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Wilmington Business Owners Say Film Needs A Boost

Large studios in Wilmington sit mostly vacant, months after a tax rebate expired. The film industry is estimated to bring $50 million to the region. Last year, the Regional Film Commission said it provided $170 million into the local economy.
Credit Jeff Tiberii
Large studios in Wilmington sit mostly vacant, months after a tax rebate expired. The film industry is estimated to bring $50 million to the region. Last year, the Regional Film Commission said it provided $170 million into the local economy.

For more than 30 years, the Wilmington area has been a hub for the filming of movies, TV shows and commercials.  Dawson’s Creek and Iron Man 3 are among the hundreds of productions cast in the region.

But earlier this year, a tax credit designed to incentivize the industry expired. Now business owners say with only a few productions remaining, the economic effects are significant.

Port City Signs is a small shop situated along a busy road in this coastal community. It has been around since the 1940s, printing signs, vehicle wraps or decals, and other art.

"This year we’re running 20 percent behind last year on just pure volume of work and I attribute most of that to the loss of film and TV," said owner Sabrina Davis.

She and her staff of eight work regularly with the art departments of movies and TV shows, transforming local high school gyms for scenes in One Tree Hill, and helping to create the sets of the TV series Sleepy Hollow. This year has not been regular. Since a film credit expired in January, productions have been taking their business elsewhere.

"Well, so Sleepy Hollow that ordered almost every single day. We’ve had one order since January first," she said.

The series will film its third season in Georgia where it received a tax incentive. Only three productions are currently filming in North Carolina. The piggy bank of incentive money is empty, and no new projects are on the horizon heading into what has been the busiest time of the year. The lack of projects likely means fewer seasonal workers checking-in to area hotels.

"We have seen probably a decrease of over a thousand room nights so far this year and the big worry is the fourth quarter. Last year’s fourth quarter was film quarter and obviously this year there might not be any," said Greg Thompson, General Manager at the Homewood Suites.

Thompson says the film industry brings between one and $1.2 million of annual revenue to his hotel.

Casey Colby has been with Enterprise car rental for five years. Her store is less than a mile from Screen Gems Studios, the largest production facility of its kind east of Los Angeles.

"Sleepy Hollow is leaving – they’re not coming back here. That’s 40 cars for me for 10 months, on average – that adds up -  about $32,000," she said.

The loss of revenue hasn’t affected Cobly’s take-home pay yet, but she estimates it will, by about 20 to 30 percent.

"The trickle down effect is, is so much," Cobly said. "These people make good money and they spend it I our community. I get asked so much buy these people – ‘What’s local? What’s good?'"

From lumber yards to restaurants, an array of business owners say with fewer cameras rolling revenue is down in 2015. According to the Wilmington Regional Film Commission, the industry spent $170 million  in the region last year. Director Johnny Griffin estimates that figure will drop to $50 million this year.

"With a reduction in money, means fewer people working; from last year to this year you’re looking at $120 million  that we will miss out of our local economy just from the lack of film companies not being here," He said.

Griffin is calling on state lawmakers to provide an economic tool to help lure productions back. A temporary $10 million grant fund was allocated earlier this year. That money has all been distributed. Supporters of film want $66 million in annual grants.

"I’m not a fan of it. I’m OK with the $10 million," said Bob Rucho, a leading Republican in the North Carolina Senate. Legislators in that chamber seem more likely to allocate grant money than restore a tax credit.

"The more we can move away from the tax code into the grant program or into a budget item, it puts sunshine on all that stuff," Senator Rucho said. "And then the General Assembly can say ‘wait a minute, we’re not interested in helping out that.'"

Local business owners and supporters are hoping for some kind of help from the General Assembly. They say budget debates this spring will shape the future of film in North Carolina for years to come.

Jeff Tiberii covers politics for WUNC. Before that, he served as the station's Greensboro Bureau Chief.
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