by Keith Barber

It’s a bItterly cold January nIght In a dIstant skI resort town In northern utah. a young fIlmmaker stands before an audIence of nearly 300 people InsIde a hotel ballroom that has been converted Into a movIe theater. she acknowledges theIr warm applause wIth a smIle. erIca dunton, a wrIter, producer and dIrector wIth strong north carolIna tIes, InvItes the cast of her Independent fIlm, to.get.her, to JoIn her for a questIon-and-answer sessIon. the applause contInues well after the credIts roll on dunton’s latest fIlm, her fIrst to screen at the sundance fIlm festIval.

Dunton, whose directorial credits include five feature films and one episode of the Wilmington-based television show, “One Tree Hill,” shares with the audience the story behind the creation of to.get.her on the first Friday night of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. The audience members gathered inside the Yarrow Hotel Theatre listen with rapt attention as Dunton, along with cast members Jazzy De Lisser, Chelsea Logan, Adwoa Aboah, Audrey Speicher and Jami Eaton, answer their questions about this tale of five teenage girls who decide to embark on a “night of no consequences” at a Southern beach resort.

Dunton answers a question about why she shot the film in Wilmington by explaining why she decided to start her career in the coastal city.

“I’ve never really worked in the Hollywood system,” Dunton says. “I’ve always just been trying to do what I do and get better at what I do because I think a lot of people come out to Hollywood and say, ‘I’m a director,’ and I don’t think you are. It’s taken me 10 years to stand up here and say that.”

Wilmington proved to be the ideal training ground for Dunton, who quietly wrote, produced and directed shorts and feature films for 10 years before one of her films was selected by one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world.

“I think Wilmington for me was a place to learn, and I could never have made this film anywhere else because my last films I worked with the same crew and pretty much the same cast,” Dunton explains.

The talented crew base and the film infrastructure provided by Screen Gems Studios have created a great proving ground for aspiring directors, she adds.

“[Local crew members] are ready to work and they’re ready to help you believe in something if they believe in it,” she says. “It’s been my schooling, and I would love to make more films there.”

Twenty-four hours later, the Main Street area of Park City is bustling with activity. Sidewalks are nearly impassable due to the crush of visitors to the small mountain town. Sundance routinely draws 45,000 people each year, and it appears ticket sales have been very strong this year.

Inside a swanky retail complex, Aaron Syrett, director of the NC Film Office works the room.

“Sundance is a great place for us to recruit,” Syrett says. “A lot of [film] financiers, distributors and most importantly, producers and independent filmmakers are here.”

Syrett, a Salt Lake City native, says he can personally attest to how much Sundance has grown since its inception 27 years ago.

“This started out as a small festival; now it’s huge,” Syrett says. “It’s the largest independent film festival in the world. The industry is here right now, so it’s important for us to be here. If we want to get our word out, this is where we need to be.”

And the buzzword at this year’s festival appears to be “incentive.”

Last August, the NC General Assembly expanded the state’s film tax credit from 15 percent to 25 percent. The bill, sponsored by Linda Garrou (D-Forsyth), gives film production companies that spend a minimum of $250,000 a 25-percent rebate on in-state expenditures. The law went into effect on Jan. 1.

Syrett sees his role at Sundance as educating film financiers and producers on how the new film incentives will benefit their future productions.

“As far as being on a level playing field, we’re there now,” Syrett said. “It’s a full 25 percent [tax credit] — it’s refundable and the state of North Carolina monetizes it fully.”

Syrett acknowledged that the new film tax credit does not apply to highly compensated individuals like actors. Film tax credits offered by states like Georgia and Louisiana include highly compensated individuals. Still, Syrett said the new law is already having a concrete impact on the state’s film industry.

“As of Jan. 1, we have six things shooting in North Carolina — anything from over a $100 million movie down to a $5 million movie with a couple of TV shows,” Syrett says. “So we’re competing well.”

Syrett says Dunton’s impressive achievement reflects just one of several North Carolina stories at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance Film Festival patrons queue up at the Egyptian Theatre on Main Street in Park City, Utah, for the world premiere of The Guard on Jan. 20. The film festival, founded in 1985 by Robert Redford, annually draws more than 45,000 film lovers to the small ski resort town annually.

Actress Andie McDowell (right), her daughter, Rainey, and actor Steven McQueen attended a party sponsored by the NC Film Office during the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. McDowell says North Carolina needs to expand its film tax credits even further to compete against states like Georgia and Louisiana for film projects.

UNC School of the Arts graduate Jeff Nichols’ film Take Shelter was selected for the festival’s US Dramatic Competition. Days before the festival kicked off, Sony Pictures Classic announced it had acquired the distribution rights to Take Shelter, the story of an Ohio man pushed to the brink of sanity by terrifying dreams of an impending apocalypse. In addition, North Carolina native and UNCSA alum Tim Orr was selected to serve on the jury for the US Dramatic Competition at this year’s festival. David Gordon Green’s cinematographer on George Washington, All the Real Girls, Undertow and Pineapple Express, Orr has been nominated twice for an Independent Spirit Award.

Syrett and the NC Film Office sponsored a swanky party on Main Street in downtown Park City on Saturday night. Syrett says the film office sent out more than 1,500 invitations to its Sundance soiree and received more than 400 RSVPs.

Syrett continues to work the crowd, schmoozing with film industry executives and filmmakers. On a smartly designed sofa, actress Andie McDowell listens to her daughter, Rainey, sing one of her original compositions. A veteran actor with more than 50 screen credits, McDowell made Asheville her permanent home 12 years ago. Among 5 th Quarter, an independent film that completed principal photography in Winston-Salem in the fall of 2009.

McDowell says she’s often asked to take a leadership role the campaign for bigger film tax credits. In her mind, the issue is cut and dried.

“You have to have incentives in the state for people to come and film,” McDowell says. “It’s a business. I remember when they didn’t do Cold Mountain in Asheville. Everybody felt like it was a shame because it took place there, but it’s a business.”

Despite the fact Cold Mountain was set in Haywood County, the $80 million film was shot primarily in Romania.

“People have to recognize that if they were making the choice in their business, you have to watch what your funding is because in order to make your money back, that’s a big part of how you make your decisions,” McDowell says.

After listening to Rainey’s first number, McDowell turns back toward a reporter and says the new expanded film tax credit is good news but North Carolina still lags behind Georgia and Louisiana in attracting films.

“North Carolina has given some types of incentives but not as much as they could do,” McDowell says. “What [state legislators] need to recognize is what it does for the state. I think they waver on that. They’re not really to affect the economy in a positive way, but I disagree with that.”

Louisiana offers a 30 percent transferable incentive for total in-state expenditures related to the production of a motion picture, according to the Louisiana Economic Development website. The state also offers a 5 percent labor incentive on payroll for Louisiana residents that are employed by a state-certified motion picture production. The incentives are fully transferable and Louisiana has no limit to the amount of incentives that can be earned by a single production, according to the state’s website.

Georgia offers a 20 percent transferable tax credit plus an additional 10 percent tax credit if the film production includes a Georgia promotional logo in credits and trailers. The tax credit applies to all productions spending at least $500,000 in a single year, according to the state’s website.

Walt Disney’s decision last April to relocate the Miley Cyrus film, The Last Song, from Wilmington to Georgia represented the latest in a string of recent losses for the state’s film industry. Losing the Miley Cyrus film also appeared to light a fire under state lawmakers as they introduced an expanded film tax-credit bill during the 2010 legislative session.

A study commissioned by the NC Film Office reveals that film industry spending in the state hit $228 million in 2007, but was McDowell’s impressive screen credits is The clear — they don’t have a belief that it’s going expected to fall below $90 million in 2010.

“You have to realize what it does for the economy — it creates work and people come and spend a lot of money,” McDowell says. “They have to book hotels, they have to rent houses and they have to buy food. They go shopping, and that is the ripple effect when you support the film business, when you encourage the film business to come to your state. That’s why places like Louisiana have made a lot of money by encouraging movies to be made there, and that’s by giving tax incentives.”

McDowell speaks passionately as she explains how North Carolina has tremendous advantages over Georgia and Louisiana from a film production perspective. McDowell talks of the talented crew base and the infrastructure provided by Screen Gems Studios in Wilmington, not to mention a highly successful film program at UNCSA. McDowell is a big believer in the magnet of UNCSA. She says her youngest daughter, Sarah Margaret, is currently studying dance at the Winston- Salem arts conservatory. Rainey begins her second number and McDowell returns her focus to her daughter.

Among the hundreds of guests at the NC Film Office party is Jenny Hwa. She sits on a black leather bench and sips a Stella Artois The Belgian beer maker is a sponsor of this year’s festival. Hwa is the new sponsorship director of the RiverRun International Film Festival, held this year in Winston-Salem on April 8-17.

A bundle of energy and effervescence, Hwa talks in excited fashion about her unique role at Sundance. She’s joined at this year’s festival by RiverRun Executive Director Andrew Rodgers and program director Mary

Dossinger. Rodgers and Dossinger’s mission is clear: Find great films to program for RiverRun 2011 in April. Hwa’s mission is also clear: Build relationships with potential corporate sponsors of RiverRun. Although their aims might seem separate, Rodgers, Dossinger and Hwa are all working toward the same goal.

“We’re making connections here,” Hwa says. “It’s a matter of increasing our funding to keep bringing good films to the festival, including more actors, more filmmakers to make sure our crowd and our film attendees mingle with them.”

Hwa says she expects Rodgers and Dossinger to select up to 10 percent of RiverRun’s 2011 lineup during Sundance.

Aaron Syrett (left), director of the NC Film Office, met up with Andrew Rodgers, executive director of the RiverRun International Film Festival, during a film industry party at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 22. Syrett says Sundance is the perfect place to recruit film producers and directors to shoot their films in North Carolina.

“It’s really important to get some of these unique films that actually have some high-caliber celebrities that are going to draw a larger crowd for us at RiverRun,” Hwa says. “If we can provide that to people in Winston-Salem and the Triad overall, that’s a real benefit for us.”

Hwa says she had only been in Park City a short time before making a connection with a vice president of marketing for HondaJet, which is headquartered in Greensboro.

Hwa says her business approach works because of its purity and simplicity.

“The Triad is the 46 th largest media market in the country, and there are a number of huge corporations with super-affluent people where we’re actually tapping into their target audiences and we’re able to present to them the opportunity to market their product to their clientele in a very organic way,” Hwa says.

In many ways, Sundance is the model for other film festivals to follow with regard to corporate sponsorship. This year’s corporate sponsors included Entertainment Weekly, HP, Acura, Chase Sapphire and Sundance Channel. Bing, Canon, DirecTV, Honda, Southwest and YouTube also helped underwrite the 2011 festival. Sundance celebrates its 27 th year in 2011. RiverRun will celebrate its 13 th year of existence in April.

With such a strong tradition, it only makes sense for corporations to get on board with RiverRun, Hwa says.

“It’s really to their benefit — they’re connecting with people on a much deeper level than paying for advertising on TV or newspapers,” she adds.

Like film tax credits, North Carolina film festivals are a tremendous boon to the state’s economy, and the success of RiverRun is reflective of a statewide trend, Hwa says.

“We’re on the right trajectory,” she continues. “Our ticket admission sales have increased double digits for the past five years. So even with the bad economy, people are still coming to the festival, buying tickets and attending the events. I think that’s very important. We’re gaining a stronger foothold every year.”

As Rainey belts out another song, Syrett is spotted speaking with more film industry folks. Selling North Carolina as the perfect place to make movies is clearly serious business. Syrett, who previously served as the director of the Utah Film Commission, said his ace in the hole is the state’s unparalleled crew base and infrastructure.

Film productions that shoot in North Carolina save tens of thousands of dollars because of the top-notch production facilities and experienced crew base that is homegrown. In other words, companies don’t have to pay for crew members’ accommodations.

“That’s the incentive people talk about because that brings costs down tremendously,” Syrett explains.

He’s quick to point out that when the film and entertainment industry invests in North Carolina, the economic impact is tremendous. And when Syrett talks to state officials about making North Carolina more competitive with even greater film tax credits he always points out films literally inject money into a local economy.

“There is no other industry that can infuse money into an economy like the film industry,” Syrett says. “They come in and immediately infuse millions and millions of dollars

within a three-month period. They hire hundreds of people, and all of sudden those people are staying at hotels, they’re buying their lumber to build sets, they’re buying clothing for costumes and they’re eating out. It touches every part of the economy.”

That’s why film industry tax credits make sense.

Syrett says Gov. Beverly Perdue fully understands that for North Carolina to be competitive in the 21 st century, the state must make the transition from manufacturing and agriculture to a knowledge-based economy.

“Film production and digital media is part of the knowledge-based economy and Gov. Perdue understands that,” Syrett says. “I’ve had the opportunity to work with five different governors over my career and she’s one of the first governors that understands it and stands by what she says.”

Perdue accompanied Syrett on a junket to Los Angeles last year to meet with a number of motion picture executives.

“She met with every studio head, and she stood toe to toe with them, and she told them that North Carolina wants to be in the industry and she’s backed that up,” Syrett says. “She pushed hard this past legislative session to get what we need to be competitive and she’s stayed true to her word.”

For all its emphasis on the art of storytelling, Sundance is also a competition. On Saturday night, Dunton will find out if her Sundance premiere film won perhaps the most prestigious of all accolades — the Audience Award.

Back inside the Yarrow Theatre, Dunton says her purpose in producing to.get.her was not to preach or teach, but to disturb. She said she hopes her film will encourage teenage girls to openly discuss their darkest thoughts without fear of judgment so that, perhaps, a tragedy can be prevented. Dunton’s film is clearly an audience favorite because it embodies the spirit of Sundance, which is eloquently stated in festival founder Robert Redford’s quote on the cover of the 2011 festival magazine — “Cinema has shown over and over that, as human beings, we share values beyond any border, real or imagined.”

Cinema will always have a place at Sundance, and it is the hope of film industry advocates like Dunton, Syrett, Hwa and McDowell that a 30-year tradition in North Carolina continues going strong for another 30 years and beyond.

Filmmaker Erica Dunton (far right) participates in a question and answer session after the world premiere of her film, to.get.her, during the 2011 Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 21. Dunton, who shot the film in Wilmington, was joined by cast members (from left) Jami Eaton, Audrey Speicher, Chelsea Loga, Jazzy De Lisser and Adwoa Aboah.