Rogers: Making movies about more than money to Wilmington

In this image released by Lionsgate, Jennifer Lawrence portrays Katniss Everdeen, left, and Liam Hemsworth portrays Gale Hawthorne in a scene from "The Hunger Games."
In this image released by Lionsgate, Jennifer Lawrence portrays Katniss Everdeen, left, and Liam Hemsworth portrays Gale Hawthorne in a scene from "The Hunger Games." AP

Dumb people, like clumsy puppies on Facebook, have a certain entertainment value. Who has not smiled when watching two ol’ boys driving down the highway while trying to hold a mattress on top of some beat up old car?

Such well-intentioned but poorly thought out efforts rarely succeed.

Which brings us to the 2014 session of the North Carolina legislature and the brouhaha over incentives for the film industry.

To hear the tea party faithful in the Big House tell it, limousines filled with cigar smoking Hollywood executives were pulling up to the state treasury and filling their trunks with cash money ripped from the hands of starving widows.

And they’re liberals! The horror!

So rather than tweaking a film incentive program that refunded 25 percent of some filmmaking expenses – while the state’s workers, businesses and governments pocketed the other 75 percent – these dimwitted guardians of democracy decided that getting nothing was better than getting something so they scrapped the whole deal. Now, beginning Jan. 1, there’s a measly $10 million to be handed out to filmmakers.

That’s insulting chump change, like leaving a nickel tip for a surly waiter.

This has been the talk of the Wilmington area where we now hang our hats. Some semi-hysterical film supporters see an economic apocalypse looming with movie and television folks departing for greener pastures, i.e. Georgia, which is boosting its film incentives, or staying in California where incentives are being doubled. Even calmer folks struggle to see what good can come from essentially gutting an industry that, by most estimates, hires 4,200 folks or so.

Like me.

You probably didn’t see my debut on TV’s “Sleepy Hollow” last year. But that fleeting shot of my elbow and my bald spot was the stuff of television legend. And who can forget my moving portrayal of “A Sweaty Old Man in the Distance Walking Along the River” in one of this season’s “Sleepy Hollow” episodes? And Hollywood insiders are already starting the Oscar buzz for my “Man with Lunchbox Crossing The Street” performance in the soon-to-be released movie “The Longest Ride” featuring my co-star Alan Alda.

The riff-raff calls us “extras,” but we prefer the more elegant “background artists” and there are a lot of us. And we work hard for very little pay. The going rate around here is $8 an hour with a guarantee of eight hours. The area’s most recent film, “Bolden,” is paying $12 an hour for 12 hours. But most of those hours are at night ... all night.

It is astounding how many people it takes to create a film. While there are some folks who fly in from California, most are local folks.

Wilmington is well known in the industry for having top-notch crews. These folks build sets, feed casts and crews (and even starving background artists), drive trucks and blow stuff up. Just recently the hustling “Bolden” wardrobe crew outfitted several hundred extras in 1905-era costumes for an all-night shoot.

There was a medic on hand for the “Longest Ride” shoot, plus a bunch of cowboys and animals for a rodeo scene. Any film shoot requires a fleet of vehicles including semis, vans and cars, and more than 100 people working cameras, lights, sound, sets, props, costumes, traffic control, security and safety (firetrucks are not uncommon).

During a recent shoot, there was one woman designated to hold an umbrella over the female lead’s head so the blistering sun wouldn’t melt her makeup between shots. That would have delayed filming even more.

It’s not just about money

Local vintage automobile owners rent their rides for period films. Houses, farms and entire towns get in the show biz game around here. Stephen King’s “Under the Dome” uses Burgaw as the fictional Chester’s Mill, Maine. Our church just rented our sanctuary for a day so the actors and crews would have a place to eat while filming in the neighborhood. Empty warehouses in tiny Rocky Point are transformed into sound stages and costume shops. We’ve grown used to blocked streets and the ubiquitous white trucks lining the curb.

But moviemaking in Wilmington is, or darn well should be, about more than the dollars and cents going into or out of state coffers. It is about our quality of life, about the excellent restaurants the film industry supports, about the tourists who come to see where favored movies and TV shows were made and about the visitors who are happily surprised when they come upon a crew shooting a scene.

Would-be film stars make our theater community sparkle. I was working along the waterfront last summer, and tourists were eagerly offering to volunteer to be part of the crowd scenes. Just for the fun of it. We all need some razzle-dazzle in our lives, something Eastern North Carolina has been short of in recent years. The film industry has put a light in our town’s eyes and a spring in our steps.

And film folks have been good neighbors while they’re in town. Just recently “The Choice” wrapped up production of the Nicholas Sparks book of the same name. But before they left town, some of the production crew went to Paw’s Place, a local no-kill animal shelter, and dropped off donations of leftover blankets, linens, dog toys and much-needed office furniture. Thanks, folks.

A vibrant film industry is something all North Carolinians should brag about, something to display proudly and something worthy of our avid support instead of being sacrificed to the tea party belief that “Less is more.”

No, less is just less. Folks who should have known better have intentionally lessened this little shining corner of North Carolina, a place where dreams still await around every corner, at least for a little while longer.