WILMINGTON –– At the start of 2021, EUE/Screen Gems Studios had booked all 10 stages with cable shows and films made for theaters. Between mid-March and early April, most of those projects wrapped and left the lot.
Today, the campus is quiet. The action has died down – enough for the studio to spot-paint the walls, replace some doors, and repave its roads and parking lots for the first time in 35 years.
But within the offices, the phones are ringing. Bill Vassar, executive vice president at the Wilmington studio, is answering –– and turning away major projects, explaining he can’t accommodate much more. Though empty now, Screen Gems expects to fill up again in about six to eight weeks, and remain packed through the end of the year.
It’s newest clientele base: Streaming services.
Three of four TV productions scheduled to arrive on the lot this summer are the products of streaming channels. Once set up, the projects will stick around through at least the holidays, according to Vassar.
While filmmakers got back to work, the public continued to social distance at home, consuming content and creating demand for binge-worthy shows on streaming platforms. Netflix alone signed on more than 15 million subscribers in the first few months of 2020 — more than double what it had forecasted, according to its first quarter report.
As theaters remained shuttered, new movies premiered on streaming platforms, a trend that is expected to continue past the pandemic. Exclusively made for the streamer, Netflix film “Along for the Ride” is shooting scenes throughout New Hanover County now.
One major streaming service is rapidly relocating its coastal-set show to Screen Gems in Wilmington from the Maritime province of Nova Scotia, Canada, where Covid-19 numbers are on the rise.
Manageable virus numbers were a new appeal for filmmakers scoping out Wilmington in 2020 and into 2021. Throughout the pandemic, the trends in North Carolina have been comparatively less threatening than those of major urban competitors, such as New York.
Productions at Screen Gems are continuing to follow strict protocols and routine testing schedules put in place by industry unions and major studios. Local film commission director Johnny Griffin has often referred to the film as one of the safest industries to work in.
“Those protocols are all in place and will be until we’re told not to,” Vassar said Thursday.
Two additional streaming services are also renting stages and offices at Screen Gems soon; however, Vassar could not yet share the name of the titles at the request of the productions.
Of the four shows filling Screen Gems, “Our Kind of People” is the only project not backed by a streaming service. The drama is put on by 20th Television and Fox Entertainment and executive producer Lee Daniels, the name behind the hit “Empire” and 2013 historical drama film “The Butler.”
“George & Tammy” –– a miniseries for forthcoming streamer ViacomCBS, Spectrum Originals and Paramount Network –– was on schedule to come but postponed production. Now, Vassar can’t guarantee he will have space when they look to return.
With four major TV shows moving in, Screen Gems will be at max capacity. Vassar said he even got a call Wednesday for a “huge production for a big streaming service,” but couldn’t offer the necessary accommodations.
“I’ll tell you right now, if we had six to eight more stages, we likely would fill them with business till the end of the year,” Vassar said.
Film commission director Griffin recently told city council he was in discussions with owners of warehouses to house projects. Yet, scarce properties would compare to Screen Gems’ stages, built for TV and movies with 45-foot-high ceilings and beams to hang lights, plus special-effects water tanks.
Expansion of Screen Gems would be a risky option for the ever-changing film industry, though. At the drop of an incentive –– or a regressive bill advancing in the legislature –– productions could desert the lot. In 2014 the state tax credit expired and instead legislators implemented a $10-million capped grant program –– a major setback for the industry that sent productions packing for Georgia. The southbound state now competes with only New York and California for the highest number of film productions.
Since that time, the grant has grown back up to $30 million, but the state film offices will need more to offer to keep the business coming. A bill proposed by Republican Sen. Michael Lee would add $32 million to that amount for two years, and Democrat Rep. Deb Butler recently filed a house bill to reenact the more generous tax credit, as it was immediately before its repeal.
Either piece of legislation would keep the momentum going in one of the greatest years for film in Wilmington, if not the best ever. The recent uptick in business is both a reflection of consumer’s demand for new content and the local reputation of Wilmington.
“Our best form of marketing is satisfied customers,” Vassar said. “Our goal is to get them to go back to Los Angeles, raving, or buy a house here – which has happened a number of times. It speaks to just how desirable this place is to work.”
Vassar said those desirable traits span from the ease of “moving the company,” a.k.a. shooting in multiple locations in one day, to the expertise the studio has to offer.
“We’re your unpaid production consultants. We don’t just rent stages and lights. We’re not just a place that has smooth pavement now,” Vassar said. “There’s knowledgeable production and business people here who can help people solve production issues and we do it at no charge.”
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