Oprah-backed series boosts Charlotte film scene

 In April 2021

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Warner Bros.’ new TV series Delilah, filmed and set in Charlotte, puts the queen city in the spotlight.


No one’s calling Charlotte the “Hollywood of the South.” But the Queen City is the backdrop for a high-profile television project.

Delilah

Teaser for the Charlotte-based series Delilah

This time, it’s a Warner Bros. TV series executive produced by Oprah Winfrey. Delilah, which began filming last October, focuses on the titular character — a principled Black lawyer and single mom — played by Maahra Hill (Black-ish, How to Get Away With Murder) and her best friend, played by Jill Marie Jones (Girlfriends).

The series premiered on Winfrey’s OWN network in March. What sets it apart from Shallow Hal, Homeland, The Hunger Games and other films and TV series shot in North Carolina is that Charlotte isn’t a stand-in for another place: Delilah is set in the state’s largest city.

“Just like Baltimore plays an important role in the series The Wire, the city of Charlotte is actually a character in this storyline,” Braxton Winston says. As an at-large member of Charlotte’s City Council, Winston has a vested interest in Charlotte’s economic development. He works with the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority and the Charlotte Regional Film Commission to land projects such as Delilah. As a member of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Union, his interest is also personal. This is his industry; he worked on set as a rigging grip and set grip.

Charles Randolph-Wright, a Duke University alum who grew up near Charlotte in York, S.C., is also an executive producer and among the directors. Randolph-Wright, who is in his mid-60s, was the first Black student to earn the university’s prestigious Angier B. Duke Memorial Scholarship. He later studied in London with the Royal Shakespeare Co. and danced with Alvin Ailey in New York. He’s been on Broadway (part of the Dreamgirls original cast), directed Broadway musicals (Motown), acted on TV sets (Melrose Place) and written for the stage.

ENTERTAINMENT IS BIG BUSINESS

The series was approved for North Carolina’s film and entertainment grant fund — which replaced the former incentive program — and is expected to spark direct spending of more than $20 million. The state offers producers financial rebates of as much as 25% on qualified expenses. To be eligible, a television series must have average in-state expenses of at least $1 million per episode. Feature films require at least $3 million in spending.

“Had the rebate not been available, then Delilah would not have really considered North Carolina,” says Guy Gaster, director of the North Carolina Film Office, which is a unit of the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina.

Seven years ago, the N.C. legislature replaced the incentive program with a smaller grant program. Ending the incentive program meant productions (and talent) left the state — many for Georgia. “Over the past few years in particular, people in the state’s film and TV industry have been challenged,” Winston says. “But in Charlotte, we are skilled, creative and determined to get things done.”

Beth Petty, director of the Charlotte Regional Film Commission, makes that case all the time. Warner Bros. phoned her last February, sent her a Delilah script and started asking about locations and local crew availability.

Petty essentially acts as Charlotte’s talent agent. When producers need to know if the city could appear pastoral and dreamy enough for a Hallmark movie, she’s the one they call. When they wonder if Charlotte could look like a post-apocalyptic hellscape (The Hunger Games), Petty has to know if such a setting can be found.

“We’re an information hub,” she says. “They want to know about locations, but they also want to know what crews will be available to them when they start shooting.”

Charlotte’s can-do spirit was essential when it came to filming during a pandemic.

“We don’t just have a TV series that’s been filmed here,” Winston says. “We have a COVID-compliant TV series that’s been filmed here. We figured out how to get that done with very little actual infrastructure ahead of time. So, as the proverbial Hollywood — whether it’s [Los Angeles], Atlanta [or] New York — tries to figure out how to do these things, we have a product that we could go out and sell. And that means something in the marketplace of ideas.”

There were 14 people on the Delilah set dedicated just to COVID-19 safety, Petty says. A consortium of industry guilds and unions created guidelines for productions, with each individual production taking additional safety measures, Gaster says. “There’s a lot of testing that goes on. There’s the use of [personal protective equipment]. And there are a lot of measures employees are asked to follow — not only on set, but also when they’re off set — to keep cast and crew safe.”

Gaster makes a persuasive argument for how vital the film industry is to the state’s economy.

“It’s great when the state lands a corporate headquarters or a manufacturing plant,” he says. “But those job numbers and actual boots on the ground may not take place for several years. Once the announcement is made [by the Film Commission], they’ve already hired their locals and are spending millions of dollars right away. There’s a quick economic impact.”

Gaster says many people don’t get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of how jobs are created through film projects, whether for TV or movies.

“There are people behind the camera you will never see on screen. This is a sector that offers well-paid jobs. And it’s a pretty clean industry in terms of the footprint they leave.”

Winston is hoping Delilah is a bellwether for Charlotte. “The challenge is: How do we create infrastructure here? How do we create an environment where these productions don’t just come, do their job and pack up and leave? I’d like to see perpetual production happening in Charlotte.”

Randolph-Wright promises Charlotteans will see familiar faces in Delilah. He told Mayor Vi Lyles he wanted her to make at least a cameo appearance. He hinted that Braxton Winston has some screen time.

Winston was asked, “Do you play yourself, or do you play a character?”

He gave a politician’s answer: “Well, I am a character, right?” ■

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