In the ethereal world of the film business, the production vans and catering trucks plying Charlotte’s Plaza-Midwood neighborhood and several others earlier this year represented a tangible success. American Animals, a bank-robbery tale, might be eligible for up to $1.7 million from the state’s $30 million annual kitty used to lure movie and television productions. “It has a United Kingdom production company,” says Guy Gaster, director of FilmNC, the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina’s film-promotion office in Cary. “We recruited it out of Europe.”
The movie, along with an Audi car commercial and the second season of Good Behavior, a television series airing on the TNT network that is being shot in Wilmington, could spend more than $46 million in North Carolina and generate 2,700 short-term jobs this year.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much else going in the state’s once-soaring fantasy industry three years after the North Carolina General Assembly gutted a more generous incentives plan.
“The first question we’re typically asked when someone has a potential project in North Carolina is, ‘What kind of incentives do you offer?’” Gaster says. “As great as our production talent is, as beautiful as our locations are, the industry is still driven by the dollar. It’s mobile, and at the end of the day, they are trying to make as much money as possible. It’s a business, after all.”
Even vaunted infrastructure such as Wilmington’s 50-acre EUE/Screen Gems Studios, the largest outside California, and a large pool of trained production workers can’t compete with raw money, says Johnny Griffin, director of the city’s Regional Film Commission. “We have soundstages here they can go right into, designed specifically for building sets and shooting projects, but they’ll go to Georgia and operate out of a warehouse because incentives make it work for them,” he says. “You’re talking millions of dollars.”
State lawmakers in 2014 scrapped North Carolina’s film incentive plan that went into effect almost a decade earlier, with tax credits refunding as much as 25% of a project’s cost. At the industry’s peak in 2012, production companies were spending more than $375 million in the state, almost half coming that year from the Iron Man 3 flick starring Robert Downey Jr. (It eventually took in more than $1.2 billion at the box office.) In the last two years, producers have put up less than $150 million annually, putting at risk the state’s status as a top filmmaking venue.
The state ranked seventh in the nation, tied with New York, as a filming location based on 2013 activity, according to a Business North Carolina story in 2014. It was fourth in film employees, with 3,569, behind only Louisiana, California and Georgia. North Carolina paid out about $62 million that year, based on productions that spent more than $250 million.
Critics of the original incentives plan attacked the industry’s claims on job creation and other benefits, and the issue split conservatives. Some saw it as an economic driver; others depicted it as a bastion of left-wing politics. Former Gov. Pat McCrory at first praised the industry, saying film productions created 4,000 jobs and 25,000 part-time positions in 2013, then later pushed to rein in the incentives.
The bill passed in 2014 set a $30 million annual limit on state investment, with no more than $5 million to be awarded to major movie productions and up to $9 million awarded for TV series.
While fewer incentives has clearly hurt, less clear is the impact on the industry sparked by 2016’s bathroom law. The General Assembly’s bill requiring persons to use public bathrooms according to their sex at birth attracted international scorn and boycotts by entertainers and other groups. Disney cited HB2 and tax-credit issues for not producing its ABC network’s American Crime series here, though the current season is set in North Carolina.
“Obviously any factor that makes North Carolina less attractive is bad,” Griffin says, “but it’s hard to separate it out.” Now, the industry is pinning its hopes on Gov. Roy Cooper, the Democrat who defeated McCrory in November. Through spokeswoman Noelle Talley, Cooper says the state’s creative economy would get more bang from a film tax incentives program similar to the 2006 version, to encourage productions that “pump millions of dollars into local economies.”
Cooper’s proposal would allow tax-based incentives of up to $12 million for feature films, $9 million for TV series and up to $1 million per television episode. There would be no annual cap on spending. First, though, the measure will have to pass a legislature that includes many critics of film incentives.
In the industry’s heydays, world travel writers regularly interviewed Wilmington’s Griffin. “They always wanted to talk about our film industry,” he says. “We don’t get those calls anymore.”