The surge of film projects coming to North Carolina, the potential for expansion of the state’s film incentive and the need to train more people for careers in the industry were among the topics discussed at this week’s N.C. Film Forum session.
“State of the State” was the theme for Wednesday evening's session. Panelists were Johnny Griffin, director of the Wilmington Regional Film Commission; Susi Hamilton, chairwoman of the Governor’s Advisory Council on Film, Television and Digital Streaming; and Eric Johnson, a senior vice president at Trailblazer Studios in Raleigh. Dan Brawley, head of Cucalorus, moderated the virtual forum.
The current year could break records in terms of North Carolina film projects, Griffin said.
“In 2019, we had the best year in five years. In 2020, we started off strong, but COVID hit and wiped everything out,” he said. “In the last few months, we have done more business than we did in ’16, ’17 or ’18. We’re steamrolling right now; the amount of production we have is unbelievable, and it’s changing daily.”
”The productions already completed in 2021, those in prep, and those committed to being here will likely spend about $217 million,” Griffin continued, adding that productions in the pipeline could possibly bring that amount up to $252 million for the year.
“The conversations we’re having now [with possible projects for later in the year], it could go to $300 million or even higher,” he said. “This could be the best year ever, not only in Wilmington but in North Carolina. Once [the industry] has come back, people realize what they always knew: This is a great place to make movies.”
Asked if there is enough money in the state’s grant pool to provide incentives for all the scheduled productions, Griffin confirmed that there was.
“Some projects don’t file for their money until much later. We talk about it now and earmark it, but it’s not paid out for 18 months or two years down the line. We’re moving forward, recruiting projects now through the end of 2021 and into the spring of 2022. There’s a worldwide shortage of studio space, so projects are looking to grab it now.”
Hamilton spoke about two parallel efforts in the N.C. General Assembly to enhance the state’s incentive program. Sen. Michael Lee (R-New Hanover) and Sen. Paul Lowe (D-Forsyth) have introduced a bill that would add $34 million more per year to the grant pool in each of the next two years. Currently, the state allocates $31 million per year for the grant pool.
Rep. Deb Butler (D-New Hanover) and three other Democratic state representatives have filed a bill in the House that would reinstate the tax credit incentive program, which predated the grant program and was repealed by the General Assembly in 2015.
Johnson noted that most post-production work is done out of state and advocated for a separate pool of incentive funds that would support the growth of that industry segment in North Carolina. He pointed to a successful effort by the Hudson Valley Film Commission in New York to lure post-production work by maintaining a separate incentive fund for it.
Panelists pointed to improvements the state could make in the film incentive program, such as lowering the budget threshold that projects must meet to qualify for the state’s incentive.
“Currently, it’s $3 million for a feature film, $1 million for made-for-TV films and $1 million per episode for a TV series,” Johnson said. “Lowering that threshold would open up the incentive program to more indigenous North Carolina filmmakers. There’s nothing wrong with outsiders, but [access to the state’s incentive program] would make it more attractive for outside investors to invest in North Carolina films. Unscripted series could qualify if the threshold were $1 million per season rather than $1 million per episode.”
Johnson said "unscripted content" makes up another half of possible revenue-generating content but the state is missing out on it since the $1 million-per-episode minimum threshold in the current incentive program can't be reached by most reality or documentary series. He added that Trailblazer Studios is working to increase diversity in all aspects of filmmaking.
Hamilton added that the grant program structure also works against higher-budget films. A producer of two, $50-million films can earn more in grant funds than would a producer of one, $100-million film.
Still, there is progress on many fronts as North Carolina’s film industry recovers from the restrictions during COVID-19 and the loss of projects prompted by the state’s so-called “Bathroom Bill,” HB2.
“Netflix has brought its first series back to North Carolina since HB2 caused them to remove their projects,” Hamilton said. “There are definitely future opportunities. Our North Carolina-grown directors, writers and producers always want to return home, and it’s important to retain the students we train here.
“North Carolina taxpayers are invested in [filmmaking] programs at the UNC School of the Arts and at UNCW, and they want those students to stay here,” Hamilton continued. “Netflix has lived up to its promise to return to North Carolina after HB2. Demand [for film content] is up, and there’s a demand to diversify, really driving interest in our state. Plus North Carolina has a great history because we have generations who grew up with the industry here.”
N.C. Film Forum is a six-month professional development series providing resources to support the careers of creative professionals who make movies for a living. The series is presented by the Cucalorus Film Foundation and the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
NOTE: This version of the story corrects the statement comparing early 2021 project business to that of previous years, and corrects Griffin's statement about the time span of projects whose expenditures will likely total $217 million. It also clarifies Johnson's statement about why the incentive's TV series spending thresholds cause North Carolina to miss out on about half of possible revenues.