Film commission director says entire state benefits from thriving film industry

WILMINGTON, NC (WWAY) — The film industry has been a mainstay in the Wilmington economy since the early 1980s churning out a number of feature films, TV series, independent productions and more.

The industry began in Wilmington when film producer Dino De Laurentiis came to the area in 1983 to produce a film called Firestarter shot primarily on location at Orton Plantation in Brunswick County.

“He built a film studio, trained local technicians, other people moved to the region and now, we have a studio complex with 10 soundstages, EUE/Screen Gems, hundreds of crew people here, and businesses and vendors that support the industry,” said Johnny Griffin, director of the Wilmington Regional Film Commission. “It’s really amazing that it grew from nothing.”

Over the years, the industry has benefitted many neighboring small towns and communities throughout the Cape Fear region with millions of dollars pumped into local businesses for a variety of items such as building supplies, props and vintage clothing.

But there’s also a strong tourism component.

“Especially in some of the smaller towns where projects have been filmed like Southport and Burgaw with Under The Dome,” Griffin said.

With some shows like Matlock, Dawson’s Creek, One Tree Hill and others attracting a huge fan base, tourists often flock to the Cape Fear to see where some of these shows were filmed.

“Then, they visit the restaurants, they go to the businesses there and we’ve even had a small business pop up in Southport like a movie tour company for people who were just coming there to see the sights where movies have been filmed,” Griffin said.

Each spring, hundreds of people from all over the country and the world come to downtown Wilmington for an annual convention celebrating the One Tree Hill TV series.

Griffin says Wilmington isn’t the only municipality that stands to profit economically from a having a thriving film industry here.

“Obviously, this is where the bulk of it is, but when films come here, they’re always looking for other locations or sometimes we just can’t accommodate those projects here, they may need an urban city, so they may look at Raleigh or Charlotte, or maybe they need  mountains, so they may go to the western part of the state,” he said. “Filming has impacted about 80 of the 100 counties in North Carolina so it truly is a statewide industry.”

Recently, Words on Bathroom Walls completed production in the Cape Fear. According to the Office of NC Governor Roy Cooper, production on this project alone was expected to generate direct in-state spending of more than $9.3 million and create 650 jobs.

“They were here for about probably about 3-4 months and you multiple that over multiple projects or television series that are here for months at a time, and you can see the impact,” Griffin added.

In recent years, however, things haven’t been tracking as strongly for the local film industry because more productions have been lured away from the state by more attractive incentive packages offered by competing film-production hubs like Atlanta and Louisiana.

“In the last couple of years, we’ve been in the $40-50 million range, but in years prior to that we were well over $100 million, even reaching over $200 million per year just from film productions coming to the region,” Griffin said.

When you think of economic impact, many people think of the lights and cameras, but there’s so many other companies that stand to benefit from productions here.

“You just look on the set everyday and the clothing the people wear has to be purchased, if you’ve built a set and its the interior of a house, you have to buy picture frames, buy furniture, every little thing that they use and that all comes from local businesses that are not movie specific, but are mom-and-pop businesses that benefit from it,” he said.

As for getting strong legislative support from Raleigh lawmakers, Griffin says our local delegation gets it, but that’s not necessarily the case for lawmakers from other areas of the state.

“Across the state, obviously, other legislators don’t see the economic impact because its not in their backyard, but given the opportunity for the business to grow here, as it grows, then it spreads across the state and the more business we have, the more counties are impacted,” Griffin said.

When state incentive packages are reduced, it severely impacts the industry in Wilmington.

“We start to see projects pull away, so as long as we can keep it healthy, we will see it spread across the state,” Griffin said.

Griffin says movie directors weigh a number of factors when determining a location to film a production.

“They’re looking for incentives, they’re looking for the locations they need to depict the scenes they need but they need a place that understands the industry, they need crew people who are trained that are well known, that are reputable and we have that here with crew people that are known around the world and have worked around the world,” Griffin said.

He maintains that Wilmington still has a reputation for truly supporting the industry from top to bottom and hopes others will realize the potential economic benefit by supporting it financially with incentives to lure future projects.

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