Nov. 19, 2008 12:00

The 5th Quarter

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A local project highlights film industry’s potential in th

On Day 16 of The 5th Quarter’s production schedule, the film adaptation of the story of former Wake Forest football player Jon Abbate and the loss of his younger brother, Luke, during the Demon Deacons’ 2006 dream season, crew members worked quietly and efficiently in and around the Gold’s Gym off Reynolda Road in Winston-Salem. As grips, electricians and set dressers worked in a cramped workout room, preparing for a scene featuring Ryan Merriman, who plays Jon Abbate in the film, a sense of peace and calm fell over the 100-member crew. Despite the fact the film company had a good number of scenes to capture before day’s end, the set felt less like a Hollywood movie and more like a family reunion. There were several reasons for that.

The 5th Quarter, which also stars Andie McDowell and Aidan Quinn, is a Cinderella story that emanated from a great tragedy, said writer/director Rick Bieber. It is a Winston-Salem story, so there was never any question the film would be shot in the Piedmont Triad and nowhere else, Bieber added. Pre-production on the film began in the spring of 2007. Bieber, along with Executive Producer Alan Cohen and Associate Producer Joel McDonell, reached out to Wake Forest University for assistance in scouting locations for the project. With their commitment to telling the story accurately, the film’s producers set in motion a domino effect that built the foundation of their crew, which by Day 16 had, in their own words, truly become a family.

Devin Kidner, a 2007 Wake Forest graduate, was one of the flagship members of the 5th Quarter family. Kidner raised her hand in her communications class at Wake during her senior year, and the next thing she knew she was interning on the project. Kidner said she knew Jon Abbate and his family personally, so she jumped at the chance to work on the movie. When principal photography commenced on the project last month, Kidner had been promoted to locations manager. Rebecca Clark, director of the Piedmont Triad Film Commission, said Kidner’s story is a perfect example of how a vibrant film industry can help the region retain its most talented and educated young people.

“Recruiting film business here, it isn’t just to recruit big stars from Hollywood, it’s more for the jobs that it’s creating locally, especially for the people we’re training in the area,” Clark said. “That’s what I’m extremely passionate about — keep the young people in the region so they don’t have to go to New York or California and hopefully they’ll be more opportunity for them in the future.”

Kidner is joined on the 5th Quarter set by 25 current or recent graduates of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, yet another indicator of the area’s growing crew base. Clark estimates that nearly half of the 5th Quarter’s crew are students or graduates of Piedmont Triad’s colleges and universities. Clark said she routinely hears concerns from film producers and directors concerns about the depth and experience of the area’s crew base, and comparisons to Wilmington are inevitable.

“A lot of times, if a person is familiar with North Carolina’s production community, they automatically think of Wilmington and that’s typical because Wilmington has historically had bigger projects and they have the largest crew base in the state,” Clark said. “It’s always an obstacle that I’m confronted with.”

To a person, crew members of The 5th Quarter extol the virtues of hiring local talent. Assistant Location Manager Aaron Hammersley, a 2008 UNCSA graduate, said it behooves producers who wish to film in the Piedmont Triad area to take advantage of the talent that’s available. However, the dominant trend appears to be a significant number of Hammersley’s UNCSA classmates heading to the West Coast upon graduation to pursue opportunities in Los Angeles. That trend represents a net loss to the area’s economy, he added. Hammersley said he’s considering a move to LA, but “if we continue to see more and more films and a steady stream in this area, I would be able to stay here.”

Production Coordinator Alexandra Dimopoulos, another UNCSA graduate, can take credit for much of the 5th Quarter’s crew having a decidedly local flavor. Dimopoulos said she encourages directors and producers to take a broader view of the film resources in the area. The versatility of area crew members is something Dimopoulos promotes every chance she gets.

“I think our strength is in the fact we’re a jack-of-all-trades because we have to do it all,” Dimopoulos said. “You do big pictures, you do small pictures, you have to figure it out, you have to do it all. That’s our greatest strength but that’s the hardest thing to explain to people from out of town.”

Dimopoulos said the number of UNCSA graduates returning to the area from LA to work in the industry or produce their own projects continues to grow on an annual basis. After spending eight years in LA, Dimopoulos returned to the area about two years ago, and has worked steadily ever since. Her greatest challenge on this film has centered on the lack of film production services in the area. However, that would also change if more film projects came to the Piedmont Triad.

2007 proved to be a banner year for the area’s film economy as 12 productions, highlighted by George Clooney’s Leatherheads, set up shop in the Triad. Clark said the Piedmont Triad competes against other parts of the state, Wilmington specifically, for big-budget and low-budget projects. North Carolina’s film industry competes with South Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana and other states in the Southeast who offer greater economic incentive packages to movie producers.

In August 2006, Gov. Mike Easley signed into law legislation that provided for a full 15-percent tax credit on productions over $250,000, and not exceeding a credit per project over $7.5 million. South Carolina and Georgia offer a 30-percent tax credit to film productions. And other states offer even greater incentives, including Michigan which offers a 40-percent refundable tax credit to film productions in the state.

“I don’t think we have to offer 40 percent, and frankly, I don’t know how Michigan is doing that and how long they’ll be able to keep that up,” Clark said. “One thing we have that Michigan doesn’t have are stages, production resources and skilled crew. Because we have this infrastructure, we don’t have to offer as much as Michigan. However, I’m not saying the film incentive shouldn’t increase, but 40 percent is way too much; 20 to 25 percent would be great.”

If the North Carolina General Assembly increased the current film incentives to 20 or 25 percent, local film production would see a big spike, said Clark.

In the meantime, UNCSA graduates who have committed to staying in the Triad are gradually building an army of talented professionals who support each other in their separate endeavors, said Brandon Frazier, a UNCSA graduate and set production assistant on The 5th Quarter.

“We’re all trying to get movies together so we can all work on them,” Frazier said.

Currently, Frazier is collaborating with UNCSA professor Steven Jones in developing a horror film to be shot in Winston-Salem. Frazier said the network of UNCSA students is vast and close knit, and could provide the foundation for the renewal of the area’s film industry.

“It’s who you know,” said Frazier. “That leads to a job, that leads to a job, that leads to a job. Because we’re such a tight-knit group, we throw that work to each other so we can constantly keep working and the love comes back.”

Kidner said her story of going from intern to head of a department on a $6-million film exemplifies how rapidly a film professional in the Triad can ascend as long as they maintain their networks.

“The reason why we go to college is to make social networks. It’s not about what you learn; it’s about who you meet,” Kidner observed.

Sophia Mandal Martinez Moore is committed to pursuing her passion in the Piedmont Triad. Moore, a graduate of Piedmont Community College’s film program, works as the production designer on The 5th Quarter. Two years ago, Moore started her own film production services company, Prop Tarts, Inc., in Burlington. At the moment, Moore has to travel around the state to maintain steady work. She also has to be flexible and work on a variety of projects, including commercials and corporate videos. Flexibility is key for local film professionals, Moore said, until more feature films begin shooting in the Triad. Still, Moore remains optimistic about the future of the local film scene. It will simply require educating LA- and New York-based producers of all the area has to offer.

“I think what it’s going to take is companies realizing we have everything from directors to gaffers to camera operators in North Carolina. We really have it all here,” Moore said. “Once people start realizing we have all the people here and you don’t have to bring everyone in, that’s going to build the industry here.”

Kidner said it’s important for local film professionals to emphasize the intangibles of filming locally. One of the state’s greatest assets, Kidner said, is its people.

“The people are absolutely down to earth and friendly,” Kidner said. “It’s really about your people skills. If someone wants to shoot in the Piedmont Triad area, it’s one of the best places you can shoot. You’ve got the variety of locations and locations are all about people. If the people are friendly, they will bend over backwards to do whatever you need to do, and they’ll serve you sweet tea while doing it.”

Kidner cited a number of examples of local restaurant owners closing down for the day to accommodate filming, and even a local funeral parlor loaning the production its hearse at no cost. Bieber concurred with Kidner’s assessment, stating the production could not have been as ambitious in its depiction of the Abbate family’s story without the cooperation of Wake Forest University and the countless contributions from local businesses and individuals. Bieber also praised the work of Clark for her efforts in putting together a local crew with speed and precision.

“The talent level of our crew is equivalent to that of a $60-million feature film,” Bieber said.

Kidner said the Abbate family’s story touched the lives of so many people in the community that it’s made her job of securing the cooperation of business owners, individuals and local officials a breeze.

“The entire community of Winston-Salem has been amazing,” Kidner said. “This is a story that extends beyond Wake’s boundaries. This is something that affected the entire Winston-Salem community, the Piedmont Triad and all schools in the ACC.”

Dimopoulos said the story of the Abbate family has touched not only the community but crew members who were not as familiar with the story. During the filming of one emotional scene starring Aidan Quinn, Dimopoulos said she saw a number of crew members tear up. And it is that emotional core of the film which has provided the underpinning for everything, Dimopoulos said.

Kidner spoke as a Wake Forest alumnus and a friend of Jon Abbate.

“It’s been a journey for all of us,” she said. “This is not a destination. This is not something that we just got to and we’ve grieved, now we’re in our acceptance stage. This is still something we’re all dealing with.”

The heart of the local crew, and its emotional connection to the story will have an indelible imprint on the film, said Bieber. And the end result could be a shining example of the Piedmont Triad’s growing film industry and how making a movie here is more advantageous than making a movie anywhere else.

To comment on this story, e-mail Keith T. Barber at keith@yesweekly.com.

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