With the fate of North Carolina’s film industry uncertain and questions remaining about its film credit program, members of the Wilmington Regional Film Commission board lamented the loss of the state’s expiring incentive but expressed a resolve to try to keep cameras rolling.
“We have no choice but to be clever to find business,” said Bill Vassar, executive vice president of EUE/Screen Gems Studios in Wilmington and chairman of the commission.
Noting the loss of the incentive as a lure to attract productions—replaced with what’s been described as a less attractive grant fund program, which was included in the budget the governor signed Thursday—Vassar added: “If that means we’re only going to get two weeks from a production to come here to shoot because of locations, we’re going to fight to go after that.
“You just have to wiggle your way through and make your own opportunities,” Vassar said. “We have no choice, because we have to pay the taxes and pay security and pay maintenance, and we have an overhead here that we need to cover.”
The commission met Friday for one of its regular, quarterly meetings, which was called in the wake of this year’s session of the General Assembly. Commission Director Johnny Griffin noted the assembly’s departure from Raleigh last week left a lot of questions unanswered, such as how the grant program would be administered and funds allocated, but he said the commission would continue moving forward with promoting the area to prospective productions.
“We’re fortunate in that Wilmington does have a reputation in the industry in California, and so we, on our own, can call, open doors, have meetings,” Griffin said. “So we intend, at this time of a little bit of uncertainty with the incentive and what’s going on, to maintain a presence and maintain a strong approach and not sit back and just wait and see where all of this goes.”
The previous week, the Senate left Raleigh after approving a more-than $21 billion budget that included the grant program, which would cap the amount of credits awarded to productions at $10 million for the first six months of next year.
The current incentive—a refundable tax credit that expires at the end of this year—provides a 25 percent break on taxable expenses for productions that spend at least $250,000, with a cap per production of $20 million.
The Senate’s departure left unanswered a proposal from the House to extend the current incentive one year with an overall cap of $40 million. Put forth by Rep. Ted Davis of Wilmington, the proposal was approved to go to the Senate, but the Senate’s departure left the proposal in limbo.
Griffin noted the House plans to reconvene next week, while the Senate is likewise scheduled to meet, months before the current incentive is set to expire. But with no guarantee the film credit will be discussed, Griffin said his office is moving forward knowing only that $10 million will be available for film, though that amount would be sought by productions throughout the state.
“What we can say is the $10 million will go like that,” Griffin said, snapping his fingers. “It’s not as if we’ve got this great fund that we can now use to market and to recruit and to get a lot of new projects in here. It’s an amount of money that could very easily go to one or two productions that are currently here already that just renew, and at that point, there is no additional money to recruit additional projects.
“At the end of the day, if it is just the $10 million fund as we’re seeing it now, then it’ll go really quickly and it’s not really something for us to use for marketing going into the future,” he said.
Griffin noted some funding could come through other means, such as the state’s Job Development Investment Grants and the Job Maintenance and Capital Development Fund—both used for recruiting industry and encouraging economic development. Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo, who represents the city on the commission, said funding for the former—known as JDIG, for short—would not be available after Sept. 1.
“If, at the end of the day, all we get is the $10 million for six months, what does the landscape look like for us?” Saffo asked Griffin. “What happens with all the productions that we currently have here? Are we talking about a mass exodus to Georgia?”
Acknowledging that state’s more attractive incentive, Griffin said each production would need to make its own decision, which he said could be factored by how much longer beyond this year they intended to stay, referring to ongoing television series such as “Under the Dome” and “Sleepy Hollow.”
As for new projects, Griffin replied: “With no additional money to provide future productions, the chances of landing anything are relatively slim. We’ve got infrastructure here, we’ve got crew here, but those are symbiotic, in that we have crew here as long as we have work here.
“If the productions that are on the lot decide to pull out and leave and go somewhere else, then obviously Screen Gems has got to look at their situation,” Griffin noted. “Right now, without the incentive, you’re looking at a 25 percent difference in cost of doing business. And I don’t care how much somebody likes you and loves you; they’re not going to come and spend 25 percent more than what they can somewhere else.”
Griffin said a worst-case scenario would be if productions in Wilmington leave, only $10 million is provided across the state, and those funds are awarded elsewhere in the state, leaving Wilmington with no money to work with for marketing.
Referring back to Vassar’s point about area-specific locations and other factors beyond the incentive that make Wilmington and the state attractive to productions, Griffin said: “We can still talk about the good things we have in North Carolina, but I think that’s kind of an empty promise at that point, because you just don’t have the incentive.”
Griffin said the commission’s priority in that case would be to help maintain the state’s image in the industry, which he and Vassar said is “all about relationships.”
“This is just sort of a bridge for us—a time period when things are a little bit slow, we maintain our image and keep talking about North Carolina and Wilmington so people realize that we’re still here,” Griffin said. “And maybe next spring we’re fortunate enough to get something better. But that has to be evaluated.
“We have to look at how this session ends and what we think going forward, and whether or not there are even any possibilities there. I don’t know, once we slip this far back,” Griffin said, “whether there’s an opportunity to take steps and continue climbing, or we’ve come so far down the hill that we just can’t climb back up again.”
Noting numbers projecting another big year for in-state spending related to film, Griffin said: “It’s ironic, in the time that we’re having one of our best years ever here in Wilmington and in North Carolina, at the same time we’re having this conversation about the sad situation that it could be next year.”
By Jonathan Spiers