Stars Aligned for North Carolina's Film Industry


WILMINGTON -- The stars have aligned at once. 

    Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Hilary Swank, Jennifer Aniston, Julianne Hough and Josh Duhamel all are filming movies in Wilmington or nearby Southport, causing a stir every time they go out in public. 

    It's the best sign yet that the movie industry is making a blockbuster comeback in the Wilmington area and throughout much of North Carolina. 

    Once hailed as "Hollywood East," Wilmington had lost some of its movie-making luster to other states and Canada, which lured filmmakers with business incentives. 

    But two years ago, the North Carolina General Assembly fought back with a big incentives package of its own, allowing a 25 percent tax credit to production companies spending more than $250,000 in the state. 

    The incentives are paying dividends. This year, more than 35 productions will be filmed in 30 North Carolina counties, which translates into more than $300 million spent in the state and the creation of more than 15,000 jobs, including more than 3,300 skilled crew positions. 

    For the first time in its history, all 10 sound stages at Wilmington's EUE/Screen Gems Studios are dedicated to one production, "Iron Man 3" starring Downey and Paltrow. 

    The movie "marks the single-largest film production in our state's history," said Johnny Griffin, director of the Wilmington Regional Film Commission. 

    Of the estimated $300 million the film industry is expected to spend in the state this year, "Iron Man 3" is responsible for $80 million of it, including the creation of about 500 crew jobs and the hiring of more than 1,000 acting extras. 

    "This is definitely a boom time for the North Carolina film industry," Griffin said. 

    The resurgence began last year with the filming of "The Hunger Games" in Asheville. 

    Then came "Iron Man 3" and other high-profile projects, including Aniston's "We're the Millers," the Nicholas Sparks film "Safe Haven," NBC's "Revolution," Showtime's "Homeland," and ABC's "The Bachelorette." 

    North Carolina already has surpassed 2011's record numbers for film and television production spending in the state, the North Carolina Film Office reported July 25. 

    In 2010, film companies spent $43 million in the Wilmington area. That number rocketed to $113 million in 2011. 

    "This year, so far, we're looking at $175 to $195 million spent locally, and there's still time left to recruit more projects," said Guy Gaster, production services executive with the Film Office, which is part of the N.C. Division of Tourism, Film and Sports Development. 


    North Carolina's film boom started in 1983 as a result of the film adaptation of Steven King's "Firestarter." 

    Producers Dino De Laurentiis and Frank Capra Jr. sought a Southern, antebellum-style mansion for one of the film's settings. 

    Capra's search led to Orton Plantation on the Cape Fear River between Wilmington and Southport. 

    The picturesque region resonated with the duo, leading De Laurentiis to establish a film studio near the airport in Wilmington. DEG Studios, named for De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, opened in 1984, the same year "Firestarter" hit theaters and became a surprise success. 

    Other films quickly followed, including "Cat's Eye," another King adaptation; "Year of the Dragon" in 1985; "Blue Velvet, which was set in Lumberton but filmed in Wilmington; and "Crimes of the Heart" in 1986. 

    In 1988, in the face of a flagging financial performance, De Laurentiis sold DEG to Carolco Studios, led by producers Mario Kassar and Andrew Vanja, who are best known for producing the "Terminator" sequels. The pair often rented the complex to outside productions before filing for bankruptcy in 1995. 

    The next year, EUE/Screen Gems bought Carolco Studios, modeling it after its successful satellite in New York. EUE/Screen Gems has remained the region's go-to studio with its 150,000 square feet of stage space. 


    During the peak of North Carolina productions -- from the late 1980s to the early 1990s -- a bevy of films, TV movies and TV series were filmed in the state. 

    "Weekend at Bernie's," "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," "The Crow," "The Hudsucker Proxy" and TV's "Matlock" were produced entirely or in part in the Wilmington coastal region. 

    That period of prolific production led Wilmington to be dubbed "Hollywood East," a nickname that helped the city and state attract more big-budget projects. 

    But by 1997, the pace of major productions had begun to flicker. An aggressive film incentives program offered by Canada led to the loss of film and TV productions in this state. Even stories set in North Carolina were not immune, as the state lost Charles Frazier's "Cold Mountain" to Romania in 2003. 

    "The impact of the tax incentives offered by Canada was immediate," Griffin said. "In the mid-'90s, we averaged 20 to 25 TV movie productions a year. As soon as Canada rolled out their incentives, that number dropped to two, and it literally happened overnight." 

    In Wilmington, a pair of popular TV productions offered a steady economic boost. The WB's "Dawson's Creek" ran from 1998 to 2003, and the CW's "One Tree Hill" was on the air from 2003 to earlier this year. 

    But in general, the late '90s and early 2000s were not as booming as they once were in Wilmington. Production spending dropped from $52 million in 2005 to $37 million in 2006, Griffin said. 

    Other states put together film incentives packages, including Louisiana, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and New Mexico. They remain North Carolina's prime competitors for landing film projects, said Gaster, the Film Office executive. 

    "Before the competing incentives, we were prime players, and that made us rise to the top," Gaster said. "But then other places followed suit, and the race was on." 

    North Carolina did not get into the incentives game until 2006, when then-Gov. Mike Easley signed legislation offering production companies a 15 percent tax credit if they spent a minimum of $250,000 in North Carolina, with a credit cap of $7.5 million. 

    That was a solid first step, attracting such projects as "Nights in Rodanthe" and a pilot for HBO's "Eastbound & Down." Those projects helped raise production spending in Wilmington to $99 million in 2007, Griffin said. 

    But as other states continued to up the ante with more competitive incentives, further action was needed, Griffin said. 

    In 2010, Gov. Bev Perdue signed legislation that provided a 25 percent tax credit to production companies spending more than $250,000 in the state, with a credit cap of $20 million. That includes the purchase of goods and services from North Carolina companies and the payment of work done by employees of the film, Gaster said. Productions receive the credit when filming is complet and after the state has audited expenses. 

    "Our incentives are competitive. They get people's attention when looking to shoot here," Gaster said. "They help defray costs. It's a lot of little cost savings that add up." 

    State lawmakers recently extended the incentive program deadline a year, pushing it back to Jan. 1, 2015. It's a move that could help Wilmington land other big-budget projects. 


    North Carolina still faces fierce competition from other states, 44 of which offer film incentives if some kind. 

    While North Carolina's incentives are a definite draw for productions, they're not the sole reason that filmmaking is roaring back to life, said Bill Vassar, the North Carolina executive vice president of EUE/Screen Gems. 

    Vassar said the sound stages at EUE/Screen Gems, much like their Hollywood counterparts, offer a turnkey operation. That means production companies don't have to worry about the task of setting up offices; it's already done. Film crews can come to Wilmington and hit the ground running, Vassar said. 

    "We also have a tremendous workforce, now in its second generation, that knows how to do the work of the industry. It's in their blood now," Vassar said. 

    When De Laurentiis and Capra established themselves in Wilmington, they had to import everything -- from people to equipment. 

    "That first wave of people fell in love with the area and the low cost of living and settled here," Vassar said. "And now their offspring have grown up in that industry and have the knowledge. You won't find that anywhere else outside of New York or Los Angeles." 

    Gaster said productions save money by not having to hire crews from outside the area. 

    Gaster, Griffin and Vassar said North Carolina's natural resources -- mountains to the west, ocean to the east -- have played a key role in edging out other states for film projects. 

    "Unless the setting is very specific, it really doesn't matter where you film something," Gaster said. "North Carolina is able to offer a lot of locations. We can play middle America, beaches, upstate New York, small towns, vast landscapes, farms -- just about everything other than specific large cities." 


    On a recent weekday, visitors to the Wilmington area could observe filming of "Mary and Martha," an HBO movie starring Oscar winner Hilary Swank, at the New Hanover County Historic Courthouse. 

    "Iron Man 3," meanwhile, has been filming at the EUE/Screen Gems complex, as well as at New Hanover Regional Medical Center and a hardware store. 

    Most filming locations -- especially for "Iron Man 3" -- are kept tightly under wraps, though social media alerts curious onlookers to the whereabouts of stars such as Downey or Paltrow. 

    Meanwhile, 30 miles away in Southport, actors Hough and Duhamel have been filming the latest Nicholas Sparks movie, "Safe Haven," which is set to hit theaters Feb. 8. 

    The increased number of Hollywood stars in the region has raised eyebrows, and hopes, not only of fans but of several local business owners. They see the trickle-down benefits of productions, too, with more tourists seeking out spots where actors have frequented. 

    At Catch seafood restaurant, owners Keith and Angela Rhodes can reap the benefits of feeding the stars themselves. 

    "It's been great to have so many productions here in Wilmington," Keith Rhodes said. "It's certainly given us a bump." 

    Rhodes said an increase in productions will be a boon to local business -- not just restaurants -- and an opportunity for the entire community to benefit. 

    "There's a real buzz here," he said. "I feel like Wilmington is building momentum." 

    The state Film Office hopes to build on that momentum sooner rather than later. Several more productions are set to begin across the state, and more are being recruited. 

    "We have 380 active projects we're working on right now," said Gaster. "We're fielding calls from productions all the time that are looking for the right fit. It's our job to get them here." 

    It's a job Vassar takes seriously. 

    "Once the state, regional and local film offices woo productions here, it's my job to woo them to our stages," Vassar said. "I think this year, more than ever before, we've reclaimed the title of 'Hollywood East.' We have A-list people working here -- crew, production, executives. And when they go to New York and L.A., they'll tell everyone else what a great place Wilmington is to work. And that's why we can't fail."


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