Very few industries can compete with the film industry in terms of economic impact.
Film production creates a ripple that reaches far into every corner of our state’s economy – from hardware stores to restaurants, gyms and even tourism. Fans still travel to Wilmington today to visit locations from the classic TV show Dawson’s Creek, which filmed its first episode 20 years ago. That’s pretty special. Just imagine what might happen if we were proactive about showcasing our legacy as a film production location. Signage and promotions could enhance that traveler experience and encourage more visitors.
Years ago, I would have stopped there, but thanks to the thought leaders who have helped develop the Cucalorus Connect Conference, I now have a deeper understanding of the economic forces that make the film industry so powerful. This is the result of a rather odd collision – a traded sector industry that operates within what we now call the “Gig Economy.”
Like other traded sector employers, film productions employ highly skilled workers and offer them premium wages.
The industry was legendary in that way when I graduated from Duke University in the mid-90s. It had a reputation for paying at least twice as much as other employers for the same skills as a trade-off for the long hours and the intense, but wildly creative, work. The icing on the cake: every two months or so you got a few weeks off until the next production started. Creative and entrepreneurial, film industry professionals used those gaps in employment to transform downtown Wilmington into an entertainment destination and to launch countless businesses, including Cucalorus.
This employment pattern is one reason that economic leaders at the state level so profoundly misunderstood the impact of the industry when they began examining tax incentive programs in 2014. I’m not sure how useful it is to unravel the countless ways that we made it difficult to attract film productions, but clearly the grant program that replaced our previous incentive has been too narrow to deliver significant results.
We’ll need a renewed effort to convince our leaders in Raleigh to consider moving back to the old incentive program. The film industry is a powerful economic driver with nearly uncountable positivebenefits and we’ve invested way too much to let it go without a continued fight. Writing to your legislators and requesting a return to a tax incentive package would be a good start.
We’ll also need to make stronger efforts to retain some of the talented directors and producers that we’re training across the UNC system.
Georgia’s emergence as the number one production location in the U.S. should be seen as a bonus too. Since we’re just a short drive away and offer distinct advantages (living at the beach!!), many producers and studio execs will choose Wilmington over Atlanta once we have a competitive incentive program. Creating jobs and bolstering the economy is rarely so easy.
Dan Brawley is the chief instigating officer of the Cucalorus Festival, an international celebration of filmmaking, performance and technology in Wilmington.