Film commission a solid investment

by Jim Longworth

Last week a  little boy in Tobaccoville invested a few cents in a lemonade stand, then promptly sold one glass of his beverage to actor George Clooney who was in town to shoot a new movie. Clooney gave the boy a $20 tip. The transaction was a microcosm of how film production impacts our economy. That’s because film crews spend about $20 million per year in our area.

But Clooney and others like him don’t just appear here out of thin air. They are recruited, wined, dined and cajoled by one tireless woman who is competing for their business against other cities, states and countries. Rebecca Clark is the director of the Piedmont Triad Film Commission, and her efforts on our behalf have netted us hundreds of millions of dollars and international recognition.

Two years ago, for example, Clark was recognized at the Academy Awards, when “Two Soldiers” took home an Oscar. The short film was shot here in the Triad, as were Junebug, Cabin Fever and many others.

Film production is on the rise all over North Carolina, thanks in part to a new incentives package that was passed by the legislature in August of last year. The law provides for a full 15 percent tax credit on productions of $250,000 or more. It is a move we had to make in order to stay competitive with Virginia and Canada. But incentives aren’t the main reason Hollywood production companies keep coming to our area. The reason is the Film Commission, and Clark herself, who provides an array of services such as a vast photographic library of over 1,500 potential locations. She also supplies on-site scouting of filming locations, and she offers her valuable assistance to filmmakers both before and during production.

Funding for the commission comes primarily from the 12 member localities it serves, and thanks to Clark those members have seen a return on investment that would make a Wall Street trader green with envy. That’s because she brings in anywhere from $200 to $500 in production money for every dollar contributed to the Commission’s meager budget. And that brings me to funding.

It’s that time of year again when Clark must ask her member localities to sustain or increase their annual contribution, and every year she must wait patiently and nervously to see if local officials will come through.

Over the years, Greensboro has been pretty consistent with its contributions, giving $30,000 annually to PTFC. Guilford County also usually donates $30,000 to the cause, although the county used to give $50,000 throughout much of the last decade. And High Point, a much smaller city than Greensboro, is always supportive, giving $14,000 per year.

The problem children are Winston-Salem and Forsyth County. Mayor Allen Joines is a big cheerleader for the Film Commission, but only manages to contribute $17,000 per year. Clark will ask the Twin City for $50,000 this year, and Council should pay it willingly.

And then there’s Forsyth County. Year after year, the Forysth County Board of Commissioners has refused to give any money to support movie-making in the Triad. This is particularly embarrassing considering that board members like to brag that we are an arts mecca, and that two of Clark’s last recruits (Fall Down Dead and The Key Man) brought in nearly $3 million to Forsyth County’s economy.

The Film Commission only works if its member localities see the big picture – that is, not every movie is going to be shot in all 12 localities at once. One film may locate here and shoot in Guilford County, while the next film may spend money in Stokes County and High Point. In the end it all evens out, and the economic impact is a plus for everyone.

Still, over time Winston-Salem and Forsyth County do get a large share of productions, so they should contribute the largest percentage to Clark’s budget. Instead, one coughs up a little money, and the other gives nothing.

Film production is economic development no matter what critics say. Film companies hire laborers, technicians and actors, many of whom live in this area. They purchase lumber and supplies form local stores. They rent facilities, and the California-based crew members stay in our hotels and eat in our restaurants. They don’t pollute the air, foul our streams or demand $300 million in free perks just for locating here.

We need film companies working in our area, especially given the increasing number of plant closings and layoffs. So I urge the Winston-Salem City Council and the Forsyth County Commissioners to pony up their fair share  of funding for the Piedmont Triad Film Commission.

The little boy in Tobaccoville understood the importance of investing in movies.

It’s a lesson that shouldn’t be lost on our local elected officials.

Jim Longworth is host of “Triad Today” which can be seen Friday mornings  at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7), and Sunday nights at 10 p.m. on MY48 (cable channel 15).