It’s hard to believe that Cucalorus is all grown up – well, almost. Though its organizers are still young as ever at heart, the independent film festival with the quirky name has matured from an intimate celebration of “little” movies into a major event in Wilmington. Movie makers from all over the globe are eager to have their work displayed here.

As it opens today, Cucalorus – fittingly named after a filmmaking tool, a metal plate with shapes cut in it to create light-and-shadow effects – is marking its 20th anniversary. A novelty no more, it draws audiences downtown and showcases the art form that plays an important part in the local economy.

The Cucalorus Film Festival began in 1994 with a small group of movie buffs and a selection of 16 short films, shown at the former Water Street Restaurant downtown. Attendance last year topped 14,000, and this year 241 films – feature length as well as short – will screen in a variety of venues downtown.

It is sadly ironic that as Cucalorus celebrates such a significant milestone, the North Carolina film industry that has its roots in Wilmington is facing uncertainty as incentives have been cut to one-sixth of last year’s value.

A few announcements, particularly the return of CBS’ Under the Dome for another season, suggest that some activity will continue despite the reluctance of state lawmakers to fully support efforts to recruit larger-budget productions and TV series that would have a regular presence.

The $10 million grant program approved this past summer expires in June. Whether it will be renewed, replaced or scrapped altogether is up to a General Assembly that includes many members who oppose film incentives and Gov. Pat McCrory, who wanted the tax credits eliminated in favor of the grant program.

Even the local delegation is split, with Reps. Rick Catlin, R-New Hanover, and Chris Millis, R-Pender, adamantly opposed to the idea of incentives, while Reps. Ted Davis, R-New Hanover, and Susi Hamilton, D-New Hanover, have fought hard to persuade the legislature to retain a program that can compete with other states that have freely offered even more generous incentives.

Cucalorus, which has been recognized nationally as both one of the “coolest” film festivals and one that is well worth the price of admission, honors the artistic side of an industry that supports hundreds of families in the Cape Fear region.

To Wilmington, it has become part of the community and offers visitors and locals a chance to see movies that may not (but may) make it into commercial theaters. Cucalorus highlights the motion picture for the pure joy it offers audiences, but it also is a reflection that Wilmington, too, has come into its own as a film town over the past three decades. Movie making is no longer a niche, but an industry that contributes heartily to the local economy.

To quote a very old theatrical cliché, the show must go on.