"Filmmaking in North Carolina is kinda coming back with a vengeance," says Bill Arnold, director of the North Carolina Film Office for the past 20 years. "We've actually got them [film productions] standing in line now to come in and shoot."
What has Hollywood clamoring for North Carolina studio space is the threat of a walkout by actors and screenwriters next year over what many believe will be lengthy contract negotiations. Contracts with the Writers Guild of America and Screen Actors Guild are set to expire in May and July of 2001, respectively, and the industry is facing the possibility of a long, drawn-out battle. Key issues include pay for work appearing on cable television and in overseas markets, and how to compensate for work distributed on the Internet. Writers also are demanding that studios abandon the practice of giving directors credit by saying "a film by," which writers feel diminishes their contributions.
"The looming strikes have helped us. What we've found is that production companies and studios are having to rush into production stuff they had in the pipeline so they can get it finished before everything shuts down [due to the strike]," says Arnold. "As a result, people who were preparing three movies are now preparing six."
Gearing up for a potential walkout, studios have begun to stockpile material by storing scripts and increasing the number of movies being made. Networks have pressured producers to speed up production and are preparing to fill time slots with game shows, sports and reality-based television. "Now is not the time to be buying the biggest house or the nicest car you can possibly afford," WGA warned in its July newsletter. "If you have a TV staff writing job, begin putting money away now. If you make a feature deal, bank every penny you can."
The push for production has translated into many studios returning to North Carolina for its established infrastructure and deep pool of talent. North Carolina has more than 1,500 professional crew people and 27 sound stages throughout the state. The latest large production to set up shop here is the Martin Lawrence picture The Black Knight, a comedy about a fast-talking hustler working in a medieval-themed golf course who gets hit on the head and wakes up back in the Middle Ages. Production is slated for early November, but the elaborate set construction has already begun. "We're building a castle," says Frank Capra Jr., president of Screen Gems, the Wilmington studio where the film is housed.
While the upwards of $40 million dollar production is one of the most expensive ever to be filmed in North Carolina, it doesn't eclipse 1992's $70 million dollar production, The Last of the Mohicans. The days when The Last of the Mohicans was being filmed in North Carolina were the golden days of film production in the state. In 1993, more than $504 million dollars were spent on film production in North Carolina. But the buzz that follows such coffer-filling statistics reached the unions and they quickly descended. Some of the same unions that are now pushing film productions back to the state shut down movies statewide during the mid-'90s.
North Carolina used to be a huge supplier of movie-of-the-weeks (MOWs) to the television networks. Twenty-eight MOWs were produced during 1993 alone. Unfortunately, the year 1994 saw the three major networks eliminate 40 movie-of-the-weeks, and they never caught back up. With the union insurgence, Canada's favorable rate of currency exchange and rebate incentives, and the decline of MOWs, North Carolina saw production drop by almost $150 million to $357 million for the year 1994. "For a couple of years running, we did about 20 MOWs a year, but now we do two to four," says Capra. "MOWs are tightly budgeted and don't have a lot of money to spare, and the Canadian rebates and exchange rates were just too attractive."
This past year was the worst in recent memory as the state garnered only $300.2 million from film production. Recently, however, North Carolina has seen an upswing which will continue at least until the strikes kill off production next June. Capra says Screen Gems has been contacted by several projects looking for studio space early in 2001, projects no doubt trying to finish up production before May.
Because demand for product in the years during and following the strike is expected to outweigh the supply of pictures being made, the atmosphere is reaching frenzied proportions. "As many as four other [in addition to The Black Knight] large films want to come in and set up shop in Wilmington prior to Christmas. We don't know if we have space for it all," Arnold explains. Some of the high profile pictures presently being shot in North Carolina include Amy & Isabella, a Harpo Films (Oprah's production company) production; The Last Bricklayer, starring Sidney Portier; Hannibal, the sequel to Silence of the Lambs; Juwanna Man, a large production about a man posing as a woman so he can play in the WNBA; and Domestic Disturbance, a thriller starring John Travolta.
While this production resurgence may only be temporary, for years Bill Arnold has been fighting for legislation to make North Carolina a more financially attractive place for filmmakers to shoot. One of his efforts is an incentive bill that would begin to level the playing field when North Carolina competes with other locales for a film.
"The bill itself had about five different parts to it. When it actually got through the legislature, it only had two provisions left," says Arnold. One of the provisions sets up the framework for a 15 percent rebate on all production spending up to $200,000 per project. Although the state congress had no money to actually fund the framework, the framework passed by a solid majority.
"I have high hopes for the film incentives program," says Capra. "If and when they budget the funds for it, we'll be able to put a lot of MOWs back into production."
"We feel like the very fact that they passed the framework is a philosophical victory," Arnold adds wryly, "because there's never been any inclination by the state of North Carolina to give anybody anything in terms of money incentives."