Raleigh, N.C. — As lawmakers debate how, or even whether, the state will continue to offer incentives to movie and television productions to film in North Carolina, the man who has headed the state’s efforts to recruit the industry over the past seven years is set to leave his post.
Aaron Syrett’s pending departure comes as the North Carolina Film Office and the state Commerce Department prepare to make a big transition and less than six months before North Carolina’s film incentive program is set to expire. The film office is one of several Commerce Department divisions set to transfer to a new nonprofit that will handle much of the marketing and job-recruitment work for the state.
Syrett was offered a job with the new nonprofit but turned it down. In a letter to Economic Development Partnership Director Richard Lindenmuth, obtained by WRAL News through a third party, Syrett outlines his concerns about the future of the state film program and the fact that he would be asked to continue his work with at least one fewer staff member.
The partnership asked him to sign a commitment letter by the end of June. In an interview, Syrett said he did not want to accept a job with the partnership without knowing what the state’s film incentive program would look like.
“I needed to know what those tools were going to look like going in,” he said.
The Commerce Department is eliminating the Film Office at the end of July.
Syrett said he has no plans but would be rooting for the state’s film industry no matter what he does next.
“We wish him all the best and thank him for his service to North Carolina,” said Kim Genardo, a spokeswoman for the Department of Commerce.
Syrett’s departure may further unsettle an industry that has already been restive as lawmakers consider restructuring a key recruiting tool. Film productions have been eligible to get up to $20 million in tax refunds from the state based on how much money they spent in North Carolina. Critics have said the program amounts to a subsidy to big-budget film productions, while boosters say film, television and commercial productions support hundreds of jobs throughout the state.
“Aaron’s departure is an ominous sign of things to come,” said Katherine Feinberg, a spokeswoman for the North Carolina Production Alliance, a lobby group for those in the film business. “He is well known around the country for his professionalism and ability to successfully recruit film projects. Without his leadership and significant relationships in California, the industry is yet again put in a weakened position.”
Industry insiders were already worried that two plans to remake the state’s incentive program would put North Carolina at a disadvantage. One effort to create a grant program put forward by the state Senate has been called “untested” by critics, who say it would not provide enough certainty to attract productions. A plan put forward by Gov. Pat McCrory that would tie production credits to how much a company pays in income taxes has been little discussed at the legislature.
Efforts to simply extend the current tax program have been called “a non-starter” by some senior senators, who say their colleagues are bothered by the program.
Syrett acknowledged his pending departure could add further uncertainty to the mix, calling it a “byproduct” of the transition to the Economic Development Partnership.
“All I can tell you is what we put in place seven years ago has worked well,” Syrett said.
Other states, including Georgia and Louisiana, have been boosting their offers to compete with North Carolina, which Syrett said now ranks as one of the top three states for film production in the country.
While he would not say what he thought North Carolina’s new program ought to look like, he said, “We compete at a high level. If North Carolina wants to remain a tier one state, they need to have a tier one program.”
By Mark Binker