Cash registers throughout the Wilmington area are once again ringing up purchases from film studios as projects multiply in the Port City.
“We are estimating at this point that productions will spend about $65 million here this year,” Wilmington Regional Film Commission Director Johnny Griffin said Tuesday, while noting that 2020 is not yet over and projects often take time to report their financial information.
This area saw encouraging film activity before the COVID shutdown in March, and the arrival of two projects – Scream 5 and USS Christmas – in September, as the industry instituted coronavirus protocols to keep sets safe for casts and crews.
Now, after the Hallmark Christmas-themed film has wrapped locally and the latest film in the “Scream” franchise – code-named Parkside – is in the late stages of production here, Wilmington is hosting two other projects.
One is Starz’ crime drama series Hightown; the other, recently announced, is Fox’s comedy series This Country, whose pilot briefly shot in Wilmington early this year before shooting was curtailed by COVID-19. The series has been approved for a full season.
“Even though we took a six-month break due to COVID, $65 million is more than film spent here in 2016, 2017 or 2018,” Griffin said. “To put this in context, productions spent about $135 million here in 2019; that was our best year since 2014. [The trend] shows us that we’re still strong, still on a roll. The industry came back strong, and I expect 2021 to be another record-breaking year for us.”
From its grant pool, the N.C. Film Office has approved a rebate of up to $1.1 million for USS Christmas, up to $7 million for Scream 5 and up to $12 million for Hightown. Halloween Kills, which wrapped locally a year ago and will be released in 2021, was eligible for up to $7 million in grant funding. The Film Office has not yet released maximum grant eligibility for This Country.
And there’s more to come, according to Griffin.
“We’ve got a couple of other projects – feature films – that we don’t have permission to announce yet, but we’re expecting to come in before the end of the year to prep. They would start filming early next year,” he said. “Beyond that, interest is still really hot. We’ve had lots of conversations with film and television series that are looking to move forward after the first of the year.”
Studio executives want to know what their project’s incentive amount is likely to be, whether there will be sufficient crew available, and whether they can identify the specific locations they need, Griffin added. On all counts, Wilmington seems to be well-positioned to attract more projects.
“It seems like the momentum is there,” he continued. “I don’t see anything other than COVID that would impact that. We have the space, the crew, the money. Locations always come into play, but we have everything else. The mystery is COVID. If anything happens, I don’t see [potential restrictions] being specific to Wilmington; it would be industry-wide.”
Griffin believes that Wilmington at this point can handle between three and five film projects at once, but timing is key. If those projects’ schedules are staggered, they can draw on the skilled trades groups as those teams become freed from earlier projects.
“We’ve got, at this point, a high employment rate right now among film crews,” Griffin said. “Some crew members are leaving one project and going straight to another. We do provide crews to productions in Charleston and in Charlotte. This is the highest [film-related] employment we’ve had in a while. It’s a good load.”