After Covid-19 hiatus, Wilmington film industry comes alive again with multiple productions underway

Crew on “Hightown” prepare the Covid-19 testing site. (Port City Daily photo/Alexandria Sands)

WILMINGTON—The Wilmington film industry was poised at the start of 2020 to build off the momentum of 2019, the biggest year for production in North Carolina in five years.

The horror movie “Halloween Kills” starring Jamie Lee Curtis, a feature film, “The Georgetown Project,” and Hulu series “Reprisal” all had recently wrapped in the Cape Fear. Filmmakers spent $131 million locally last year.

Statewide, production companies added 11,820 jobs to the market in 2019 and spent more than $167 million in direct in-state expenses, according to the North Carolina Department of Commerce. It was the most money television and movie projects had spent in the state since 2014—the last year the film incentive allowed all productions a 25% rebate without a cap. In 2014 productions spent $175 million in Wilmington and $275 million statewide.


Today, the incentive has turned into the North Carolina Film and Entertainment Grant, which gives a 25% rebate on qualified expenses, allocated up to $31 million a fiscal year.

The local industry kicked off 2020 with productions underway on several pilots. Even more projects planned on filming in the Port City by spring and summer, according to Johnny Griffin, director of the Wilmington Regional Film Commission.

“Things were certainly looking to be very strong,” he added. “Obviously, when the pandemic came along, everything ground to a halt.”

The novel coronavirus put productions on roughly a six-month hiatus, largely while Gov. Roy Cooper’s at-home orders were in effect. But Griffin said he knew the industry would make a comeback, as other businesses would. They just had to figure out how.

Industry trade associations and alliances developed standards for Covid-19 protocols, aimed at preventing the virus from spreading onto sets. By September and October, production had resumed in the state, with the “Scream” franchise and the Hallmark movie, “USS Christmas,” filming. 

So far, the Covid-19 protocols seem to be working, even as New Hanover County’s case count nears the 6,000s. Bill Vassar, executive vice president of EUE/Screen Gems Studios, said there have been only false-positive tests on their lot on 23rd Street, where 600-plus people are currently working on both “Scream” and the STARZ network crime drama “Hightown.”

Covid-19 teams on site are managing and tracking testing, as well as monitoring the lot to ensure people are physically distancing and wearing masks. The crew members are tested at least once per week, and some up to three times a week, depending on their proximity to the actors. Actors or stunt performers with scenes close to each other are tested even more frequently, up to five times per week.

“That’s where the weak link is,” Griffin said. “The actors can’t wear PPE. They can’t do social distancing.”

Personal protective equipment is also big on sets. Everyone is required to wear masks at all times, inside and outside. Those who work closely with the actors are even more careful in gloves, gowns and face shields.

The productions also need more equipment and employees than ever before to ensure proper sanitization of sets, offices and the like.

Pre-Covid-19, crews would pack vans full of people. Now, they transport only 10 to 15 people per bus to maintain distancing, creating a demand for additional buses and drivers. Plus, there needs to be twice as many hair and makeup trailers to ensure every other station is left vacant.

“Just a lot of extra time, a lot of extra effort, a lot of extra money involved in the productions now,” Griffin said.

Despite it all, the film industry has picked back up. “This Country,” which was filming in spring but had to shut down because of Covid-19, is slated to be up and running again this month.

The Wilmington Regional Film Commission is estimating that production companies spent an estimated $65 million in the Cape Fear this year.

“We will probably meet or exceed what we did in 2016, 17 or 18, so it’s still looking to be a fairly good year for us, considering we had this six-month gap,” Griffin said. “If we had not had that, we were on track for this year probably to be better than 2019 was.”

Vassar agreed and said inquiries are maintaining a healthy pace. The Wilmington Regional Film Commission received 50 requests for information on shooting in the area in 2020 already. 

“It’s somewhat encouraging,” Vassar said, “and we’re getting lots of inquiries about next year.”

Screen Gems Studios scaled down operations during the at-home order and had most of the staff working remotely. Now back on the lot, two undisclosed projects are planning to move into the studios in the next few weeks and will shoot in 2021.

A wardrobe rack awaits the next fitting on the Screen Gems studio lot. (Port City Daily photo/Alexandria Sands)

“Hightown,” “Scream” and “USS Christmas,” along with “A Nashville Christmas Carol” and “Delilah,” both being film in Charlotte, will bring in $107-plus million and produce 8,671 jobs, according to the department of commerce.

“Even in a Covid world, it’s heartening to see the film industry come back,” said Tim Buckland, New Hanover County intergovernmental affairs coordinator. Buckland provides film permits and other county services to productions. “Beyond just the basic economic positive nature to it, there’s a cool factor that you can’t replace.”

He points to “One Tree Hill,” which started filming here 20 years ago — or even “Dawson’s Creek,” which began in the mid-’90s. People still visit Wilmington because of the fanfare for both shows.

Buckland, a former StarNews reporter, assisted “USS Christmas” in connecting with the local newspaper to film in its newsroom. The made-for-television movie wrapped in the area recently.

Wilmington still has all the attractions to offer filmmakers it had pre-pandemic: the crews, the sets, the incentives. As of recently, the city has added some new pitches as to why productions should come to Hollywood East: lower virus infection rates, stricter statewide Covid-19 restrictions and a less-compact city with vital space to social distance.

“I think everybody is looking at that in general and seeing North Carolina as a favorable place to work right now,” Griffin said.

He and Vassar said producers and studio executives are considering infection rates across the county when seeking locations.

“You see a lot of people pull projects out of New York and Los Angeles,” Vassar said.

One was the second season of “Hightown.” Covid-19 played into the decision to move the production from New York and Massachusetts; although, Vassar said the series also relocated here because Wilmington beaches made for better locations for a Cape Cod setting than Long Island.

The show is currently filming and is expected to remain in the area through March, boosting the local economy for months, as it creates jobs and moves in workers who stay in hotels and frequent local restaurants and shops.

“That’s a good, long-running series, which is good for the area,” Griffin said. “The longer they stay here, the more money they’re spending.”

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