SOUTHEASTERN N.C. –– 2021 is in the running for one of the best years in Wilmington’s 38-year film history.
Productions are expected to spend approximately $217 million, Wilmington Regional Film Commission Director Johnny Griffin told the Wilmington City Council Monday in a presentation. That’s the most in nine years, and the sixth-highest amount ever.
“The industry has seen good times, and not so good times,” Griffin said, “but today I’m here to tell you, 2021 is shaping up to be the best of times.”
Compared to 2020, the local film office is noting a 50% uptick in inquiries, despite the ongoing pandemic.
In the first three months of 2021, Wilmington hosted four productions at once, almost the most it can accommodate at a time. Around 500 people were working jobs on sets, and Screen Gems Studios was booked solid; one project had to post up at another nearby facility.
Griffin suggested the industry should be at a disadvantage, as representatives cannot market the region at in-person events. Called-off trade shows, seminars, festivals and face-to-face meetings will likely not resume until late 2021 or early 2022, he said.
Yet, three to four projects are expected to enter the region by May and stay put through at least October. The activity will fulfill 400 and 500 jobs continuously.
Currently Netflix’s “Along for the Ride” is the sole project rolling the area. The teen romance movie is shooting mostly in Carolina Beach, often on the boardwalk, at local businesses and in private residences.
“Our Kind of People” recently opened offices to prepare for filming. The Fox Entertainment drama is inspired by Lawrence Otis Graham’s nonfiction book of the same title. It will be the second Fox show to shoot in the Cape Fear region since the docu-com “This Country” wrapped in March.
It appears “George & Tammy,” a show based on the country music couple, is no longer prepping for production. The title appeared on the film commission’s site two weeks ago, then disappeared in recent days.
Still, Screen Gems is expecting to soon reach full occupancy once again. Griffin said the film commission is seeking out other warehouse-type facilities to house the influx.
Despite Covid-19 setting productions back for about six months in early 2020, the stay-at-home orders actually benefited the industry, creating a demand for new content on proliferating streaming services.
Industry leaders developed standard protocols to resume filming by mid-year. Those include stringent testing of crew, including extras, up to three times a week and sometimes more. New departments in each production oversee testing and adherence to protocols, such as mask wearing, on sets. Griffin said one recent $50-million project dropped $5 million on virus precautions alone.
“I would say that film sets are the safest place to work,” Griffin said.
Toward the end of 2020, spending by productions in Wilmington exceeded three of the last four years.
Other forces behind the rise in business, Griffin noted, include the area’s available crew and enticing incentive. Projects can receive up to 25% back on qualified expenses, and North Carolina has up to $31 million to give away each year.
However the offer is not as generous as some competing film hubs, such as Louisiana, which recently landed Reese Withersoon’s adaptation of “Where the Crawdads Sing,” based on the record-breaking bestselling novel set in the North Carolina marsh.
The Deep South state touts as much as 40% in rebates with an annual cap of $150 million.
Griffin could not comment on whether the production scoped out Wilmington at all. Speaking to multiple projects, he explained the film commission often signs non-disclosure agreements which remain in effect even if the filming goes elsewhere.
State Senator Michael Lee has introduced a bill that would grow the state’s film grant fund before it maxes out its $31 million. The legislation would add $34 million this year and next to keep the work coming into North Carolina.
“At this point, we do not see any reason for the business to slow down,” Griffin said.
North Carolina is also seeing some companies return as remnants of the controversial House Bill 2, also known as “the bathroom bill,” sunset. Netflix previously bypassed North Carolina for filming of the hit “Outer Banks,” turning instead to South Carolina, due to the state’s anti-LGBT legislation. It has now returned to shoot “Along for the Ride,” based on a young adult novel about a teen who visits an Emerald Isle, N.C.-inspired town for the summer.
Some eyebrow-raising bills filed earlier this year that would have restricted transgender rights and threatened to mimic the detrimental impacts of HB2 have since been removed from the N.C. General Assembly. Lawmakers killed the “Save Women’s Sports Act” after finding no complaints of transgender girls joining male sports across the state.
Another bill that would have outlawed gender-affirming medical care for those under 21, and required teachers to “out” transgender students, was dropped as well, The News & Observer reported.
Though lawmakers denied any connection, the back-off came as Apple announced plans for a new half-billion-dollar campus in Raleigh.
Lastly, Griffin noted in his presentation recent productions are referring companies to the Cape Fear. Executive producer C. Robert Cargill of “The Black Phone” recently tweeted, “Don’t sleep on Wilmington,” praising the efficiency of the region.
“Week 1 feels like week 3,” he wrote.
Griffin said the film commission is already in discussions with productions for 2022.
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