WILMINGTON –– During a visit to the bustling grounds of EUE/Screen Gems Studios in Wilmington Thursday, Gov. Roy Cooper enthusiastically shared the news that the film industry is making a “record-shattering” $409-million splash so far this year in North Carolina.
It is one of the greatest years for film since 2012, when film productions’ in-state direct spending topped $370 million and blockbusters “Iron Man 3” and “We’re The Millers” shot in Wilmington.
North Carolina would lose its tax incentive two years later, then the film industry would get kicked while it was down with the passing of House Bill 2 in 2016. Both events nearly lost the state its film business.
To celebrate films’ comeback, the governor, industry leaders and local officials joined in stage four, where Netflix’s “Florida Man” is currently housing sets and storing fake palm trees. The group boasted its success in reviving the film industry after it nearly died.
“We are bringing the film industry back in North Carolina,” the governor said. “And I want to say thank you to the people who always believed: The small businesses, the community leaders, who knew how important this industry was, not only to the Wilmington area but all across the state. The businesses that had to hurt during that time because they had depended on this industry for their livelihood.”
The anticipated film impact for 2021 has steadily risen throughout the year. As early as December, eight major projects committed to North Carolina were projected to spend $115-million in the state. By May, the investments were expected to reach $217 million. In July, the number was up to an estimated $331 million.
In 2021, productions are creating more than 25,000 jobs for North Carolinians. The Tar Heel state has landed eight scripted series, opening up opportunities for the business to return to North Carolina for future seasons, as Starz’s “Hightown” did earlier this year in the Cape Fear.
Four productions are currently rolling in Wilmington. Netflix’s upcoming series Florida Man, starring Edgar Ramírez, is filming through November (the production filmed a fake shark attack on Carolina Beach this week). Twentieth Century Television’s “Our Kind of People” is preparing for its September premiere on FOX. “The Summer I Turned Pretty,” produced by wiip Studios in association with Amazon Studios, is filming a series based on the Jenny Han young adult novel.
Hallmark recently wrapped the made-for-TV movie “One Summer,” set to premiere Sept. 26, and “Christmas in Harmony” is now underway.
“This has just been wonderful to see what has happened. You can’t move today on the lot,” said Bill Vassar, executive vice president at EUE/Screen Gems Studios.
Netflix is preparing to shoot another series this September: the mystery thriller “Echoes,” about two identical twins who secretly trade lives from the time they are children to adulthood, until one disappears. The production will base out of EUE/Screen Gems Studios and work around the southeast and occasionally in other parts of the state.
Later in 2021, Spectrum Originals’ series “George and Tammy,” starring Jessica Chastain, is scheduled to shoot in the port city.
The state’s success was attributed to its workforce, infrastructure, diverse locations and the current tax incentive. However, the speakers Thursday acknowledged it wasn’t always like this.
Vassar first visited Screen Gems in the ‘80s. At the time, he called the studios “a lot filled with tumbleweeds.” The industry had abandoned Wilmington for worthwhile incentives in Canada, he recalled. He credits former state senator Julia Olson-Boseman, who now serves as New Hanover County chair, for promoting incentives for North Carolina.
Cooper recalled the film industry “thriving” thereafter, fueling an ecosystem of jobs and boosting small businesses, up until 2014 –– the same year the legislature cut the same incentive that had pushed the industry forward.
The film council for North Carolina disbanded. The notorious “bathroom bill” passed. Production companies no longer wanted to associate with a state that had passed anti-LGBTQ legislation.
“That was wrong in and of itself, but it sent the wrong signal about who North Carolina was and who North Carolina is,” Cooper said. “That legislation was not reflective of the people of this state.”
Mayor Bill Saffo said people assumed film was dead in North Carolina as productions fled to Georgia. Thursday, the governor joked the opportunity is reborn for workers who went to Atlanta to return to the “promised land” –– “knowing that peach was a little bit mushy.”
Cooper cheered that House Bill 2 is “100% off the books.” Parts of a compromise bill he signed soon after his election expired in December, lifting a ban on nondiscrimination ordinances which Wilmington and a dozen municipalities have recently passed.
The pot of money in the film grant increased, though Cooper said it is still “not exactly where we want him to be.” He said there is still work to do to ensure the upcoming budget includes funds that will continue enticing the industry.
He also cautioned people to continue wearing masks, social distancing and getting vaccinated to end the pandemic, which once shut down productions in North Carolina and placed the industry on a six-month hiatus.
“I shudder to think where we would be without the pandemic right now, maybe even more,” the governor said.
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