After ‘Iron Man’ – Indie projects’ impact on the film industry and local economy

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Taking the Wilmington film industry into his own hands: director Chic Scaparo on the set of "Beatrice," a independent short film made by Wilmington filmmakers. (Photo Benjamin Schachtman)
Taking the Wilmington film industry into his own hands: director Chic Scaparo on the set of ‘Beatrice,’ an independent short film made by Wilmington filmmakers. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

NORTH TOPSAIL BEACH – Marvel’s “Iron Man 3” was the topic of conversation, as a dozen Wilmington-area filmmakers crowded behind the camera between takes.

The filmmakers were members of Dogma Cape Fear, a local film cooperative, working to film Dogma member’s Chic Scaparo’s short film “Beatrice.” The apartment – like nearly everything else on set, from the camera to a prop gun to actors – was donated to accommodate what Scaparo called “the film’s shoe-string budget.”

The location wasn’t far north from where Marvel’s $200 million film shot its climactic scenes in 2012, but the film industry in the Wilmington area looks much different today, according to Scaparo.

“There aren’t any more $200 million projects in the area. People are leaving. We’ve seen people driving down to Georgia, but that’s a brutal … commute. Eventually, they’re moving away. We’re doing what we can to keep the talent here,” Scaparo said.

In many ways, films like “Iron Man 3” dominate the public conversation about film. Production in the Wilmington area pumped nearly $180 million in the local economy and created about 2,000 jobs, just as Republicans in Raleigh set their sights on ending the film tax-credit program (as reported at the time).

Marvel’s ‘Iron Man 3’ had a budget of $200 million; Chic Scaparo’s ‘Beatrice’ had a budget of $3,000. This prop gun and North Carolina distilled Defiant whiskey, like nearly everything else on the set, were donated. (Photo Benjamin Schachtman)
Marvel’s ‘Iron Man 3’ had a budget of $200 million; Chic Scaparo’s ‘Beatrice’ had a budget of $3,000. This prop gun and North Carolina distilled Defiant whiskey, like nearly everything else on the set, were donated. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

“Iron Man” set high standards for what the Wilmington area could expect from the film industry, but it also obscured the contribution independent film makes to the area.

Five years since the Marvel left town, the indie projects are still here. Though Governor Roy Cooper’s budget suggests a return to the pre-Pat McCrory film incentives, many local filmmakers feel that indie projects get left out of the equation no matter who is in charge in Raleigh, according to Scaparo.

“The big films left, and that’s what they cared about,” Scaparo said. “They’re talking about bringing them back, and that’s great, but if you’re going to give $50 million (in tax refunds) to one film, why not give one million to fifty smaller films?”

Both the current film grant system and Cooper’s proposed return to the incentive system require films to spend a minimum of $5 million. “Beatrice” had a budget of $3,000 dollars; Scaparo’s “dream budget” for his next film project, a feature-length film, would be one million dollars, only 20 percent of the minimum to qualify for state aid.

After “Iron Man 3” filmed in 2012, Johnny Griffin, director of the Wilmington Regional Film Commission, told Port City Daily about “small independent projects – $5 million – that have done very well.” Scaparo said, “that’s a really big number for independent film.”

Scaparo explained that it set a difficult threshold for indie filmmakers trying to scale up from short films to features.

Chris Varner, Scaparo's director of photography, is a 25-year veteran who worked - and provided camera equipment - for free. (Photo Benjamin Schachtman)
Chris Varner, Scaparo’s director of photography, is a 25-year veteran who worked – and provided camera equipment – for free. Varner said, “we’ve got the equipment to shoot footage that’s as good, or better, than big budget films.” (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

“Working on ‘Beatrice,’ everything was donated. The apartment was donated, the actors donated their talent, Chris Varner, our DP (director of photography) donated his camera and some really high-end lenses,” Scaparo said.

“That was [expletive] amazing, and it was a great shoot, but we couldn’t sustain that for a feature-length shoot. We’d obviously need to find some funding,” Scaparo said. “The thing is, we could make a beautiful film for a million dollars. We wouldn’t need a five million – why would we spend five times as much as we need?”

Scaparo said the way both film grants and incentives exclude independent films was a frustration for local filmmakers. He said independent films have the same kind of impact on the economy as big productions.

“Something I wish I could explain to the people who control the flow of this film money is this … the money for independent film isn’t going to special effects or huge actor salaries. That money is going to cast and crew, and then we spend that money here, where we live. That money goes right back into the community. Are we spending crazy money like Hollywood actors, no. But we’re also making way more films. I really don’t know why that’s such a difficult concept for people,” Scaparo said.

Scaparo learned most of the production-side skills of film-making on the set of indie films, not at film school. (Photo Benjamin Schachtman)
Scaparo learned most of the production-side skills of film-making on the set of indie films, not at film school. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

In addition to putting money back into the community, indie films also generate the talent pool the industry needs to produce big projects. As Scaparo said, “the thing I think about is this – everyone thinks film is Hollywood. It’s not just the $200 million films. All those filmmakers and actors and DPs (directors of photography) and gaffers didn’t just get good at their jobs. That talent pool comes from somewhere. Without… us, there’d be no one to work those big films.”

Independent film projects, like “Beatrice” and the Dogma Cape Fear shorts provide training that was lacking in film school, according to Scaparo. Many films schools, Scaparo said, school’s focus on “philosophy and paper writing” and neglect hands-on production skills; he did praise Cape Fear Community College’s program, which gave several Dogma Cape Fear members their start.

Scaparo said that the intense two-day shoot for “Beatrice” taught the Dogma group much about “on set etiquette,” or how to play a particular role on a film set. He hopes to get the film on the festival circuit. In part, he hopes to generate some funding for his new project. More importantly, Scaparo hopes to demonstrate the talent of the Dogma team.

After an intense shoot, Scaparo hopes to have "Beatrice" edited and ready for the festival circuit in by early June. (Photo Benjamin Schachtman)
After an intense shoot, Scaparo hopes to have ‘Beatrice’ edited and ready for the festival circuit in by early June. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

“Our crew made a beautiful film,” he said. “I want people to see that there are still really skilled people working here.”