In 1997, I was a graduate student at the newly minted MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. A year earlier, film producer Frank Capra Jr. had become president of EU Screen Gems. Our writers were excited about the film industry being in Wilmington. The film people were kindred spirits. In a different medium, they were artists, too.
There was a feeling that something big was happening. People came from all over to be a part of film production. Wilmington was no longer just a city in North Carolina. It was bursting with culture and seemed so cosmopolitan, so alive, a place to thrive.
The industry liked the city, over the years filming such critically acclaimed movies as “Blue Velvet, “Lolita” and “Crimes of the Heart.”
The film industry became a part of the city’s identity and a big player in its economy.
In 2000, there was competition from states that put money away to lure the film business.
In 2005, the North Carolina General Assembly began an incentives program to keep up with the aggressive suitors.
In 2014, after proponents of film incentives waged an intense debate, the N.C. General Assembly ended its 25 percent tax credits on spending and instead offered $10 million in grants.
The N.C. film industry quickly left for Georgia and Louisiana, states that offered a lot more.
Wilmington’s people have been caught up in a high-stakes game of economic one-upmanship, and there is now widespread fallout.
When Louisiana entered into a debate about whether to keep its incentives, state Sen. J.P. Morrell said, “We’re closely watching North Carolina. The entire film industry abandoned North Carolina overnight. North Carolina is a graveyard.”
Wilmington’s local newspaper ran a Sunday front-page headline, “Boom times are over.”
Fatigue and disbelief affect the locals today. When film incentives became an issue in the legislature, many industry workers joined the political fight. The locals held rallies. They called legislators; they were glued to news about the lawmakers’ actions.
When their passionate activism wasn’t enough, some turned away from politics. It did not save their jobs or keep a beloved industry in Wilmington. What use was it?
N.C. legislators had heard the dire warnings. They had been alerted that the filming might end. They had heard that 4,000 workers might lose their jobs. Nobody seemed to really listen or believe things would get so bad.
Film workers express shock over how quickly Wilmington changed from being “Hollywood East” and “Wilmywood” to a film desert. Most film workers knew that a production’s profit was important, but few expected the film industry to leave a city where it had spent nearly 30 years. Most people expected some loyalty to the area.
The people of Wilmington believed that theirs was a special city, a city of history and natural beauty. How could the film industry replace its preserved Victorian homes? How could it replace its sandy shorelines and wild, rolling ocean? It was the Port City, its downtown built along the Cape Fear River. Wilmington was a home to film because of its attractiveness. Few believed that a good bottom line was all it had to offer.
“I never thought (the loss of) incentives would change so much,” former film student Leigh Wiley said.
The city had done everything right. It heartily cooperated with the industry. It cordoned off bustling streets when productions were filming. The locals became accustomed to seeing film crews at work. Some residents even rented out space for sets.
The film industry showed an interest in the community, too, and in its university. UNCW Department of Film Studies’ Chairman David M. Monahan notes, “Our Film Studies Program was initiated largely by Frank Capra Jr., one of the players responsible for bringing feature film and television production to Wilmington and North Carolina.”
Wilmington’s Star-News reports that some N.C. film workers are following the jobs to Georgia. Some haven’t given up hope and are waiting for “a sign of goodwill” from lawmakers. Some predict the film industry will go on in the city, in a lesser way. Folks will adjust.
I wrote my first novel in Wilmington. For me, and for people who were a part of the film industry’s heyday, the city will always be a city of art and realized big dreams.
Kristine Kaiser of Kure Beach writes an occasional “Letter from the East” column.