Friday, June 14, 2024

‘Set ready’: $500K propels continuation of Film Partnership of N.C. intern program

The Film Partnership of N.C. has trained 54 interns on 6 productions since its launch in March. (Port City Daily/file)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — One year into its debut, the Film Partnership of N.C. is working to diversify local talent and preparing a path for a new generation. Its goal is to expand the film industry’s workforce base and tackle voids present in the industry.

“It’s been acknowledged industrywide, there was a total lack of diversity that did not reflect the demographics as they are,” the nonprofit’s director and longtime advocate for the industry Susi Hamilton said. “The goal is to expand representation in those historically underserved communities.”

Currently, the male-dominated industry hires more than 57% of white crew workers, with Hispanic or Latinos over 19%, Black people making up just over 12% and Asian ethnicities, 4%.

Wilmington Film Commission director Johnny Griffin said diversity among staff has been a challenge for productions. 

“The major production companies are implementing diversity mandates, so the more we have, the better chances we have of landing projects,” he said.

Since starting last year, Film Partnership of N.C. has provided paid training for 54 interns, 44% of which come from historically marginalized populations. The majority of the diverse candidates have been African American, Hamilton said.

One participant is Dylan Ferri who has launched his career with the program. Before, he said he was working odd jobs but found his place and niche in the entertainment world.

“I probably wouldn’t be as far as I am in the industry without the program,” Ferri told Port City Daily. 

The 29-year-old moved to Wilmington last fall and started taking a few film classes at Cape Fear Community College. He said it was his teachers who recommended him for an internship, where he spent five weeks — the average length of the program — on the set of “Hightown” season 3 as his first real experience in the industry.

“I’m not going to lie, it’s intimidating at first,” Ferri admitted. “But the guys I was working with, they wanted me to get my hands on as much stuff as I could. This program is giving me a sneak peak at life on set and the dos and don’ts before you actually have a real job.”

Ferri said it “fast-tracked” him to officially join the union — not a requirement of going through the program.

“It’s a tremendous amount of work but a tremendous amount of fun,” he added.

He also secured a job as a full crew member, after completing his internship, for a few days on “Eric Larue,” actor Michael Shannon’s directorial debut, starring Judy Greer and Alexander Skaarsgard.

Originally funded last year with $400,000 from the city’s American Rescue Plan Act, the Film Partnership of N.C. — in collaboration with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), the entertainment industry’s labor union — was awarded $500,000 from county commissioners last week. The infusion of funds will carry the program at least another eight months, Hamilton said, maybe less if productions stay active locally.

“As long as there’s productions, there will be opportunities,” she said.

The county’s gift comes at the perfect time, as preliminary funds have been exhausted. The Film Partnership’s budget is 90% directed to paying the interns, who earn $15 per hour, with the opportunity for overtime. Therefore, intern payroll isn’t a burden to production budgets.

“Filming is chaos — organized chaos, and wonderful,” Hamilton said. “In that environment, you have to be able to be responsive. A program like this, is structured and has a direct and understood mission. We have the ability to be nimble and conform to the needs of the productions when necessary.”

The Film Partnership works directly with production management to fill in needed roles.

Right now, the program is paired with IATSE’s Local 491, representing trade professions such as technicians, lighting, sound, and grip, which are camera support operators. Hamilton said it could not have succeeded without IATSE supplying the knowledge on what’s needed to train crew to be “set ready.”

“They are the people who work in the industry,” Hamilton said. “We are relying on them to train the next generation of workforce, and it can’t be done without that level of professional involvement.”

Starsha Bryant found a new love for the industry during her time on the set of “Welcome to Flatch,” season 2. (Courtesy photo)

DEI industry efforts

During the last round of bargaining for union rights last year — which nearly resulted in a strike — production studios implemented a push for diversity, inclusion and equity, Local 491 vice president Darla McGlamery explained.

In response, Local 491 established the Recognizing Individual Differences Exist (RIDE) program, now coexisting with the Film Partnership. Well-established leaders in the industry mentor the interns, who quickly learn if production life is a good fit.

Being exposed to an industry leads to new experiences, at least that was the case for Native American intern Starsha Bryant.

The 30-year-old is attending online college for a Bachelor’s of Science degree in criminal justice. She also works at the Wilmington International Airport and was recommended to the intern program through a coworker.

Currently staging in the props department on “Welcome to Flatch” season 2, Bryant said training with IASTE provided an opportunity she knew nothing about.

“If I would have known about this when I was 21, I would have jumped in,” she said.

She’s also talked another friend into joining the program.

While Hamilton admitted a lot of the program’s inception was from word-of-mouth, the Film Partnership coordinates with CFCC and UNCW’s film programs to recruit interns. To expand its reach, Local 491 has paired up with nonprofits such as Leading Into New Communities, Cape Fear Workforce Development, and DREAMS. The three nonprofits work directly with historically marginalized communities and help identify suitable candidates.

“We’re trying to find folks who maybe spent some time at community college or learned a trade skill and could no longer do both, yet are talented craftspeople, to move into the film and television world,” McGlamery said.

Laura McLean — prior digital art, studio production music teacher at DREAMS for 25 years — handles intake and is the main liaison between participants and the Film Partnership program. She works one-on-one with candidates using a nearly-100-question document to find an appropriate production for each individual.

The internship program kicked off in March and has placed cohorts on six productions: “Welcome to Flatch,” “Eric Larue,” “Hightown,” “Problem with Providence,” “The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat” and at the Wilson Center, for live stage productions including Broadway tours.

The Wilson Center lost more than half of its back-stage work during the pandemic and Hamilton explained interns helped fill the gap.

“As productions have increased in the last two years, the area has needed additional crew, and more diverse crew,” Griffin told Port City Daily. “So as crew is trained, it allows the region to handle more productions.”

According to prior PCD reporting, the Wilmington Regional Film Commission reported a local economic impact of roughly $325 million in 2021, with approximately 1,300 film workers employed at the peak.

The film industry continued to benefit from the strong demand for new content, stemming from proliferating streaming services and consumer trends following lockdowns in early 2020.

By mid-summer this year, nearly 5,000 jobs were created locally in the film and TV industry. 

So far, eight productions have wrapped in 2022 in Wilmington. Three are currently filming, and preliminary estimates for economic impact are around $210 million. Each show employs roughly 150 to 200 crew, with interns as extra hands, ranging in number from four to 20 based on production need.

Producer Karl Hartman, with Big Indie Pictures, was in Wilmington for the shooting of “Eric Larue.” He reported a positive experience and even thinks the program should be available across the country. Hartman said when he started out in the industry, he took unpaid internships, and the Film Partnership allows individuals to participate, get paid and also help expand the industry.

“What these programs allow, is to shoot projects in the area, which not only builds out the crew base inside areas that don’t get a lot of productions, [but also] brings in more industry to the area,” Hartman said. 

He worked with 20 interns on “Eric LaRue,” in turn helping the “ultra-low budget” film exceed expectations.

“The program, to me, is such a phenomenal idea because it solves all the things: lack of money, representation and gives you skills,” Hartman said. “You marry all those things you need into one program.”

Extra hands also allowed the production to utilize additional resources without taking jobs away from full-time crew. More so, it provided worthwhile experience to the apprentices on set.

“That’s what hiring interns actually means is that you’re sort of cultivating talent and helping people learn how to do something and fill a role necessary on productions,” Hartman said. “But [also] the only way to get a foot in the industry is to actually do a project.”

Caleb Aitken can attest to that training as he is currently employed on “Welcome to Flatch,” as well.

“The crew on set, they want to teach people, [that’s] the energy I get from them,” Aitken said.

The 24-year-old’s role moves between various departments. One day he said he could be calling out when cameras are rolling and making sure no one walks into the set, the next he’s working with electricians on how to hook up 100-watt generators.

“I want to be as useful as I can in the grand scheme of things,” said Aitken, who was one semester away from earning his associate’s degree at CFCC and transferring to UNCW before Covid “threw a wrench in his plans.”

On the side, he works on video production and learned more about film equipment through asking questions to on-set crew.

Intern Bri Lanzen gets “shot” with a blood squib, learning the ins and outs of how effects work on set. (Courtesy photo)

Bri Lanzen was mentored under special effects pro Jeff Loy with Carolina Effects after reaching out with a “cold-message” via LinkedIn. She assisted during “Hightown” filming this summer from May to August while on break from school.

“I feel like I did eight years of school,” Lanzen said of the experience.

She helped with on-set visual and special effects and tackled administration work with Loy’s guidance. Though the series wrapped late summer, Lanzen said the imprint is indelible. She will use the experience for her fourth-year thesis program to supervise a film at the North Carolina School of the Arts.

“It definitely propelled my skill level and the amount of people I was able to meet,” she said. “I hope to build on those connections and hop back in next summer,” Lanzen said, referencing her desire to return to the Port City on another production.

Lanzen is pursuing a career in effects and created pyrotechnics and “blood squibs” — used to relay gunshot wounds. She also learned about sculpting, specifically observing the creation of a “creature” by local group Bearded Skulls Makeup FX.

“I was lucky to find someone so passionate about education and mentorship,” Lanzen said of Loy.

While the Film Partnership is geared toward the technical aspects of the industry right now, Hamilton said she’s hoping to branch out and expand into hair and make-up in the near future.

Interns can apply on the Film Partnership of N.C. website.

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