Jim Jenkins

Jenkins: Without incentives, it's a wrap for NC film industry

Last week, the North Carolina Museum of History marked the opening of an exhibit on the film industry in North Carolina with a black-tie event designed to kick off a celebration of movies made in the state. A woman in Oscar gold twirled on a ribbon in the museum’s foyer. Upstairs, posters and costumes and DVDs were laid out detailing the films made in Tar Heelia.

It’s no short list. The state has been in the business of drawing movie-makers large and small for over 30 years. And the industry has spent at this point hundreds of millions of dollars in the state, many of those dollars hiring local people, buying from local businesses and renting countless hotel rooms.

There’s an intangible benefit, of course, known as “buzz.” When a film company comes to town, and the stars come out, a community of any size is absorbed in the experience. (Not that long ago, Oscar-winner Colin Firth filmed a scene or two right across from The News & Observer. The cell phones of staffers, including your correspondent, were tied up with friends, most of them women, wanting details of what Firth was like, etc. I told them he wore a toupee and platform shoes; when threats were made, I confessed the more flattering truth.)

Ever since the late Bonnie Mount of Durham, mother of movie producer Thom Mount, wrote a letter to the state Department of Commerce long ago suggesting that the film industry would be a good one for North Carolina, the state has enjoyed success with its Film Office.

It was no mean feat, considering that once North Carolina and others got in the game, most states with a variety of landscapes have competed heavily for the movie business, offering all sorts of economic incentives to bring Hollywood East.

Here, literally from the mountains to the coast, the movies made in part or in all within North Carolina’s borders include “Bull Durham,” “Days of Thunder,” “The Color Purple,” “Dirty Dancing,” “Last of the Mohicans” and “The Hunger Games.” Several hundred films in all have included footage from North Carolina.

The state has been using a tax rebate program for movie and television producers as an incentive, and it’s worked. Even with increased competition (Georgia has been aggressive in marketing itself to filmmakers) the state has seemed to hold its own.

But now Republican legislative leaders, following their mantra of “If it’s working, for goodness sakes, change it...” have altered the incentives to create a “grant” program that sounds more difficult for movie makers to negotiate and will likely mean less to them financially.

For all the talk among legislators about how companies shouldn’t have to be paid to work in North Carolina and how the state has much to offer and how filmmakers are going to come anyway, the talk last week, in hushed tones as the fine museum party flowed, was of doubt.

And with good reason. Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia and other states have mountains and ocean and all sorts of typography in between. Many have agreeable weather. And some even have places such as Wilmington, cities where the film industry has established some permanent offices and supply lines.

If North Carolina curbs its incentive program, the film industry simply will not come here. The business will be finished here, period. Directors and actors may talk about their “art,” and their “motivation” and all that, but the decisions on location are made by people in New York and Los Angeles who rightly or wrongly have come to expect states to pony up some incentives in terms of tax rebates and the like and are not talking to Robert De Niro about his muse.

Thom Mount told North Carolina officials years ago: “The movies are a great business for the state. It’s a clean industry that comes to town, spends a lot of money, and then leaves.”

It’s true. I was in one movie, “The Angel Doll,” some years back playing Santa Claus in scenes filmed in Burgaw, in Pender County to the east. The movie company bought supplies and didn’t ask what things cost. The disruption was minimal, and the townspeople loved it. (My career ended quickly. Jealousy on the part of fellow leading man-type George Clooney was rumored.)

The state does better than break even with the rebate program, but even if it didn’t it would be worth it. North Carolina ought to be moving to grow its film program. If anything, incentives should be boosted. Things are rolling. Why yell, “Cut!”?