In April 2018

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North Carolina contributed $3 million to produce Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Martin McDonagh, right, directed the surprise hit whose cast included Oscar winner Frances McDormand, left, and Peter Dinklage.

By Mark Washburn

Emissaries from North Carolina returned to Hollywood late last year, fishing for movie projects with alluring bait: free money. Our on-again, off-again courtship of producers made a comeback after lawmakers restored incentives for which only the film business is eligible.

Movies are magic, it is said, and only one other explanation seems to fit the peculiar lust we show for this singular industry — that we have tumbled off the turnip truck onto our heads.

Big-money subsidies for film ended after 2014, when the state tossed $81 million at various productions. When North Carolina capped film incentives at $10 million a year, producers fled to other Southern film colonies such as Georgia and Louisiana. There, pixie-dust glitter still works wonders and reaps big payouts.

Proponents say breaks to studios have economic resonance. Look at The Hunger Games, filmed in western North Carolina in 2012, they say. Sure, the state pitched in $13.7 million, but the production team spent $55 million here. Or Iron Man 3, filmed mostly in Wilmington in 2012: It received $20 million in state support but spent $81 million.

When you add in the mystic multiplier effect — a perplexing economic superstition that every dollar paid in wages gets spent locally three or more times on goods, services or corn dogs at Circle K — you’re talking about real impact, supporters say.

Opponents look at the numbers through another lens. Why is the state paying producers $80,000 to film a commercial about medical colossus Novant Health? Or $331,000 — roughly a quarter of the production budget — for a Mountain Dew ad starring Dale Earnhardt Jr.?

More to the point, what kind of jobs are these? When the Showtime TV series Homeland came to Charlotte, it stayed for two years and provided regular employment to hundreds of workers for months at a time. Wilmington-based Dawson’s Creek stayed for six seasons and One Tree Hill for nine.

But most of the jobs are transitory and irregular. Set carpenters are needed for a while, as are caterers, drivers and production assistants. Jobs vanish when the project wraps. Stars like Claire Danes or Robert Downey Jr. depart as soon as the lines are read. (Though in fairness, Dale Jr. has stayed put.)

So, no — these are not mortgage-paying jobs. They are like summer restaurant gigs at the beach. Incentives are required nowadays to lure industry, but the film business isn’t a long play. Its glamour is its attraction, and one quickly finds it’s no deeper than a streetscape facade.

Incentives don’t guarantee success, even in attracting big payrolls for skilled jobs. North Carolina offered $1.5 billion in incentives for a Toyota-Mazda plant, virtually guaranteeing the automaker’s development costs over time. But it went to Alabama, which offered $380 million in incentives, because the industry there is mature and the supply chain is in place.

Likewise, it was North Carolina’s rural beauty — not a relatively small $3 million incentive covering about a fifth of production costs — that drew one low-budget, independent filmmaker to Sylva, 50 miles west of Asheville, in 2016.

In hindsight, the incentive was immaterial. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has already earned more than $125 million at the box office. But aside from memories of the spotlight, nothing from the production remains behind, not even the billboards.

Reach Mark at mwashburn76@gmail.com

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