The battle rages on in Raleigh over film incentives. Think tanks and industry consultants hurl average- versus median-wage grenades at each other as they defend their grant-based or rebate-driven trenches. The combatants even adopt each other’s weapons and tactics. Anti-incentive Republicans decry the expiring subsidies as “corporate welfare,” while pro-incentive Democrats defend them as an essential part of a more “business-friendly” North Carolina. It’s a great script that’s just looking for a killer title. Will the story of North Carolinas’s relationship with the film industry end up being “From Here to Eternity” or “The Last Picture Show?”
You can read reports by economists and academics that attempt to measure the economic impact of the film industry in North Carolina and then compare that to the cost of the incentives – and come to opposite conclusions. Every study seems to look at the issue from a different perspective, so we in the public are left trying to compare apples to oranges – or perhaps more appropriately, Blockbusters to Indies. While I have read and heard a great deal on the topic from politicians, industry representatives (from studio bosses to grips), and pundits of all stripes, I can’t recall anything that covered the impact that filmmaking has on the region’s nonprofits.
One interesting way that film benefits my organization, Cape Fear Habitat for Humanity, is through purchasing. Set designers and builders buy items from our two ReStores to use as props – and then donate them back when the production is over. I thought that there was no way to improve on the ReStores’ basic model of receiving donated items for free and then selling them to support our home-building programs. It turns out there is: have people buy the things we got for free and then give them back so we can sell them again to someone else! That’s a business model worthy of a star on the nonprofit walk of fame.
I expect that the same thing takes place at the Salvation Army, Goodwill and other thrift stores. Costume designers and wardrobe techs buy large quantities of clothing and then donate it back when they’re done. And then there are all the things that the crews do buy new, or bring in from somewhere else, and donate when the production shuts down. The economic studies include the value of the initial purchases, but they completely miss the value of the second (or even third or fourth) purchase/sale of the items – not to mention the programs that nonprofits are able to support with the proceeds from film companies’ purchases and donations.
When it comes to actors, crew and production staff, the studies add up their wages and then count a portion as a benefit to the region, based on whether the worker lives here or elsewhere and on a formula that estimates how much they spend locally on food, housing and recreation. That’s good as far as it goes, but it misses the value of the many film workers who volunteer at local nonprofits: serving meals to those who are homeless; cleaning up creeks, ponds and beaches; giving blood; building Habitat homes; et cetera. When a production has leftover food or bottled water, they don’t throw it out (or store it or sell it); they donate it to our shelters, soup kitchens and food pantries. Higher-profile actors and actresses lend their voices, names and presence to local fundraisers. They’ve also been known to sign some pretty generous checks.
The movie “The Longest Ride,” currently being filmed in Wilmington and other parts of North Carolina, has put out a call for extras needed for a rodeo crowd scene to be shot in July. They will make a donation for every extra who signs up through an approved local charity. This provides nonprofits a fun and different way to fundraise while rewarding their volunteers with the unique experience of being part of a major film. I know that it’s fun, because you can see me and my family (if you have a digital magnifying glass) in the center field bleachers at Fenway Park in the climactic scene of “Fever Pitch,” when Drew Barrymore jumps from the stands and runs across the field to stop Jimmy Fallon from … well, you’ll have to rent the movie if you want to find out.
And then there are the very real benefits of the “cachet” of being Hollywood East, which also are not captured by the studies. The Cucalorus Film Festival enjoys a greater stature and attracts more and better filmmakers because of Wilmington’s Hollywood connection. That helps bring more people into Wilmington who spend their money while they’re here. It also means that filmmakers like Rebecca Kenyon of Mote of Dust Films are drawn here from England. Ms. Kenyon took a residency at Cucalorus and produced a moving documentary on homelessness in Wilmington, “Something You Can Call Home.”
Many film people live outside our community and come here to work intensely for a short period. We adopt them, and in turn they adopt our community. Others live here year-round, leaving town from time to time to chase a production that chose to film elsewhere. But their hearts and contributions to their neighbors never leave. There’s a reason that it’s known as the “film community.” Unlike many industries (have you ever heard anyone in Texas refer to “the oil and gas community?”), it is a genuine and committed community that has become an important and irreplaceable part of Wilmington’s fabric.
I don’t know what is going to happen with film incentives in North Carolina. I do know that film = more than just jobs. It equals a stronger, better-resourced nonprofit community. And that’s good for all of us. I just hope that the honorables in Raleigh will remember that invaluable bit of folk wisdom: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Steve Spain is the Executive Director of Cape Fear Habitat for Humanity. Over the last 25 years, CFHFH has provided first-time homeownership opportunities to more than 150 families and currently builds a dozen new houses a year. To explore volunteer or sponsorship opportunities or to learn more about Cape Fear Habitat for Humanity’s programs, visit www.capefearhabitat.org. Contact Mr. Spain at [email protected]. Like CFHFH on Facebook: www.facebook.com/capefearhabitat.
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