, everyone wants to shoot here. Three of our four shows all take place on Cape Cod. We can make it look like Cape Cod.”

He attributes some of the current business to American studios choosing to or being forced to shoot domestically because of COVID-19. As a result, the studios are now having to turn local productions like his. But it could be a temporary shift.

If business continues to boom as the state lifts COVID-19 mandates, Griffin thinks studios will find the necessary workforce by hiring locally and bringing in workers from outside states as needed.

Some studios have already brought in workers from outside states to fill certain positions, he said.

About 1,100 people are currently working in the film and television industry in Wilmington, he said. Of those, he estimates up to 80% are locals.

In the Wilmington area, about 90% of film crew members belong to Local 491, the Carolina and Georgia branch of the IATSE union, as reported by Star-News.

On Oct. 4, IATSE union members nationwide voted 98% in favor of authorizing a strike, according to a press release from the IATSE union. About 90% of all members voted.

Workers also allege that employers pay employees who work on shows for streaming services less than employees who work on blockbuster films, despite the budgets for both productions being equal.

The strike, which the union said will start Monday, has the potential to slow down production and disrupt the industry statewide. The disruption might be necessary to change long-standing unsafe workplace practices for the better, Russell said.

“When you’re regularly working 14 or more hours a day, you’re prone to exhaustion and fatigue that is just unsustainable and dangerous,” he said.

A 10-hour workday is not only critical for quality of life but also to keep people safe, he added.