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Spotlight on North Carolina

Spotlight on North Carolina

Articles - Directing

Mark Joy
and Tracey Gold in Perfect Daughter.

Wilmington, North Carolina is leading
the way in the state’s ongoing drive to be one of world’s top film
production sites. Dennis Hopper liked working in Wilmington so
much that he bought the old Masonic Building downtown and plans
to turn it into an actor’s school. Linda Lavin moved her operation
to Wilmington lock, stock and barrel, purchased three properties
and has started acting workshops. Tom Berenger bought a house in
Wilmington after working here, and Henry Winkler returns periodically
since making One Christmas here with Katherine Hepburn. Paul Newman,
Tim Robbins, Julia Roberts, Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger all visit
this quaint city of 16,000 every chance they get.

But stars aren’t the only ones attracted to Wilmington. "We’re
beginning to look like an expatriates’ community," notes Ralph
Colelli, referring to all the film people from Los Angeles, New
York and other major cities who have made Wilmington their new
home. Colelli, himself a onetime Hollywood resident, now has a
production office in Wilmington, where he has been producing commercials
for national and international clients for two years. "When
there’s a lot of production going on, schedules can still be hectic,
but at least you don’t have a two-hour commute home. There are
a lot of talented craftspeople here." Wilmington is a different
lifestyle, he points out, "but you can’t help but fall in
love with the area, the people, the beauty. We might not have as
much work as Hollywood, but when you have 16,000 hours of talent
for 800 crew people, you can make a decent salary."

Over the past decade, Wilmington residents have grown
accustomed to the sight of production trucks, cables, crowds hovering
around the action. It’s not uncommon for Wilmington to have six
or seven productions underway at one time. The city brings in $30,000
to $80,000 a day–anywhere from 12 to 15 percent of the city’s
total revenue. "Eighty percent of the film work done in North
Carolina is done in Wilmington," explains Mark Stricklin,
director of the Wilmington Regional Film Commission. "There
is more production in Wilmington than in 45 other states combined."

In 1995, in fact, Wilmington (which ranks third as
the most popular film location in North America, surpassed only
by Los Angeles and Toronto) brought in $240 million as a result
of the film industry.

Several factors have contributed to Wilmington’s
popularity. It has a solid film-related infrastructure: crew, equipment,
camera/grip/electrical packages and support people. It also has
the largest complex of construction stages available in the East,
Screen Gems Studios’ 100,000-square-foot complex. There are a variety
of locations that provide riverfront charm and quaint downtown
backdrops. Surrounded by the Cape Fear coastal waterways and the
Atlantic Ocean, the area has handsome beaches, low country, and
charming small-town and old-Southern settings, include plantation
homes. The only things missing are a major cityscape–Charlotte
is used when that’s needed–and mountains, for which Asheville
fits the bill. The Screen Gems back lots, however, have doubled
for major cities, as have the Wilmington Film Commission studios.

Robert Duvall and Olga Bellin in Tomorrow.

Wilmington has attracted medium-budget projects
in the past, but is beginning to see larger budgets. To the city’s
credit, Wilmington has been used in feature films including The
Hudsucker Proxy
, Rambling Rose, Betsy’s Wedding, Date
With an Angel
, Blue Velvet, and a portion of the remake
of Lolita. Made-for-TV movies have included Noble House, The
Young Indiana Jones Chronicles
, Sophie and the Moonhanger,
and Anjelica Huston’s Bastard Out of Carolina. In addition,
Wilmington has hosted the TV series Matlock, American Gothic and The
Road Home
, as well as scores of commercials for clients such
as American Express, Revco, McDonnell Douglas, and numerous music
videos.

The bottom line is always a driving force when making
movies. But Wilmington’s large talent pool and film savvy also
a major factors for this influx of activity. "They know they
don’t have to bring their own crew," Stricklin explains. "Wilmington
has some of the best crew people you can find." Of the 1,200
crew people in the state of North Carolina, 800 are to be found
in Wilmington. "They not only work here, they live here, so
they’re not going to step on anyone’s toes," says Stricklin. "This
is our bread and butter."

A sleepy coastal town, Wilmington was once home to
Dino de Laurentiis, who set up shop with Carolco Studios in 1983
to produce Firestarter. It remains the largest film studio on the
East Coast. Just recently, Carolco, which was rented out for film
projects while in bankruptcy for two years, was auctioned off to
the highest bidder. It went to EUE/Screen Gems Ltd. for $3.4 million
and installed Frank Capra, Jr. as studio head.

Word seems to be spreading rapidly about the benefits
of working in Wilmington. Stricklin, who until recently ran the
Film Commission singlehandedly, says the office gets hundreds of
scripts each year. He reads through them and sends the appropriate
location photos (selected from over 50,000) that could work for
the script. "The film office also serves as a clearinghouse,
putting out-of-town film people in touch with local people who
can help them locate a production manager and coordinator," he
points out.

Judy Cairo, executive producer of Her Deadly Rival,
a TV movie produced in Wilmington, hopes to produce more projects
in Wilmington. "I’m not tied to a particular location. I can
choose anywhere in the world," she says. "[But] anytime
I’m looking for a location, I consider Wilmington. There’s a fabulous
crew base, and we have a comfort level because of the amount of
production being done there. We know people have had good results.
I know when I work in Wilmington I’ll have professionals, beautiful
scenery . . . And because North Carolina is a right-to-work state,
we get more for our money. We can come in on budget." Terry
Morse, who produced To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday and Teenage
Mutant Ninja Turtles II
, scouted Wilmington, along with Los
Angeles, for the upcoming production of The Marshall Plan.
He, too, cites the cost of working in Wilmington as a selling point. "The
large base of non-union people, good people, is a definite advantage," he
says. "Salaries and housing are reasonable if you’re shooting
during the off-season. If there’s any drawback to the area, it’s
a shortage of actors and actresses, but that’s a very small disadvantage."

Over 230 projects looked at Wilmington in 1996, and
90 major productions scouted the area–an excellent track record. "I
used to agonize over every project we didn’t get," Stricklin
recalls, "but we’re landing one out of ten. That’s pretty
phenomenal."

At this writing, 43 projects had been completed in
Wilmington in 1996: 23 TV movies, including A Degree in Deception;
six features, including Blood Moon; three independent films;
and a host of TV segments, documentaries and commercials.

Sophie and the Moonhanger.

Throughout the summer months, The Night Flier,
an independent Steven King feature, was underway here, alongwith A
Member of the Wedding
, a major URSA movie. Then there were Santa
and Me
, a Lifetime movie of the week; Snakes and Ladders,
a CBS movie of the week; and The Summer of Ben Tillman, a
Hallmark Hall of Fame production. At present, Virus, a Universal
Studios feature, is being filmed here, along with two more TV movies, Ditch
Digger’s Daughter
and Love’s Deadly Triangle.

"With several productions going on simultaneously,
it can be a real juggling act," says Stricklin. "In 1993
we had two movies of the week in production–at the same time on
the same street–while a merchant was having a sidewalk sale. That’s
when it became apparent we needed to have some procedures, a method
to the madness. You have to orchestrate every detail. It’s also
important that we educate the community about the business of filmmaking," explains
Stricklin. "Films have been made in Wilmington for the past
13 years, but we are seeing more and grander productions. We want
the community to understand that people come here because of the
crew and support services. They depend on the businesses here.
It they don’t have a pleasant experience, it could all be over
in a heartbeat." A San Francisco native, Stricklin loves Wilmington. "I
guess it’s as close as we can get to the American dream, a Norman
Rockwell kind of town. In this day and age that’s pretty attractive."

And he’s not alone. They keep coming: renowned photographer
Brownie Harris; character actor Pat Hinkle; Peggy Farrell, a costume
designer who moved her entire operation here from New York; and
Suzze Toon, a Los Angeles native and makeup artist for 15 years,
are a few more who now live in this latest candidate for the title "Hollywood
East."

"I was a child actor. I grew up in the Hollywood
of yesteryear," says Toon. "Wilmington has the feel of
a younger, smaller Hollywood in its infancy." Since moving
to Wilmington, she has established a retail cosmetics boutique
downtown which carries her own line of makeup. "I love having
the public come into the shop, along with the film people. I love
a small town. It keeps everyone honest. And I certainly don’t miss
the earthquakes.".

Moviemaking in every region of North Carolina is
setting records. According to Governor Jim Hunt, in 1995 filmmakers
spent $391 million here in the process of making 54 features, 91
television projects and a variety of national TV commercials. In
1996, the number of feature films was down to 40. But, says Film
Commission Director Bill Arnold, revenues are expected to be higher
because the films were produced by Hollywood Studios with larger
budgets.

Warner Brothers produced My Fellow Americans with
Jack Lemmon and James Garner in Asheville. Paramount filmed Kiss
the Girls
with Morgan Freeman in Raleigh. Universal Studios
used Wilmington for their remake of Day of the Jackal with
Bruce Willis, Sidney Poitier and Richard Gere. Digging to China with
Kevin Bacon and Diane Keaton was shot in the North Carolina mountains. To
Gillian on her 37th Birthday
, starring Michelle Pfeiffer, also
rolled its cameras in the Tarheel State. And Body Count,
which will feature David Caruso, Forest Whittaker and John Leguizamo,
is scheduled to begin production in Charlotte in 1997.

"Filmmakers spent more than a million dollars
a day, every day in North Carolina in 1995 alone, averaging a new
movie every week," Hunt says. This placed North Carolina in
third place, trailing only California and New York as the country’s
most active film production state. The 54 features made in 1995
shattered the state’s previous high of 39, set in 1994, representing
a 10 percent revenue increase. Two of the largest productions in
1995 included the $70 million Lolita, starring Jeremy Irons
and Melanie Griffith, and the $50 million Eddie, featuring
Whoopi Goldberg.

Wilmington captured the majority of production with
$240 million generated from features and TV projects. The Charlotte
area brought in approximately $89 million, most of that from Eddie and
three other features, as well as 27 TV shoots. As a result of increased
film activity, a regional economic development organization established
the Charlotte Regional Film Commission. Film activity in the Research
Triangle region generated $27 million in industry spending in 1995,
with six features and six TV projects. Western North Carolina hosted
a single feature and nine TV shoots, accounting for an estimated
$15 million in industry revenues. Winston-Salem and the Piedmont
Triad brought in revenues of $12 million, garnered from portions
of Lolita, Eddie, and 24 TV shoots. The area also
established its own regional film commission.

Since Governor Hunt established the state’s film
program in 1980, North Carolina has developed a variety of resources
to help boost the industry: seven working production facilities,
29 soundstages, a back lot, support services and a skilled technical
work force. These have helped bring 300 movies to the state and,
last year alone, created 32,840 temporary jobs. Other states would
do well to take notice. MM

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