Even as the film industry remains in slo-mo as an actors strike drags on, foundational developments are taking place in Wilmington that could attract more film projects in the future.
The recent sale of EUE/Screen Gems’ Wilmington and Atlanta studios to Cinespace Studios, with facilities in Toronto, Chicago and Germany, marked a historic change for the region’s film industry. EUE/Screen Gems has been the site for productions in Wilmington since the 1980s.
Terms of the sale, announced Sept. 27, were not disclosed.
The Wilmington campus, the largest film production facility in the state, covers 50 acres and houses 10 soundstages.
Cinespace, coined the “Hollywood of the Midwest” by the Chicago Sun-Times, works with streaming companies, major television and film studios, independent features, commercial and nonscripted projects, according to Ashley Rice, Cinespace’s co-managing partner and president.
“The new leadership will bring industry expertise and commitment to the local community to set the stage for a successful future,” Chris Cooney, owner of EUE/Screen Gems, said in a release announcing the sale.
The Cooney family has run EUE/Screen Gems since the 1980s and purchased the Wilmington studios in the 1990s.
Rice said the acquisition of the Wilmington studios allows Cinespace to expand its portfolio and support “every creative need and production.” The production company expanded its 86 total studios to 109, according to its website.
EUE/Screen Gems-hosted productions, such as Stranger Things filmed in Atlanta and One Tree Hill filmed in Wilmington, joined Cinespace’s existing portfolio of projects such as The Handmaid’s Tale and Academy Award-winning film The Shape of Water.
Cinespace declined to comment on details about the transaction and its plans for the Wilmington studio, but the acquisition’s impact could be significant, said Johnny Griffin, director of the Wilmington Regional Film Commission.
“For this global company to look at Wilmington and to think ‘Okay, this is a place where we want to establish a presence and this is where we want to be able to do business,’ I think speaks volumes,” he said.
He cautioned, however, that changes might not happen soon.
“The industry is still shut down,” Griffin said, but he added the city is in a good position to vie for film projects in 2024, assuming actors and studios resolve their differences soon. He believes that Wilmington’s recent film industry activity could draw attention from major film companies, bringing higher-profile projects to the city.
The strikes this year by the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) dealt a one-two punch to the area’s economy, Griffin pointed out. Production spending decreased by over $200 million in the Cape Fear area alone, compared to that of 2021, he said.
“We’ve got hundreds of [film crew members] that have not had a paycheck in months; some of them even going on a year,” he said. “It’s certainly been a blow to Wilmington this year to not have a film industry here. We’re all anxious for 2024 so we can get back on track again and have healthy business.”
Once the SAG-AFTRA strike is over (talks had broken down as of press time in mid-October), EUE/Screen Gems’ studios sale might have already created a new reputation for Wilmington’s film scene, said Guy Gaster, director of the N.C. Film Office.
“There is a certain level of expectation: a level of service that customers have already experienced and assume they will get with a Wilmington studio. Now that it’s part of the Cinespace portfolio,” Gaster said.
“I certainly think that more projects coming to Wilmington is a possibility, [partly because] Cinespace has multiple properties,” he added. “This is an industry built on connections: Cinespace people can pitch their [various] properties. They are a company that has been in this business for some time; some of their executives have been in it for a while, so maybe there are some connections that Screen Gems did not have.”
Susi Hamilton, president and CEO of the Film Partnership of North Carolina, said she also hopes to see more projects come to Wilmington because of the Cinespace acquisition.
“Cinespace is a reputable company. It’s in their best interest to bring projects where they have made investments,” she said.
The new owner has not commented on what, if any, capital improvements it plans for the studio campus on 23rd Street, referred to as Hollywood East, which served as an epicenter for film activity in the area for the past four decades.
Gaster mentioned a couple of possibilities for changes to the studio, such as a commissary area or technological improvements.
“There are always opportunities to explore,” he said. “I’ve been seeing and reading about virtual stages with LED screens that look a lot more realistic, where special effects can be shot. That’s something that could be considered. That technology is just becoming available.”
Beyond that, Gaster said, Cinespace might expand the back lot area or install a bigger water tank. “But remember,” he said, “It’s a business. Do any of these improvements make sense for the kinds of projects that will come to North Carolina?”
New leaders are among the changes being made by Cinespace in the wake of the sale. Cinespace officials have said that Bill Vassar, the long-standing EVP of EUE/Screen Gems Wilmington operations, will continue as a consultant through the end of the year.
“Bill has been a community advocate and a leader in the industry for decades,” Hamilton said. “His absence will be felt, but Bill has had a long and exciting career in all things production, including radio. He’s a friend, and I’m excited for him to be able to look back on all his successes and forward on his next endeavor.”
Meanwhile, the new team is taking shape. Rice is one of three co-managing partners. Eoin Egan is a co-managing partner and chief operations officer. Keith Gee, another co-managing partner, serves as chief financial officer.
Chris Crowder is head of client services and operations. Ian Gibson is director of sales and production planning for the region. Michael Scott Jr., as director of industry and community relations, “will be working closely with the film community, local unions, government and city and state film offices,” Rice said.
Given other developments happening locally, it’s possible a greater range of projects could stage their work here. In its recently completed session, the N.C. General Assembly supported the continuation of the state’s film incentive program.
A new player in Wilmywood, Dark Horse Studios, broke ground in August on two new soundstages, doubling its space. It’s also equipping the facility with state-of-the-art technology, according to co-owner Kirk Englebright. The city’s increased capacity for film projects should be attractive to studios and streaming companies looking to satisfy post-strike demand for new content, industry observers say.
Another major local initiative that could aid in a post-strike film boom is the Film Partnership’s workforce training program. The program aims to ensure that the region will possess enough skilled film professionals to support multiple projects at the same time. Since the program kicked off in March 2022, about 100 people have completed it. And, aligned with major studios’ commitment to building a diverse workforce, about 40% of the program’s graduates come from what Hamilton calls “historically underrepresented communities.”