WILMINGTON — With potential seed money coming from the City of Wilmington, a new workforce training program is anticipated to grow North Carolina’s next generation of film industry workers, specifically with women and people of color.
City council is planning to award $400,000 to the Film Partnership of North Carolina, a new nonprofit established to oversee the program. The training will focus on behind-the-scenes roles — from carpenters to electricians, camera operators to production assistants.
“So that when they finish a production, they leave with a résumé, and they can move on and work on the next production, on their own and independent of the program,” said Susi Hamilton, interim board chair for the Film Partnership and chair of the Governor’s Advisory Council on Film, Television, and Digital Streaming. “The goal is to put them with the professionals in the industry and to learn hands-on and be paid while doing so, which is something that’s not happened before.”
Trainees will spend the first few days in a classroom, learning safety precautions for their careers and receiving instruction from professionals. Then, they will be ready for shifts on live sets for around five weeks, Hamilton continued.
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Local leaders suggest this investment will boost the burgeoning field during a historic time for film in North Carolina. Johnny Griffin, director of the Wilmington Regional Film Commission, said the economic impact in the Cape Fear region alone is approaching $350 million, shattering the record for the greatest year in film production history, with up to 1,300 workers reporting to sets daily. Statewide, $410 million is projected in direct spending.
“This industry has been a success story,” Griffin said. “We don’t see any signs of it slowing down at any point in time.”
Though the film industry has ebbed and flowed in the past, Mayor Bill Saffo expressed confidence in the forthcoming investment, now that the state film grant incentive is a recurring item in the budget, with no sunset clause. Plus, the governor’s office has committed to uphold the industry, and Gov. Roy Cooper has expressed his support of the job training initiative.
“I feel that we’re in a very good place,” Saffo said. “And I think that we’re in a different place than we were just, say, three or four years ago.”
The Film Partnership is collaborating with the North Carolina Department of Commerce, Wilmington Regional Film Commission, UNC School of the Arts, International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employee (IATSE) and GLOW Academy. More partnerships are expected in the future.
The money needed to launch the first cohort will come from Wilmington’s $26-million pot of American Rescue Plan Act funds, which were designated to municipalities nationwide for Covid-19 recovery and relief. City council is expected to vote to authorize the release of the money at its Nov. 3 meeting.
The initial allocation would cover the cost of 90 pupils’ journeys through the training. They will receive payment for on-the-job instruction at $15 per hour, plus benefits, and the chance for up to 10 hours of preapproved overtime at $22.50.
City leaders indicated the program is expected to be bankrolled past the first class, but couldn’t discuss publicly yet which organizations are interested in chipping in long-term. The creation of the nonprofit makes the program eligible for funding from other agencies, such as the Department of Commerce.
“We have a very, very strong indication that additional funds will flow to this effort, making it a public-private partnership,” Tony McEwen, assistant to the city manager for legislative affairs, told council in a presentation Monday morning. “And the city’s investment would be viewed as a spark that spurred further investment in this.”
It would be the first program of its kind in the state. The first sessions would begin later this year.
“We would show to Hollywood, show to the production companies that we’re very serious, as they are, in diversifying our film workforce here in Wilmington,” Saffo said.
As productions scout for filming locations, they often factor into the decision whether workforce diversity priorities can be met in that area, McEwen explained. He said those priorities are strengthening each year. Though in general, a solid employee pool is a must for TV and film projects.
“A lot of folks that are in the industry have been in the industry for 25, 30, 35 years,” Griffin said. “And we know at some point, obviously, those people are going to start to age out. And we’ve got to start to work on getting the next folks and so we can keep this industry moving forward.”
The Film Partnership will turn to places such as GLOW Academy — which launched a film program this semester — and Southeast Area Technical High School to recruit diverse classes. Hamilton said the nonprofit will set benchmarks for its number of female and minority participants to ensure the program is reaching historically marginalized communities as intended.
The Film Partnership is also considering the potential to impact students at the K-12 level on career and technical education campuses. During the presentation, council discussed the possibility of serving even younger populations, such as students of Snipes Academy of Arts and Design. Hamilton said tours and demonstrations are possible learning opportunities for the youth, since there is an 18-or-older age requirement to work on sets.
“We can help them understand what a day in the life of someone that works in the production industry looks like,” Hamilton said.
The city will receive its second installment in ARP funds in the coming year.
The United Way of the Cape Fear Area is dispersing $500,000 of the pandemic funds in the form of grants for nonprofits. McEwen said of 49 applications received, a majority of those applicants benefit workforce development locally.