If Gov. Pat McCrory and the General Assembly don’t reinstate North Carolina’s film incentive program immediately, they most certainly will go down in history as the team that brought down the curtain on an industry that began nearly 60 years ago when Grace Kelly filmed “The Swan” at Biltmore Estate in Asheville.
But that was a different time. That was when movie-making was, believe it not, simpler.
In 1978, “Being There,” a film starring Peter Sellers and Shirley MacLaine, also filmed at Biltmore Estate. It was a time when the film industry shot on location simply because of the location – for the sake of movie magic. But now the film industry chooses its locations for the sake of movie budgets.
From the early days of film-making in North Carolina, our state’s industry innocently depended on its scenic beauty to attract filmmakers. But in the 1980s and 1990s, the industry matured, and our state humbly and willingly began to cultivate an industry.
Italian film producer Dino De Laurentiis chose North Carolina to build a film studio in the 1970s, and his vision for a film industry here thrived. He began making movies in North Carolina by hiring, training and building a Tar Heel work force. Hollywood began making films in North Carolina not just because of beautiful locations, friendly faces and barbecue but because North Carolina had an industry with skilled workers, resources, infrastructure and, yes, Hollywood-worthy locations. North Carolina was the only state east of California competing with California and New York City. It was a proud time.
Film incentives began sweeping the country in the early 2000s, and North Carolina’s industry began to wilt. More states wanted a piece of the pie, and it’s no mystery why. The film industry has a ripple effect that doesn’t really exist anywhere else in nature. By investing in its own movie-making infrastructure, the film industry invests in communities, funding small businesses, employing thousands of people, showcasing communities and improving the very fabric of a community and an entire state by pumping thousands upon millions of dollars into local economies.
And film-making is a clean industry with minimal environmental impact and maximum sustainable economic impact. And because it isn’t going anywhere (so to speak), it goes where it can save the most money.
In 2002 Louisiana was the first state to enact film incentives, and North Carolina’s film industry workforce fled for Louisiana because filming here was too expensive by comparison. Other Southeast states followed suit, and suddenly North Carolina had competition.
Within a matter of years, North Carolina’s skilled film industry workers were in Louisiana, South Carolina and Georgia because they had no choice but to follow the work. Though this loss is sad, the loss of economic development opportunity is more painful.
Banking at first on our state’s beauty and film pedigree, N.C. began offering a 15 percent tax incentive to production companies, but it was a gesture a few years behind the bandwagon. It wasn’t competitive. Productions were overlooking North Carolina altogether. The writing was on the wall. The studios were empty. The industry workforce was literally leaving North Carolina in droves in search of work, and filmmaker budgets were proving that it would be cheaper to hire and transport North Carolina’s workforce to Georgia, which offered a 30 percent tax break, than to do any filming in North Carolina.
Desperate to maintain a stronghold on a dwindling war horse industry, North Carolina’s legislature increased its film incentive offering to 25 percent in 2009. As predicted beginning in 2010, filmmakers returned to North Carolina in swells, and the rest is recent history: Film incentives saved North Carolina’s industry, and the state is once again one of Hollywood’s top choices.
Over the past four years, North Carolina has continued to expand its film incentives and obviously has seen a surge of film and television productions. No matter how you slice it, film incentives are an investment in economic development in a very competitive and lucrative arena.
Film and TV production is as embedded in North Carolina as tourism, ACC basketball and barbecue. Surely McCrory and the men and women of our General Assembly can find a competitive solution that will sustain our film-making future.
Sallie Hedrick Bowman, a former actress, was a production executive in the North Carolina Film Office 2007-2009. She lives in Wake Forest.