A NC film industry update and its hopeful outlook

(above) mama with an agenda: Mandy Houvouras and babies in the oven, Isla and Hazel Ann, attend the film rally in April with matriarch, and filmmaker and encore film critic Anghus Houvouras. Photo by Dana Hawley

On any given Monday throughout the summer, one can find Port City residents at Hell’s Kitchen, ordering beers and closely huddling around a screen to watch “Under the Dome” (10 p.m., CBS). While the show’s twists and turns certainly excite viewers, they serve as only part of the reason for this gathering.

The people found at the bar actually get their thrills from seeing the product of their hard work and talent. They are the residents of Wilmington who worked on this project; their weekly congregation exemplifies one of many tight-knit, passionate communities that help attract so many film productions to Wilmington and North Carolina.

However, the recent controversy surrounding House Bill 994, and the discussion it started regarding tax incentives afforded to North Carolina productions, has made members of this community nervous for the future. Though the tax incentives, which allot a 25 percent refundable tax credit, don’t expire until 2014, talks of them not being renewed seem real to many. NC’s Republican-led General Assembly controls our state government; usually, they don’t agree with business incentives of any kind.

With an estimated 150 projects showing interest in filming in North Carolina a year, Wilmington established its reputation for being the southeastern answer to Hollywood. Last year, the city collected around $247 million spent by productions in 2012; this included a hunk of revenue generated by the mega-budget “Iron Man 3.” In 2013, Wilmington secured $150 million, according to Johnny Griffin, director of the Wilmington Regional Film Commission.

Those numbers have yielded a few hits at the box office recently, too, including the unexpected horror darling of the summer, “The Conjuring,” starring Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga. A few weeks ago the dark comedy “We’re the Millers,” starring Jennifer Aniston and Jason Sudeikis, debuted positively.

Currently, the city still bustles with activity. Wilmington provides a home for the FOX TV show “Sleepy Hollow,” starring Tom Mison and Nicole Beharie (set to premiere Monday, September 16th). The next few months will prove critical in determining the show’s longevity. Those involved will watch ratings and play the waiting game to see whether or not the network orders the back-nine episodes of the season. If the show is picked up, Griffin anticipates production will continue to be facilitated in Wilmington.

Likewise, “Christmas in Conway,” a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie, starring Mary-Louise Parker, Andy Garcia and Mandy Moore, wrapped at the end of August. The production used locations like the Forest Hills neighborhood and Country Club Road, among others. Combined, “Sleepy Hollow’ and “Christmas in Conway” provide “a little over 200 jobs,” according to Griffin. “We certainly have scripts in for [possible upcoming] projects, too.”

Forecasting what productions land here is a bit of a juggling act. The materialization of these projects depends on whether or not everything comes together in the development stage. The project leaders may say Wilmington is the perfect place for them, but until funding, casting and a laundry list of other factors culminate, it’s not set in stone. Griffin approximates between 10 and 20 projects a year that option Wilmington actually end up shooting here.

He reports that “125 to 150 jobs can be created by any one of these productions.” More so, he sounds confident regarding the year 2014 in film, despite the recent debate about HB 994. “[In the] short-term, it has not impacted productions coming to North Carolina,” he assures. “Next spring, legislature will be in session and will discuss film incentives to determine whether we will continue past 2015.”
House Bill 994 threatened to make tax credits awarded to productions non-refundable. Instead, the tax credit would remain with the state and be allotted to any future tax liability for five years, which wouldn’t benefit out-of-state production companies. If incentives were to be cut, “Wilmywood,” as many refer to our abode, could be in jeopardy. That means calculations of NC garnering another $376 million, as it did last year, would be compromised.

Senator Thom Goolsby, who fought to keep film incentives and jobs they bring, says HB 994 “was immediately referred from the floor to [the [House] Rules, where it was never seen again.”
As of now, North Carolina primarily competes with Georgia, Louisiana, New Mexico, Michigan, and Pennsylvania for film productions. Incentives—along with crew, locations, and facilities—are vital components for keeping up with these states. Griffin elaborates, “Each is a leg on the table; minus any one, it becomes unstable.”

The discussion started in the spring and already has resulted in an onslaught of support from citizens and politicians alike. Rallies have taken place, and cars across the state boast bumper stickers that remind North Carolinians the film industry does more than provide citizens with bragging rights and a chance to catch a glimpse of a celebrity. It provides real and clean jobs, and helps local businesses thrive. It also directly helps boost tourism dollars into our economy.

Goolsby, a Republican representative who’s been in the spotlight as of late for his conservative actions impeding women’s rights, traditionally opposes incentives. Yet, he finds North Carolina’s film industry a special case and pledges to continue supporting it.

“I will fight to see the incentive extended in the next session of the General Assembly, as happened last time,” he assures. “It is an after-the-fact incentive, based upon real money spent in our state and the jobs created. We pony-up no upfront money, based on a wing and a prayer! The film industry has delivered time and again for us in eastern North Carolina. We love you and will continue to woo you with great locations, a skilled work force that is eager to serve and a film incentive that makes us competitive with others states and countries!”

This sentiment undoubtedly sums up the attitude of Monday-night patrons at Hell’s Kitchen. Looking toward the future, CBS’s “Under the Dome” was picked up for a second season. The finale of the first season will air on September 16th. Monday-night regulars of Hell’s Kitchen will be able to resume their weekly gathering next summer. Griffin notes, “All intentions are for [‘Under the Dome’] to shoot here next season.”

Looking toward 2015, Griffin says the North Carolina film industry “hopes to demonstrate positive impacts of [our] economy, including the taxes generated for the state by the expenditure of millions of dollars in North Carolina towards labor, goods and services.”

Local film enthusiasts can look forward to business as usual for 2014; however, they will have to wait and continue to rally and protest until next spring to see what the future will hold.