Lights, camera … not so much action

Not so long ago, Western North Carolina seemed to be on the brink of an exciting new chapter in its long history as a filmmaking destination. We’d already been attracting “pretty nice-sized movies,” as WNC Film Commissioner Mary Trimarco puts it, “every other year … since The Last of the Mohicans” — movies like Nell, 28 Days and Patch Adams. And with some promising additions to the local film scene in recent years — the creation of the Asheville Film Board (now the Asheville Film Commission) in 1998, the opening of Blue Ridge Motion Pictures in 2001, and the launching of the Asheville Film Festival in 2003 — the movie industry seemed poised to become a more significant player in the regional economy.

But no major feature films have come our way since The Clearing was shot here in 2002, and according to Trimarco, none are looming on the near horizon. That year, according to the WNC Film Commission (a program of AdvantageWest), the film industry spent about $5.5 million in WNC (the all-time high was the roughly $17 million in 1991, the year Mohicans was made). And though the numbers for 2003 and ’04 are still coming in, Trimarco predicts that the final tally will be substantially less than in past years — most of it coming from national car commercials shot here.

So what happened?

Show me the money

The problem isn’t limited to WNC. The dearth of big-budget films shot in the region reflects a growing trend that’s being felt across North Carolina and nationwide — what Yale Global, a publication of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, calls “the offshoring of Hollywood filmmaking.”

Increasingly, film production has moved overseas, wooed at first by a strong U.S. dollar (which gave American companies more bang for their buck via favorable exchange rates) as well as other countries’ attractive tax breaks and incentives programs. In the late 1990s, Canada hosted 80 percent of these “runaway productions,” Yale Globe reports, but it too is now facing increased competition from places like Hungary, Romania and Brazil, which offer substantially lower wages and even more generous tax rebates.

According to a 1999 study commissioned by the Directors Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild, runaway productions jumped from 14 percent of total U.S. film and television output in 1990 to 27 percent in 1998 — with a total negative impact on the national economy of more than $10 billion a year.

In North Carolina — the No. 3 filmmaking state (after California and New York) in terms of production revenues for 19 consecutive years, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce — this has meant a steady decline in revenues, from an all-time high of $504.3 million in 1993 to $209 million in 2003. Thanks to the weakened dollar, some of that lost business is returning to the United States — but not necessarily here.

Many states now offer their own incentives programs to lure filmmakers to their area. Hawaii, Louisiana, New Mexico and Pennsylvania have the most aggressive programs, according to Filmmaker magazine. A number of others (including Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New York and South Carolina) have passed legislation during the past year. And just last month, Georgia became the latest state to adopt an incentives program.

Louisiana’s particularly lucrative incentives package for filmmakers includes unlimited tax credits worth up to 20 percent of most wages paid by moviemakers and 15 percent of total production costs.

“It’s just undeniably attractive,” notes Trimarco. “What it’s done is made it very difficult to justify filming in the state of North Carolina.”

Robbinsville resident Lance Holland, who has worked as a locations scout and manager for such locally shot films as Mohicans, The Fugitive, 28 Days and My Fellow Americans, just returned from a five-month stint in Louisiana managing the stunt unit for The Dukes of Hazzard (a film version of the popular ’80s television series) — “a piece of really high art,” he jokes.

“The bottom line … is that they’re giving away cash for film companies to come to Louisiana,” says Holland. “And it’s working. We’re all down there. There’s 10 movies probably [being made] there right now.”

The 25-member North Carolina Film Council put together an incentives committee last year to review other states’ programs and make recommendations on what North Carolina ought to do.

In December, the committee sent a proposal for a film-incentives package to Gov. Mike Easley‘s office. Making no bones about the situation, the proposal proclaims: “The failure to enact any type of incentive program aimed at the film industry will contribute to the continuing decline of the industry in this state. Further, we see such a decline as being the direct result of similar incentive programs in other states, some of them contiguous to North Carolina. Such decline undermines the infrastructure that North Carolina has developed over the past twenty-five years by sending crewmembers and support services out of the state. These small businesses and the North Carolinians holding these jobs are the losers in this escapade.”

The committee also made a grim prediction, saying, “We are quickly entering a period where but for an aggressive incentives program, this state will quickly lose jobs that have been considered a given for the last two decades.”

There are several factors a studio considers in choosing where to shoot: a suitable location, the availability of a skilled crew, and a film-friendly local community, explains industry veteran Jack Sholder, who joined Western Carolina University’s faculty last year to help develop its film program. But “financial incentives are … the first thing they look for,” he reports.

“They ask, ‘How much is it going to cost me? How much money can I save?” says Sholder, who has shot all over the world and has directed such films as The Hidden, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2, Renegades and HBO’s By Dawn’s Early Light. “If I go here and it’s going to cost me this much, and I can go there and it’s going to cost me this much less, I’m going there. It’s that simple.”

Untapped gold?

But with so much attention focused on luring big-budget feature films to the region, it’s easy to overlook one of the area’s biggest cinematic assets — its vibrant independent-film community. Indeed, some maintain that this represents the real future of filmmaking in WNC.

One such true believer is Kurt Mann, the owner of Ironwood Media Group and the current chairman of the Media Arts Project. Mann has directed the documentaries New Millennium (featuring the Dalai Lama and host Richard Gere), Worth Saving and Mystics of Findhorn, as well as the 26-part talk show Wisdom Profiles (featuring a mix of social activists, scientists, healers and musicians) for the Wisdom Channel.

“I think the days of the big feature films coming to North Carolina because it’s a right-to-work state or because it has great locations may be past. In fact, they may never return,” says Mann. “What I think we need to be focused on … is to [grow] the independent-film industry from the ground up.”

Already, he argues, certain key pieces are either in place or on the horizon. One is educational infrastructure: Western Carolina University, UNCA, Haywood Community College and A-B Tech all offer good filmmaking or video/digital-media programs. And Blue Ridge Motion Pictures plans to launch its own one-year comprehensive film institute this fall.

Mann also praises last year’s Asheville Film Festival for its “terrific educational offerings [such as] seminars on film financing and distribution.”

Another promising development, notes Mann, is the funding now in place for equipment and facilities for URTV, a public-access cable channel for Asheville and Buncombe County. Once the URTV board finds a home for the channel and gets it up and running, says Mann, it “will give local media creators access to tools that they can afford [and] access to distribution, so people can see their work.”

Eventually, Mann and others hope URTV will become part of a state-of-the-art media-arts center that would give local artists even more opportunities to hone and market their skills.

Visibility is vital, agrees digital artist (and Media Arts Project founder) David McConville. “The most important thing is ongoing screenings and events to keep encouraging people to make better and better productions, to be more and more innovative,” he says.

Still, the one thing almost everyone interviewed for this article agreed on is the area’s abundant supply of creative capital.

“Asheville is such a vibrant town for media in general,” observes local filmmaker Paul Schattel, whose last film, Sinkhole, was shown as a work in progress at the 2003 Asheville Film Festival before going on to win a Best Narrative Feature award at the 2004 Indie Memphis Film Festival. “There are just a lot of really creative people who have the tools and the talent to go out and make really cool stuff.”

A virtual factory

But the consensus also seems to be that what’s lacking is sufficient financial support for these creative ideas.

“What’s needed — the way good independent movies get made is by people funding them,” notes documentary filmmaker Paul Bonesteel. His company, Bonesteel Films, has produced such works as Folkmoot and The Mystery of George Masa (which premiered at the 2003 Asheville Film Festival and has since aired extensively on television). “I am not going to stand on a soapbox and say that everyone in town should give to their local filmmaker, but without money [it’s hard] … to do a professional job.”

It’s true, notes Bonesteel, that thanks to changing technology, “a lot of films can get made for what is thought of as a low price tag. [But] even a low price tag is $50,000, $100,000 [or] $200,000. That money still needs to come from somewhere.”

What’s needed, Mann believes, is a change in mindset “to get the movers and shakers in this community — the people who are influential, that have resources — to get them thinking differently about the media,” he says.

The local media community “is not a bunch of kids making Web sites,” Mann explains. “They’re a group of very serious, highly motivated, highly skilled professionals that, if given the right resources, could produce product — intellectual product, films and television, games — that could be marketed and exported out of Asheville.

“One of America’s top exports is entertainment, and people need to start thinking about what we do as media manufacturing. … And even though people may think we’re a little more glamorous than the traditional manufacturing that we’re all familiar with, really what we do isn’t that much different than what a factory does.

“The factory has schematics; we have the script. The factory has nuts and bolts; we have actors. The factory has a big facility; well, we have a bunch of individual entrepreneurs and freelancers that are scattered about. We don’t have a big factory that everyone gathers at, but when we have a shoot … [everyone comes together] to create the product, and then you put it in distribution. There’s this pipeline. … We could be developing that [and] … generating more jobs in the area if we had the financing to develop the infrastructure [and] … to start creating at least some prototype projects so that we can go out and sell them.”

But, argues Mann, “until local and regional investors decide that there is gold in the potential projects that these producers have, then we will not develop very quickly.”

The nonprofit Media Arts Project, he notes, has been working with Sharon Willen, director of business and industry services at the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, to help “brand Asheville — not just as a place where you can come to see the Biltmore House and do some whitewater rafting, or move your factory here because it’s beautiful and in the mountains … [but] to think about Asheville as a media center, as a creative community that can produce projects for larger companies that need that kind of outsourcing — and to outsource to Asheville instead of sending them elsewhere.”

Trimarco, the film commissioner, agrees that it’s “important to develop filmmakers here and not be dependent on big jobs swinging through our state and leaving — and going wherever, for them, the market conditions make sense.”

A declaration of independence

Independent films, Trimarco points out, are claiming a growing share of the market. In 1984, only 33 of the 162 films released nationally were indies, according to Exhibitor Relations (a statistical-research firm for the film industry). By 2004, that number had jumped to 263 of 420 films.

Independent filmmaking, says Trimarco, “is this whole other area we have to foster. And one of the biggest things we have to do … is to find ways to make investing in these films attractive.”

The recent success of a number of independent films produced in the region could bolster such efforts. Four of the 16 feature films screened at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival were shot in the South, two of them in North Carolina: Loggerheads (shot partly in WNC) and Junebug (one of whose stars won a special acting prize). In February, Sony Pictures Classics bought the domestic rights to Junebug (which was made for just under $1 million) for an undisclosed amount. Renaissance Films bought the international rights. Another film produced in North Carolina, Two Soldiers, won an Academy Award last year in the Live Action Short Film category.

“The Paul Schattels and the Chusys of the world,” predicts Bonesteel (referring to Chusy Jardine, who’s currently making Asheville: The Movie), “one of those guys … is going to hit a home run. And when they do, it’s going to be really good for the micro-region. There are other filmmakers who have done really well who are from the state or from the region. … But I’m looking forward to somebody [from Asheville] stepping up and really making something that’s widely celebrated.”

That, Mann agrees, “will bring more and more work here.”

The coolest little town

Still, it would be premature to sign a death warrant for big-budget Hollywood films coming to WNC.

In late February, Gov. Easley floated a proposal for a statewide film incentives program, and though it’s not as open-ended as the N.C. Film Council plan, “it is a really positive step forward,” says Trimarco. “What’s really important about this is that … [it shows] that the governor is committed to this industry.”

One key component is a grant program that would return up to 10 percent of in-state production expenses for a qualifying film project. The governor has recommended an initial allocation of $4 million a year to the program, “which means $40 million of new business,” says Trimarco. “And a 10 percent rebate is really competitive with many of these other incentive programs.”

Late last month, lawmakers from Wilmington (which saw its film revenue plummet from $66 million in 2000 to $33 million in 2003) filed identical bills in the N.C. House and Senate proposing their own incentives program. That plan, Trimarco explains, would rebate 15 percent of in-state expenditures to any production company that spends at least $250,000 in North Carolina.

Meanwhile, questions have been raised about the effectiveness of Louisiana’s much more aggressive incentives program. Although it has “sown a lucrative, high-profile industry” in that state, according to a Feb. 27 article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the paper went on to question whether “the benefits have been worth the cost.”

Since 2002, the program has paid out nearly $100 million in tax credits to film-production companies, the paper reports, but according to a recent analysis commissioned by the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Film and Television Development and the Legislative Fiscal Office, for every dollar Louisiana taxpayers have paid out through the program, the state has recovered only about 30 to 33 cents in new tax revenues.

Both the Easley and the Wilmington proposals are much more fiscally conservative, notes Trimarco. Even if only part of a movie is shot in Louisiana, for example, the tax credits cover the film’s entire budget — including the sometimes multimillion-dollar salaries of its stars, according to the Times-Picayune. The North Carolina proposals, on the other hand, would apply only to direct, in-state expenditures.

“The cost/benefit [ratio] is much better,” says Trimarco. “In Louisiana, they’re losing money, but what they’re doing is building this huge industry. But at some point, the money will have to run out.”

The North Carolina proposals also set a relatively low threshold ($250,000 ) to qualify for a rebate. That could make either of them a boon for independent filmmakers too, she notes.

Perhaps not coincidentally, WNC has seen a recent upswing in film-scouting activity, Trimarco reports. “My guess is that it’s in anticipation and hope that these incentives will pass in time for projects to shoot later in the year. But no one has committed yet.”

And Holland says he would love to see an incentives program here, “because we are far more visually diverse than Louisiana. … We obviously have locations and scenery, and Asheville’s just about the coolest little town that anybody in this business has ever seen. On almost every film we do here, somebody stays.”


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