Film production remains curtailed in North Carolina despite increased grant funding
The cameras are still rolling in North Carolina, but over the past year, many production companies have shifted their focus toward Georgia, South Carolina and elsewhere in the region.
In 2014, the state legislature declined to renew a program that had allowed film and television productions in the Tarheel State to claim a 25 percent refundable tax credit with a $20 million cap on eligible expenses.
“The film industry is like any other business North Carolina is trying to recruit—they are going to want to know what incentives are being offered to win their business,” said Rebecca Clark, executive director of the Piedmont Triad Film Commission. “With the North Carolina film incentive, we were offering just enough of a rebate to be competitive with other states without North Carolina ‘giving it all away.’ But now we have lost millions of dollars of business to Georgia—and we’ve lost crew members, their families and their taxes to other states.”
North Carolina over the past few decades has become a prime filming destination and began offering film and television tax incentives in 2005. It is home to the largest studio in the United States outside California, EUE Screen Gems in Wilmington. Among the productions that have shot in the state over the years are “Dawson’s Creek,” “Iron Man 3” and “The Hunger Games.”
In the Triad, George Clooney, Amy Adams and Owen Wilson are among those who’ve shot projects.
“The Longest Ride,” starring Scott Eastwood, and “The Disappointments Room” starring Kate Beckinsale, have filmed in the area in recent years. Producers for the latter, Clark said, spent about $10.8 million in the state, employed 411 local crew and used the services of 71 businesses in the Triad.
According to Guy Gaster, director of the North Carolina film office, film and television productions spent about $316 million in the state in 2014. That dropped to $65 million in 2015, the first year after the old tax credit system was replaced with a grant program that had more stringent guidelines.
As was the case previously, productions can receive a refund of 25 percent on eligible expenses.
However, the grant program has a $5 million cap for film projects, and $9 million per season for television productions, as opposed to $20 million for both film and television projects before.
Under the old system, productions were required to spend at least $250,000 to receive a tax credit. But under the new program, television productions have to spend a minimum of $1 million per episode, and feature films a minimum of $5 million.
In 2014, the state awarded $60 million in tax credits according to the North Carolina Department of Revenue.
However, only $10 million was made available in 2015 under the grant system, which was claimed by only a handful of productions.
Georgia, in contrast, offers a tax credit for 30 percent of eligible expenses and has no cap.
This year North Carolina made available $30 million for the grant program. As a result Gaster said, film and television spending in the state this year is expected to hit about $130 million, double what it was last year.
Even with the incentives change, Gaster said, the state still offers plenty for those thinking about filming in the region.
“We continue to promote our infrastructure, our strong crew base, the variety of locations,” he said. “We have a large amount of studio space, a number of equipment houses. If somebody needs something at odd hours, we have businesses used to that.”
Among the productions that have recently shot in the state, he said, are the History Channel series “Six,” and a remake of the 1987 film “Dirty Dancing.”
In the Triad, two reality series continue filming – TLC’s “My Big Fat Fabulous Life” in and around Greensboro, and Velocity’s “ToyMakerz” in Reidsville. Clark said both employ local crews, including graduates of UNC School of the Arts and UNCG.
But, she said, “not one single project that has benefitted from the limited film grant has shot in the Piedmont Triad.”
“The grant has not benefitted this region at all,” Clark said. “Since there is limited money to give as a rebate to film companies who spend money here—and that even qualify for the refund grant—the productions are most likely going to shoot where the most crew live in order to save costs. And that’s Wilmington. However, if we want this lucrative industry—utilizing a state grant—to benefit the entire state and not just one or two areas, we must revisit and/or reconsider the film incentive in my opinion. We have crew statewide that need these jobs.”
Clark estimates the incentives changes cost the Triad about $15 million in lost feature film business.
At UNCSA’s School of Filmmaking, many students are looking outside the state for work.
“It’s been much more difficult since the incentives dried up,” said Susan Ruskin, dean of filmmaking at UNC School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. “Many of the students would like to stay here. But, the incentives change means a lot more students will have to leave.”
House Bill 2, which, among other things, dictates that transgender people use the bathroom corresponding to the gender listed on their birth certificate, has also caused complications. A&E Networks, which owns the History Channel, announced earlier this year it had no further plans to film in the state.
Clark said she believes the public has many misconceptions about what the film industry is like, picturing a world of bright lights, red carpets, haute couture and rich celebrities. However, the reality is quite different for most people in the business.
“I welcome (legislators) to come learn more about the industry,” she said. “It’s not the glam and glitz people think it is. It’s carpenters, electricians, long hours, hard work. It’s something that affects a lot of different businesses.”