Prominent leaders in the North Carolina film industry assembled at the Cucalorus Film Festival’s “State of the Slate” panel Thursday to reiterate the benefits they see in the state’s film incentive program set to expire at the end of 2014.

Launched in 2010, the film incentive program gives qualifying productions a 25 percent refundable tax credit for the money spent on certain production services in the state. The incentive has been vital in luring major productions to the state, including Disney’s “Iron Man 3,” New Line Cinema’s “The Conjuring” and “We’re the Millers,” and television shows such as “Sleepy Hollow” and “Under the Dome.”

The program has been an increasingly hot-button issue in recent months as the Republican-led state legislature ended its 2013 session without extending the incentives. And the debate over the incentives’ future should only heat up when the general assembly reconvenes in May.

But even with the program’s future still unclear, Thursday’s panel reminded the audience that any uncertainty regarding the program’s “sunset date” already costs the state potential productions.

“Whenever there is a sunset date, that in itself produces uncertainty for the studios,” said Dale Williams, who is a producer and currently the unit production manager for “Under the Dome.” “Films and shows that are being planned 18 and 24 months out are not looking at North Carolina because they don’t know what is going to happen 18 months from now.”

Williams used the example of “Iron Man 3,” which shot in Wilmington last year, saying that locals were talking with Marvel up to two years before production officially began.

Moderator Joe Chianese, executive vice president of EP Financial Services, which sponsored the panel, told the audience that 44 states now have competitive incentives and that won’t be changing any time soon.

“Incentives will always be here and if North Carolina’s go away, another state or country will come in and replace it,” Chianese said. “I think that the state legislature needs to know that this is a global business and it is an expensive business, and it needs to be incentivized and subsidized. That is what producers want.”

Susan Ruskin, dean of the UNCSA School of Film, said one group legislators are keeping in mind is film students and how they will be affected. “They have been talking with students, and there is some concern about the younger generation of filmmakers and what will happen to them if they are not going to stay here or are forced to leave.”

Ultimately, Jason Rosin, business manager for IATSE Local 491 production crew union, said that the incentive can’t go away or the industry present in North Carolina today will be altered permanently.

“These incentives are absolutely crucial. If the incentives are not extended the way that they are presently, it will absolutely destroy the industry here,” said Rosin. “Without the incentive, you will be uprooting the lives of a lot of people.”

Ruskin added onto his statement, saying, “It’s not just about Hollywood coming to make movies in the state and leaving, but about the people of North Carolina and how they are benefiting and how they are going to lose if that incentive goes away.”

Heading into next year, it will be up to the whole state to fight for the program to remain intact, said Aaron Syrett, director of the N.C. Film Commission.

“North Carolina needs to come together as one big state. This is not a regional issue, it is a state issue,” said Syrett. “We can either succeed together or fail separately.”

By Hunter Ingram