If North Carolina lawmakers don’t renew film incentives during the short session – or if they choose to gut them to the point they’re no longer competitive with other states, some industry insiders are predicting an exodus of long-time film professionals from Wilmington.
While politicians debate the statewide economic merits of the tax breaks and negotiate a reconfiguration of the package, film crew members who’ve lived and worked in Wilmington for years are deliberating over what they’ll do next if the film business dries up in North Carolina. Put the house on the market? Move the kids to a new school? Commute to Atlanta or New Orleans?
It's Part One our series exploring film in Wilmington.
[NAT SOUND OF SCENE SHOP]
Tom Jones is the Construction Coordinator on the hit CBS TV series Under the Dome. His Department builds the sets for the show.
"Oh, yeah, everybody either lives here either in New Hanover, Pender, or Brunswick County so they’re all from the three-county area. Most of them on this crew have ten-plus years in the business."
Jones raised his kids in Wilmington, put them through school here, and is still his family’s primary breadwinner. In the construction shop and around the set, the film incentive is a non-partisan issue.
"It certainly benefits us. …It’s more than the people you see that are actually working in the business. It’s their families and their families’ families and their vendors and their restaurants and mortgage companies. We’re all taxpayers and we’re all voters and we hope that’s some sort of a message."
Jones can be more flexible than many of the crew members working for him. He started in the business in the 1980s, training with world-class professionals when Dino De Laurentiis brought a major film studio to Wilmington. His kids are now grown, and he has the freedom to travel for work – if he must.
Bo Webb is a Camera Operator on Under the Dome.
"I moved here in 1992 fresh out of college. And I was thinking about going to Los Angeles to work in the film business – or maybe New York – and I met a guy who was working here and he said, ‘Oh, yeah, you should try Wilmington.’ And I did."
22 years later, Webb, like Jones, is his family’s predominant source of income. He’s putting his two children through private school in Wilmington. But his children are still young, and conversations at night with his wife about what’s next can be agonizing.
"There are a couple of options. Neither one we’re very keen on. One option is just to move to Atlanta which is probably the closest, biggest market."
But the small-town feel of Wilmington is one of the reasons Webb and his wife don’t want to leave. They also love their house, their friends, and Webb’s two children are attached – yes -- to their school.
"They actually said that school was their favorite thing about Wilmington – which was shocking… [laughter] for the parent of a middle-schooler."
Moving isn’t the only option, though, for the Webb family…
"The other option would be for me to get residency down there and commute back and forth. And the wife and kids stay here in Wilmington and I travel back and forth and come home whenever I can on weekends or, you know, between jobs."
RLH: "How do you feel about that?"
BW: "That’s a lousy option."
Using the term “exodus” to describe what might happen should the industry lose incentives in North Carolina is not hyperbole, says Webb.
BW: "That is realistic."
RLH: "That’s not just a stark picture being painted…"
BW: "No, no. Certainly, all the people that I know have been thinking about that and talking about it. Because most of the people that I know work in the business here. That is their sole source of income.
And I’ve talked to a lot of guys – not only do they work in the business – but they have small businesses of their own -- renting equipment to film, renting cars to film companies, food, catering, that kind of thing.
So they really not only would have to pull up roots and move to another town but they’d have to bring their businesses with them because their businesses wouldn’t stay afloat."
Webb then takes me on to the busy set… where one crew member after another volunteers their story.
Ritchie Nannini moved to Wilmington 20 years ago.
"I’m the Best Boy Grip… [SET SOUND, LAUGHTER] on Under the Dome."
He and his wife and their two dogs are in wait-and-see mode. It’s not a comfortable place to be.
"We talk about what we would do and may do and may not do and…. Hmmm. I don’t know. It’s tough. It’s really, really tough. It’s hard to talk about sometimes. It’s kind of hard to talk about now. Because, you know, for a lot of us it’s our livelihood and it’s very – it’s emotional for a lot of us, too."
Julie Delaney is in charge of the Hair Department on the show. If the incentive goes away, she knows what she’ll do.
JD: "Probably Atlanta. Because it’s close… Yeah I’ll have to move. You have to work."
Dan Turek is a camera assistant. Married, with children. One in college and one in private school in Wilmington.
"I’ll definitely have to move, yeah. I don’t think I’ll wait here and hope in two or three years we can turn it around."
His sights are set on Atlanta.
"And it seems like they’re building more -- every year they’re strengthening their film base there and not being attacked like we’re being attacked every year here."
After a long career as a cinematographer, Herb Harton has retired in the Cape Fear region. He’s past the point of going anywhere. But he’s flummoxed by the anti-incentive movement.
"The film industry is a good industry. It doesn’t pollute. It has good people who work really hard for good money… Atlanta, Georgia will be happy to take our crew base. And let ‘em pay taxes there."
But for now, the sounds of the power tools and staple guns continue in Tom Jones’ scene shop…
[SOUNDS OF STAPLE GUN AND POWER SAW]
"Right now, every stage on the studio lot is occupied. For Screen Gems, it’s their salad days right now. They’re really stroking it. Hopefully it will continue…"
[POWER SAW SOUND fade out…]