From 1936 to 1942, photographer H. Lee Waters traveled across North Carolina shooting 16 mm silent films of the state’s people. Later, Waters would return to the town in which he’d shot a particular film and screen it at a local movie theater as a special attraction.
In all, Waters screened more than 250 of what he called “Movies of Local People” in 118 towns, most of them in North Carolina, allowing thousands of North Carolinians to see themselves and their communities on film, many of them for the first time. These films were shown during some of the toughest years of the Great Depression, and seeing themselves and their communities as being worthy of the big screen no doubt buoyed citizens’ hopes for the future as well as the pride they took in the places they called home.
Now it’s hard to imagine whole communities of people who haven’t seen themselves in some kind of motion picture, but recent changes to North Carolina’s tax incentives make it likely that the state’s residents will never again see their cities and towns on the big – or small – screen. This is heartbreaking for North Carolinians because so many of the nation’s most beloved films have been shot wholly or at least partially in the state.
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According to visitnc.com, since 1980 over 800 films have been shot in North Carolina, many of which are considered icons of American film: “Forrest Gump,” “Last of the Mohicans,” “The Color Purple,” “The Fugitive.” North Carolina has also produced some of pop culture’s most memorable television shows, including “Matlock,” “Dawson’s Creek” and “One Tree Hill.”
As a native North Carolinian who spent 10 homesick years living in Louisiana and West Virginia before getting the opportunity to return home, I’ve experienced the buoying sense of hope and pride when beholding my native soil as it’s portrayed on the screen: the exhilaration of seeing the lush, green mountains of North Carolina in a darkened theater on a sweltering Louisiana afternoon; the nostalgic comfort of taking in a North Carolina coastal sunset on a snowy night in West Virginia. These experiences not only took me back home, they also showed how beautiful my home is to people who haven’t been fortunate enough to experience it firsthand.
But the film and television industry in North Carolina isn’t something that makes me feel good just about the beauty of my native state; it also makes me feel good about my state’s financial security. A recent study of North Carolina film incentives conducted by N.C. State University’s Poole College of Management found that from 2007 to 2012 every $1 in tax credits led to $9 in spending, which resulted in $1.50 of tax revenue that went directly into state coffers. In 2012 alone, $60 million in tax credits yielded a positive cash flow of $25 million back to the state. It must also be pointed out that the NCSU study found that the state’s film incentive program helped maintain 4,200 permanent jobs in North Carolina with an average yearly salary of $66,000.
Over the past year, there has been a concerted effort in North Carolina’s GOP-led legislature to end the state’s film incentives in favor of a cumbersome grant program that will offer only a fraction of the current incentives for film and television. Months ago, rumors of what is now becoming reality drove productions out of North Carolina to more film-friendly states like Louisiana, Georgia and California. As the deadline to extend the state’s film incentives draws nearer, the exodus of production companies is increasing exponentially. There are already rumors that Nicholas Sparks’ film “The Choice,” which is scheduled to be filmed in Wilmington this fall, will be the state’s final production.
This is especially sad news for me as my second novel “This Dark Road to Mercy” was recently optioned for film. The novel is set primarily in my hometown of Gastonia, an old mill town just west of Charlotte, and the film’s director has been planning to travel to North Carolina to scout film locations, but those plans are on hold. Gastonia and Gaston County lag far behind neighboring counties in job production and economic development, and it would mean a lot to residents and local businesses to see their town on the big screen. I know it would mean a lot to me.
But now there is a very good chance that Gastonia will be moved to Louisiana, Georgia or California. When moviegoers see my hometown on the screen, they’ll be seeing something that isn’t real, which is what we expect of the movies but not what we expect of the places we know and love – and certainly not what we expect of the politicians who could keep this from happening.
There is hope that Gov. Pat McCrory will convene a special session to revisit the possibility of extending the state’s film incentives. If he refuses, McCrory will be party to a legislature that annually gives away $25 million to Louisiana, Georgia and California. The governor and the state GOP will have stood by and watched while 4,200 permanent jobs leave the state. They will have remained in their seats with empty popcorn buckets in their hands as the houselights come up and North Carolina’s silver screen darkens forever.
Wiley Cash of Wilmington is a New York Times bestselling author of “A Land More Kind Than Home” and “This Dark Road to Mercy.”