Local Film Leaders Talk Future Growth, Crew Diversity

By Emma Dill, posted Mar 5, 2024
Cinespace Studios President Ashley Rice speaks during a panel discussion at the Greater Wilmington Business Journal's Power Breakfast. (Photo by Alecia Hall)
A panel of five Wilmington film industry leaders discussed the status and future of the evolving local film scene during the Greater Wilmington Business Journal’s Power Breakfast on Tuesday.

Panel topics and audience questions ranged from economic incentives and crew diversity to the need for ongoing workforce development. 

Panelists were Dan Brawley, chief instigating officer of Cucalorus Film Festival; Johnny Griffin, director of the Wilmington Regional Film Commission; Susi Hamilton, president of the Film Partnership of North Carolina; Kristi Ray, creative producer and founder of Honey Head Films; and Ashley Rice, president of Cinespace Studios.

The film industry in the Cape Fear region has had a volatile few years, the panelists said. It felt the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic starting in 2020, then bounced back with a record year in 2021 with more than $300 million in direct local spending, Griffin said. After last year’s strikes by the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), local spending dropped to around $43 million in 2023.

Then in September, Cinespace Studios, one of the world’s largest stage and production services providers, acquired the EUE/Screen Gems Studios complex in Wilmington – a historic change for the region’s film industry.

Rice said Cinespace chose to buy the Wilmington studio to diversify its offerings. The company also purchased Screen Gems' studios in Atlanta in the same deal, adding the two Southern cities to its other studios in Chicago, Toronto and Germany.

“We wanted a really diverse portfolio under one global roof that we could serve as a lot of different creative needs for filmmakers,” Rice said Tuesday. “We feel that Wilmington fits in really, really well to that. Naturally, a coastal city, it has a different look and feel to our other cities.”

Even with the recent shifts, Wilmington maintains a reputation for industry experience, according to Brawley.

“Wilmington is in a really special position as being a town that has a legacy in the film industry,” he said. “People know that when they come to Wilmington there’s a depth of experience and that’s not necessarily the case everywhere you go.”

Panelists voiced support for ongoing efforts to diversify local film crews and writers and directors and to make Wilmington’s film industry more accessible. The Film Partnership of North Carolina was created to do exactly that, Hamilton said. Ray said Honeyhead Films hosts a summer camp for high school girls that aims to teach them how to become writers, directors and producers.

The success of big studios like Cinespace helps independent filmmakers and the entire industry thrive because it infuses more money and resources into the area, Brawley said. 

When more movies are made in Wilmington, that allows the area to develop a broader local workforce, which includes training graduates from the University of North Carolina Wilmington and Cape Fear Community College.

 “We're able to come in and support these up-and-coming rising talents and continue to develop our workforce, not just above the line of producers, writers and directors, but cinematographers, gaffers, sound mixers … all people who need an opportunity to show that they can add value to a film set,” Ray said.

“When it's busy, there are so many more training opportunities for everyone,” Rice added. “And that's how the industry grows.”

Looking to the future, the panelists emphasized the need to maintain and continually evaluate the economic incentives that aim to draw productions to North Carolina, ensuring the state remains competitive in the location scouting process. 

“Making sure that the tax incentive is as strong as it can be, as stable as it can be, and as competitive as it can be is paramount to making sure that we are the most attractive destination, and that we also then can create demand,” Rice said.

Rice added that Cinespace hopes to establish Wilmington as a “core city” that caters to films set in all types of locations – not just coastal areas. 

“We have the capacity, we have the workforce here to support filmmaking of many different avenues and many different creative needs,” Rice said. “So, if we could become a city that is a core budgeted city, that's a dream.”

Watch the full Power Breakfast discussion here:

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