The film and TV industry has played a major role in the Wilmington economy over the years. That impact is about $1.6 billion in direct spending from area productions since 2000, said Johnny Griffin, director of the Wilmington Regional Film Commission.
This year, that impact is estimated at about $150 million in spending by local productions, significantly higher than the past four years, he said.
Spending has steadily declined since 2014 (after a change from the state’s film tax incentive to a capped grant incentive program) and reached its lowest point locally in 2018, with an estimated $38 million.
Wilmington and North Carolina have lost a lot in the past to the state of Georgia, which has reported an estimated $2.9 billion in spending from nearly 400 productions in the 2018-2019 fiscal year, a record for the state.
But film recruiters this year landed five productions in Wilmington, and all but one project has wrapped. The Miramax movie under the working title The Georgetown Project, which stars Russell Crowe, is the only project left and is slated to wrap in December.
Recruiting production companies to the area requires strategy and key elements such as an experienced crew, varying locations and stage space, Griffin said.
“If we can get all those elements to work, then we get a company that comes here. Albeit it is short term, if you will … But it’s that continuum of work that supports our industry, one job after the other,” Griffin said. “And when they come, they spend millions of dollars, employ hundreds of people and spend money in the local economy. So, we view it as economic development. It’s just a very niche market.”
Whether it’s clothing shops, lumber yards, hotels, antique stores or some other industry supplying the means needed to run a production, the spending from film and TV touches many outside industries locally, said Bill Vassar, executive vice president of EUE/Screen Gems Studios in Wilmington.
The 50-acre, full-service production facility is the center of film and TV productions in Wilmington, he said. With 10 stages and 150,000 square feet of column-free shooting space, it is one of those key components for companies scouting the region.
“Wilmington is the epicenter of the North Carolina television and film industry. We’ve been hosting productions for 35 years,” Vassar said. “Wilmington has the ingredients necessary to attract the production business.”
The main target for business recruitment today is TV, specifically the streaming services, Vassar said.
“We’re in the new golden age of television with over 600 scripted shows in production and development. There’s a tremendous opportunity to get high-end productions into our area for the streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, Apple [TV]+, Disney+ and others. Next year we’ll see the launch of Peacock for NBC and HBO Max for Warner Bros. This is the future. This is our business,” Vassar said.
On average a single production can employ anywhere from 150 to 200 people, not including extras or the community businesses that benefit and add employees to support the influx of business, Vassar said.
Among other benefits to the region is the tourism generated by filming locations, he said.
“People come to Wilmington to visit the locations where Dawson’s Creek, Blue Velvet and many other iconic film and television shows were shot. Also, once a producer, director or actor works in Wilmington they fall in love and want to return,” Vassar said.
And even though, as of press time, no companies have given the greenlight to run a project in Wilmington next year, the recent successes leave Griffin hopeful.
“I have every reason to believe,” Griffin said, “that it will continue in 2020 based on conversations we’re having.”