2015 in review: Film industry faces hurdles, hopes for resurgence

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2015 began with film industry supporters coming together at EUE/Screen Gems Studios to hear an announcement by local officials of a unified approach to upping the state's film grant fund. Photo by Hilary Snow.
2015 began with film industry supporters coming together at EUE/Screen Gems Studios to hear an announcement by local officials of a unified approach to upping the state’s film grant fund. Photo by Hilary Snow.

The local film industry has had a year that has many of the makings of a cinematic drama–tragedies, challenges and signs of hope that a happy ending will come, after all.

The year began with the expiration of the state’s film tax incentive program and an almost immediate call to action among Wilmington’s government and industry leaders to boost the N.C. Film and Entertainment grant program that replaced the incentive.

Under the former incentives, productions that spent at least $250,000 got a 25 percent tax break, with a maximum per production of $20 million. In its place, a scaled-down, limited grant fund capped the amount of credits to an annual $10 million statewide, with a per-production limit of $5 million for feature films and TV shows and $250,000 for commercials.

After three seasons of filming in and around Wilmington, including here at New Hanover High School, 'Under the Dome' was not renewed for a fourth season. File photo.
After three seasons of filming in and around Wilmington, including here at New Hanover High School, ‘Under the Dome’ was not renewed for a fourth season. File photo.

The locally filmed CBS series, “Under the Dome,” was a major beneficiary of the grant program, receiving about half of the total grant allowance for 2015.

However, that investment proved short-lived, as the thriller, based on a Stephen King novel of the same name, became one of a string of Wilmington-based productions to announce their departures in 2015. The announcement in September that CBS would not renew the show for a fourth season came after the Fox series “Sleepy Hollow” and ABC’s “Secrets and Lies” announced their departures from the area for states with stronger tax incentives.

In the midst of the exodus, state lawmakers–notably Sen. Michael Lee and Rep. Ted Davis–were pushing for beefed up spending for film. Lee and Davis, both Republicans who represent New Hanover County, introduced companion bills to up the current funding level to $66 million because, Lee said in an earlier interview, they “felt that was the correct number.”

While that amount was never given much consideration, the House version of the 2015-16 budget, approved in late May, was promising: It threw in an allotment of $40 million for filming, a move that made Davis “ecstatic.” But the Senate was not as willing, at least at first, to get on board, opting in its initial version of the budget in June to keep funding levels static in the new fiscal year.

In the end, the two houses reached a compromise of $30 million annually for the film industry. While it was a far cry from the glory days of tax incentives, industry leaders like Johnny Griffin, director of the Wilmington Film Commission, called it a good first step on the road to repair.

“We’re excited that the legislature has decided to extend the film incentive and increase the investment from last year.” he said back in September. “Now, we plan to work hard to put that money to good use.”

And, Griffin said just this month that word has reached Hollywood of the grant program change, a positive sign moving into 2016. The year ended with some promising news: TNT’s “Good Behavior,” which shot its pilot in Wilmington, was picked up for nine more episodes and will return to the Port City early next year to begin filming.

A welcome sign to round out 2015 was the filming of the TNT drama, 'Good Behavior,' which shot its pilot in Wilmington in October. The show was picked up for nine episodes, which will all be filmed locally beginning early next year. Photo by Hilary Snow.
A welcome sign to round out 2015 was the filming of the TNT drama, ‘Good Behavior,’ which shot its pilot in Wilmington in October. The show was picked up for nine episodes, which will all be filmed locally beginning early next year. Photo by Hilary Snow.

Even through some darker times this year, there were a couple hints that Wilmington’s arts scene would continue to grow and evolve, no matter what. For one, UNC-Wilmington unveiled in April its plans to add a Master of Fine Arts in filmmaking by 2017. While acknowledging the decline in filming, Dave Monahan, professor and chair of the film studies department, was hopeful that decline was only temporary.

“I’ve seen [film] declared dead before and it’s always come back. And our program has already thrived even during dead times,” he said. “We’re trying to look toward the future with this program and create…media makers that can work in a wide variety of motion picture applications. We think that if we can train people to tell stories and communicate with images that there’s a lot of opportunities even beyond the film industry.”

And long-running indie film festival, Cucalorus, went into its 21st event with the addition of an emerging business conference and showcase meant to bring artist and entrepreneurs more closely together.

Hilary Snow is a reporter at Port City Daily. Reach her at hilary.s@portcitydaily.com.