It’s a rainy Monday morning in April, and I’m headed to a soundstage at Screen Gems Studios in Wilmington that contains a replica of a devastated town.
One airplane-hangar-sized space contains the interior of a multi-level bar and restaurant, while another features a bomb shelter. At the moment, a character played by Charlotte native Britt Robertson is doing repeated takes of a sequence where she attacks a man who keeps her captive in chains.
The soundstage is part of Under the Dome, a new Steven Spielberg-produced CBS series that adapts and expands on Stephen King’s 2009 novel about a town cut off from the rest of the world by a mysterious dome. (I don’t get to see the dome, alas, because it’s rendered in CGI.)
The series, which premieres June 24 at 10 p.m., is just one of a number of North Carolina-based TV productions that are becoming an increasingly visible part of the state’s profile and artistic cachet.
It’s a sign of the times that this Stephen King adaptation is a television production. Three decades ago, it was a different King novel, Firestarter, that launched North Carolina’s filmmaking industry, with films ranging from 1986’s Blue Velvet to this year’s Iron Man 3 being shot here. Until fairly recently, television production in North Carolina was mostly limited to the long-running teen soap One Tree Hill. But the past few years have seen a significant expansion in the number and diversity of programs filmed in the state.
NBC’s post-apocalyptic adventure Revolution, one of last season’s few network hits, is now entering its second season in Wilmington alongside the premiere of Under the Dome. Elsewhere in the city, work is under way on the fourth season of HBO’s black comedy Eastbound & Down.
In Charlotte, they’re filming the second season of Cinemax’s bizarre, ultra-violent fake-cop-vs.-Amish-gangster series Banshee from novelist Jonathan Tropper and Oscar-winning producer Alan Ball (True Blood). Also in Charlotte, the pilot of Sleepy Hollow, a Fox drama from the writers of the Star Trek and Transformers films that revives the Headless Horseman with heavy artillery, recently wrapped (the series itself will be shooting in Wilmington for a fall premiere). And, most notably, Showtime’s Emmy-winning Homeland is entering its third season of filming in Charlotte (and recently got a few days of footage in Raleigh with star Claire Danes).
Things have come a long way from the days of Dawson’s Creek.
All this television activity might also suggest another way to look at the tax incentives that have spurred the movie and television activity here. The state’s tax rebate incentives to the film industry are among the most generous in the nation, so much so that legislators on both sides of the aisle have questioned their utility—sometimes to their peril. In April, New Hanover County Republican legislator Rick Catlin raised the ire of his film-industry constituents when he co-sponsored House Bill 994 with Durham Democrat Paul Luebke; it would have significantly limited the incentives.
Luebke says the existing incentives cost the state money, with dubious returns. “The people of North Carolina write these companies a check, even if they haven’t paid a penny in North Carolina state taxes,” he says. “They have no obligation to pay North Carolina state taxes and they get a check cut for them.”
Luebke would like to see two basic improvements. “Ideally, the companies would have to pay North Carolina taxes before they could get a tax break,” he says. “The second improvement would be to link the tax credit to job creation.”
Whether or not the incentives actually bring any money or new jobs to the state, television might provide a way to cement North Carolina as a center of production while generating new revenue. The fact that successful TV productions can last for years means that they offer the potential for job creation and financial influx that many films, with their shorter production schedules, can’t. While big-budget films such as The Hunger Games and Iron Man 3 get many of the headlines, some observers argue that television series produced in North Carolina can be more profitable if the productions stay in the area over several seasons. Television series tend to offer a degree of visibility for the state’s locations that are not always apparent in a modern, heavily edited motion pictures.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find anything in Iron Man 3 that was identifiably North Carolinian,” says E. Brent Lane, director of the Carolina Center for Competitive Economies at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise. “I don’t think anyone’s going to come to the Port of Wilmington to see the cranes that were featured in the film.”
Lane’s research into tax incentives concludes that in any business, they are better used if the companies incentivized are headquartered in the state, are based in distressed areas, hire local people and provide sustained employment with above-average wages.
Short-term film productions, he says, can’t really provide that goal. “I don’t care how many jobs were created because of Iron Man 3,” he says. “How many people are employed now because of that?”
Luebke says that TV productions might be a better deal because they “employ people for a longer period of time than a single film. In that sense, the TV productions are superior to one-shot films,” he says.
“Still, it would be important to know that the credit needs to be linked to job creation before it can be acceptable to me.”
Lane believes that television production is a far better investment for North Carolina than films.
“The same qualities I outlined that, in my mind, make a feature film short-term production a very bad investment or use of incentives, also makes something like One Tree Hill, Dawson’s Creek and other long-running series excellent examples of the criteria I cited.
“One Tree Hill could be considered headquartered in North Carolina for the entirety of its run, which was nearly a decade. It was not in a distressed area—New Hanover County was its base—but it certainly employed a large number of local people. Wilmington has a large crew base, and they did not have to bring in many outside people during its run, which, at almost a decade, was definitely sustained. I don’t have wage information, but you could reasonably assume it was at the prevailing wage, if not higher.”
Indeed, according to “conservative estimates” provided by North Carolina Film Office Director Aaron Syrett, One Tree Hill spent approximately $250 million–$270 million in North Carolina over its nine seasons, whereas Iron Man 3 spent “anywhere from $109 million to $130 million.” (That might help to explain why Screen Gems Studios, where Under the Dome is filmed, is just off a Wilmington street called One Tree Hill Way.) While that’s obviously over a much shorter period of time than One Tree Hill, Syrett says the television series also helped to stimulate the economy by drawing more people to the area over time.
“Probably 95 to 97 percent of the people on One Tree Hill lived here, were from here, or came here for Dawson’s Creek and then stayed here and still live here today,” Syrett says. “You have this artistic community, these artists and skilled professionals who are now part of North Carolina. Whereas with Iron Man 3, they hired thousands of people, and they were at capacity hiring all the people they could, and brought in more people to provide what we couldn’t, and then they were all gone.
“When it’s a series, North Carolina is where you live. When it’s a feature film, you come in and then you go.”
That infrastructure of available crews and other professionals has made North Carolina attractive to such productions as Homeland. “Everything we use is local, from camera gear to the electrical equipment to cars rented from the local Enterprise to local buildings and set dressing,” says Homeland co-executive producer Michael Klick, who spends about seven months of the year in Charlotte working on the series. “That all comes from Charlotte or areas nearby.”
In some ways, the biggest challenge that TV production in North Carolina faces is keeping up with the expansion. Klick says that it’s been more difficult to find local qualified crew members since a number of Homeland‘s regulars defected to Under the Dome, wishing to stay in Wilmington. “If we need a third camera operator, I can’t make that decision at four o’clock in the afternoon,” Klick says. “I have to bring those people into town—it can be from as near as Wilmington, it can be from Atlanta, it can be from New York, it can be from Los Angeles. But the point of fact is: They aren’t in Charlotte.”
Greg Yaitanes, the executive producer and showrunner of Banshee, echoes Klick’s concerns. “This crew is largely built out of people from North Carolina, but I wish the television base was stronger in Charlotte,” he says. “There’s a real premium on people who actually come from Charlotte—many of the crew come from Wilmington.”
As with Homeland, he’s lost multiple crew members to Under the Dome, and he believes a training facility for production crew in Charlotte could help expand the area’s TV production base.
“There’s an opportunity there to be the person who comes in and creates some kind of education and training program,” he says. With Banshee shooting in towns surrounding Charlotte such as Moorseville and Lincolnton, he further sees the opportunity to grow the economies of those areas through increased production.
“Gastonia feels like a backlot—every storefront is empty, and it’s in need of someone to come in and bring business there,” Yaitanes says. “It would be great to have a base in these surrounding areas with their natural beauty. Because that will keep rippling out—people will start finding a new home base, and it’ll become a 50-mile base from Gastonia, and still more people will come, and the crews will come, as they learn these opportunities exist.”
That need for growth could become more urgent as North Carolina series productions grow larger. Under the Dome, which is geared to potentially play out over several summer seasons, has an estimated budget of $3 million to $3.4 million per episode, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Likewise, this growth might also indicate that despite the controversy over tax, there could be an advantage in either revising existing incentives or creating new ones specific to series TV production.
“Film credits as structured in North Carolina are effective in that they cause productions to come to North Carolina,” says Lane. “But in terms of efficiency, they cause the state to lose money, and that has been a conclusion by every state that did a credible analysis of their film programs. Just on a tax base alone, they lose far more than they give back.
“Superficially, they might look the same, but if you assume the same amount of money for tax incentives, those qualities make a series more successful economically for an area than a feature film. You don’t know if a series is going to last 10 years, but you can certainly structure your incentives to favor one model over another, and economically, there are very sound reasons for doing that.”
At a price, the incentives have helped North Carolina become a growing center of television production, one that Syrett says is an increasing destination for TV studios. “We’re not just some place where you can go to get some shots—we’re a well-developed industry of professionals that rival anywhere in the United States,” he says.
“That’s the kind of work we do here, and we need to sustain that.”
For now, possibility is still in the air as I sit in the fake restaurant at Screen Gems where a small town will be trapped under the dome. On the set, actors joke and share news updates on their iPads, their characters’ conflicts forgotten. Around them, crew members with Eastbound & Down jackets and Iron Man 3 baseball caps work on, creating this fictional world as across the state, fake terrorists are tracked down on Homeland and Amish gangsters plot revenge on Banshee. They’re just a few of the many strange, imaginary televised worlds contained in North Carolina—with more potentially to join them in TV seasons to come.
by Zack Smith