With the state’s film incentives yet to be decided and the legislative session nearing its end, Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo and state Rep. Susi Hamilton are inviting the governor to the Port City to see the city’s filming activity firsthand.
Rep. Frank Iler of Brunswick County addresses the crowd at Wednesday’s press conference alongside Rep. Susi Hamilton, left, and Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo, right, and other elected officials. Photo courtesy Susi Hamilton.

Alongside fellow government officials and film industry professionals, the pair held a press conference in Raleigh Wednesday morning to invite Gov. Pat McCrory to visit the sets of “Sleepy Hollow,” “Under the Dome” and “Secrets & Lies,” which are currently filming or in preproduction in Wilmington.

A notice announcing the press conference stated McCrory would also be asked to meet with “a bipartisan delegation of local officials” to discuss how best to maintain the incentive’s effectiveness.

“The time is now, while the legislature is in session, for the governor to witness firsthand the positive impact the film industry has on the state,” Hamilton said in the release. “We want the governor to extend the tax credits and to help the industry expand and grow while there is still time for the legislature to act.”

Earlier this month, the state House agreed to include a grant fund program for film productions in its budget, allowing the film incentive discussion to continue. The program is similar to one proposed in the Senate as an alternative to the current refundable tax credit, which is set to expire at the end of this year.

Hamilton and other legislators have proposed continuing the incentive in its current form, but a bill filed to that effect did not progress beyond committee. A press conference followed, with legislators advocating for continuing the incentive, which provides a 25 percent refundable credit for production companies that spend at least $250,000.

At Wednesday’s press conference, Hamilton said the program as proposed would not be enough to keep North Carolina competitive and prevent film productions from fleeing to other states that provide film-friendly incentives. Saffo called on McCrory and the legislature to extend the current tax credit for one year to give lawmakers time to work on the incentive.

“At least give us the opportunity to really, truly evaluate this industry without somebody saying, ‘Well I just don’t think it’s making money and I just don’t like it,’” Saffo said.

“At the end of the day, the incentive game is [there] whether you like it or not, and whether it’s for film or whether it’s trying to recruit industry to our state, if we’re not in that game, we are not going to recruit business and industry to our state. It’s as simple as that,” he said.

Saffo called on McCrory and House Speaker Thom Tillis to consider legislation that would combine elements of the House and Senate proposals, while also extending the current incentive one year to give time to study other states’ incentives packages—specifically New Mexico’s, which Saffo described as comparable to both the current refundable credit and the grant fund proposals.

Saffo asked the legislature to extend the incentive one year, cap the credit at $40 million (the current incentive cap is $20 million per production), “work toward the New Mexico model” and commission a study “to accurately qualify the impacts of the industry in state and local tax receipts.”

“This combined effort, taking multiple branches of government and stakeholders into account, would allow a more permanent solution to occur in the long session,” Saffo said, referring to next year’s legislative session. “We’re asking for a bit more time to work this out the right way.”

Saffo said New Mexico’s incentive functions like a grant fund program by capping and limiting the amount of credit that could be awarded while effectively working like a refundable credit. New Mexico’s credit ranges from 25 to 30 percent per production but is capped at $50 million per fiscal year, meaning no more than that amount could be awarded overall over the course of a year.

Saffo and Hamilton were joined by state Reps. Ted Davis, Frank Iler and Rodney Moore, as well as industry professionals including Bill Vassar, executive vice president of EUE/Screen Gems Studios in Wilmington; Johnny Griffin, director of the Wilmington Regional Film Commission; and Chris Cooney, chief operating officer of EUE/Screen Gems, who spoke on the studios’ investment in the state—through construction of sound stages and other infrastructure—and the impact of productions on local businesses.

“This is what it’s all about: supporting the local business owners in North Carolina,” Saffo said.

Added Davis: “We are going to do everything we can to protect our constituents, and especially those who work in the film industry.”

By Jonathan Spiers