'Hunger Games' sequel moves NC off stage

jshaffer@newsobserver.comSeptember 13, 2012 

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Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) in THE HUNGER GAMES.

MURRAY CLOSE

— When it opened in March, “The Hunger Games” movie drew the world’s eye to North Carolina, throwing its mountain wilderness and rickety mill towns on the big screen.

But the follow-up to the $700 million hit casts the Tar Heel State in a walk-on role – if that.

“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” began shooting outside Atlanta this week, and for the movie’s finish the cast will travel to Hawaii – home, incidentally, to co-star Woody Harrelson.

Towns that played backdrop to the first movie’s post-apocalyptic story haven’t heard from Lionsgate studio about a return trip for the sequel, though the chance of a late call still exists. But in “Catching Fire,” most of the film’s action shifts from a temperate forest to a tropical island, all but ensuring North Carolina won’t get the same hype.

“They certainly looked at us,” said Aaron Syrett, director of the N.C. Film Office in Raleigh. “But obviously, a lot of it’s tropical. There’s a new director, new story line, new locations. Certainly the salaries the actors are getting have changed.”

Based on a best-selling young adult book series, “The Hunger Games” stories follow the story of Katniss Everdeen, a teen girl from a coal-mining district in a bleak, futuristic world. Each year, the country’s totalitarian government forces children to fight to death on national television – a set of games that Katniss twists to her own rebellious advantage.

Making the first movie in North Carolina brought more than $60 million to the state, along with roughly 5,000 workers, many of them locals who appeared as on-screen extras.

For months after the film first screened, fans traveled to forgotten corners of the state for a glimpse of the “Hunger Games” scenery. The town of Shelby had bus tours running to the cotton warehouses that played backdrop scenes in Katniss’ home, District 12.

In Hildebran, a blink-and-miss-it town in Burke County, the local museum saw visitors poring over artifacts from its bygone yarn mill – houses from which appear in the movie’s opening scenes.

“We had people there from Alaska, California and New York,” said Mayor Karen Robinson. “Just all over the place. When they were there, they’d ask, ‘Now where can we eat?’ ”

But Robinson hasn’t heard about any return visits, and she thinks Lionsgate shot extra scenes on the first trip. No word has come to Wade Shepherd, who owns the Henry River Mill Village that was fashioned into Katniss’ house.

“They said they probably would do it, but I haven’t heard from them again,” Shepherd said. “It’s not for me to call.”

Incentives limit may have played role

The original film’s location got chalked up to the state’s film incentive, which offers filmmakers a 25 percent refundable tax credit. But the state only qualifies movie salaries up to the first $1 million while Georgia is more generous. That likely influenced the Atlanta decision, Syrett said, especially since the young actors’ salaries have ballooned since the first film.

But while the second “Hunger Games” story takes place in and around water, the third is set largely underground – giving Wilmington’s Screen Gems Studios a great chance at landing the stage work, Syrett said.

And in Hildebran, the mayor cites another hopeful Hunger Games spin-off: She’s gotten calls about using the town for a horror movie.

Shaffer: 919-829-4818

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