By all accounts, it’s boom times for film production in North Carolina and especially in the Wilmington area.
Guy Gaster, director of the N.C. Film Office, confirms that project spending in the state during 2021 is projected to reach at least $410 million, but it could likely be more.
“It’s a really banner year for the state,” Gaster said. “With that, there are what some may see as growing pains.”
Those growing pains result from a swelling demand for film content and a finite number of trained workers in the state to produce that content. Without an expanding workforce in the state, some projects interested in North Carolina might have to go elsewhere.
“We’re encountering some problems, but they are good problems to have because that means we’re being successful,” he said.
The state needs to attract more people to the film trades, Gaster said, and there are clear benefits to all parties if the workforce is more broadly representative of the general population: more women, more minorities and more people with different socio-economic backgrounds.
Susi Hamilton, former secretary of the N.C. Dept. of Natural and Cultural Resources, couldn’t agree more.
“As economic developers will tell you, the first thing an interested company will ask, whatever the project, is ‘Tell me about your workforce,’” she said. “That was the one thing we weren’t doing enough of in the entertainment industry; developing a future workforce.”
Hamilton is the interim board chair for the newly formed Film Partnership of North Carolina, whose primary aim is to help build the skill set of the local and regional workforce with an emphasis on women and minorities who are largely underrepresented in the industry.
“Big names – the top of boardroom – have been calling for more and more diversity,” Hamilton said. “Most film-related jobs are behind the scenes. Traditionally – like any other trade, because most jobs are trade-oriented – those skills are handed down from generation to generation. So the trade is a group that looks like each other. It’s time now to pull all interested parties to the table and give [lots of people] the opportunity to train for a rewarding career. The more hands-on the experience you offer, the better.”
As a first step toward that goal, the city of Wilmington plans to award the Film Partnership a $400,000 grant to launch a program that will offer hands-on training in a variety of film trades.
The initiative will provide an average of five weeks of on-the-job training for a minimum of 90 participants. Pupils will be paid $15 per hour with 10 hours of preapproved overtime at $22.50 per hour. Grant money comes from the city’s American Rescue Plan Act funds, which are expected to equal about $26 million over two years. Training could begin before the end of the year, according to officials.
“No one’s ever paid for workforce training before,” Hamilton said. “That’s what the pandemic has changed. You offer people a paid opportunity to learn a career on the job.”
A program that expands the number of skilled film tradespeople in this region is essential, said Andrea Walker, co-owner and producer of Lighthouse Films in Wilmington. When local film activity is up, her independent studio sometimes has difficulty finding the crew it needs for projects. At the same time, she praises the regional film workers’ collegial spirit.
“When productions come to town, they are amazed by how much our film community helps one another, builds each other up,” Walker said. “We should focus on mentoring and training the persons we have in our community to encourage a more diverse and well-trained film crew that will be committed to making Wilmington their home and putting roots down in our film community for years to come.”
This $400,000 grant won’t establish a long-term training program, but it’s an important beginning, said Tony McEwen, Wilmington’s assistant to the city manager for legislative affairs. McEwen said the city grant will act as seed money to spark further investments in film workforce training locally and across the state.
“We are taking the lead with Susi in bringing in more funding partners,” McEwen said. “We’re partnering with the Film Partnership right now to have conversations with other local governments where there is a film industry presence and ARPA funds. There are some corporate and labor interests that likely would participate as well. To help with education, we’re partnering with the UNC School of the Arts; we don’t know whether they could supply outright funds or resources in other ways. And we’ve met with UNCW officials.
“There will be a grants writer actively seeking other workforce development funds,” McEwen added. “The film industry is seen as glamorous but at the end of a day those are just jobs. We will work with other councils of governments and our own Cape Fear Council of Governments. This industry is too important to the Wilmington area to not strengthen it, not only to benefit our community but also the industry.”
The next step is getting “the right folks around the table and doing some quick strategic planning,” according to McEwen. Those parties include the Wilmington Regional Film Commission and the Girls Leadership Academy of Wilmington [GLOW], which focuses on preparing its students for success in meaningful careers.
“To the [film] industry’s credit, they are certainly investing in diversifying their workforce and putting that out as a priority for future projects,” McEwen continued. “A lot of these production houses have started to create or will be creating this as a priority for where they will locate projects. It’s the right thing to do from our view and it’s smart business.”