The death of Frank Capra Jr. Dec. 19 might seem to signal the end of an era for film and television production in North Carolina. In the early 1980s, the son of the legendary It’s a Wonderful Life director helped establish Wilmington as a major filming location by choosing it for the 1984 Stephen King adaptation Firestarter, leading to that film’s executive producer, Dino De Laurentiis, basing EUE/Screen Gems Studio in the city.
However, the area’s filmability seemed to have peaked during the late 1990s, when the hit series Dawson’s Creek was filmed at Screen Gems. Visitors to Dawson’s set around the year 2000 might have noticed the mock-protest signs of slashed-out maple leaves in the commissary, citing the film and TV projects North Carolina had lost to Canada.
Last year, the N.C. state legislature approved an incentives package that has helped revitalize the state’s film industry, with projects from the likes of Ben Stiller and George Clooney headed to screens in 2008. However, with the Writer’s Guild of America strike disrupting production, the outlook for the state’s film economy is murky.
The strike, now into its second month, is already threatening upcoming fare. “North Carolina is poised to do really well in series television, in scripted television, and those [shows] are what’s being hit bad right now, as all the shows are going dark,” says N.C. Film Office Director Aaron Syrett. “They don’t have plans to shoot any now in the near future if the writer’s strike goes on. Hopefully, it’ll end sooner than later.” He further points out that both the Screen Actors Guild and the Directors Guild might also go on strike in 2008.
This wouldn’t be the first time a Hollywood strike has disrupted N.C. productions. The last time the Writers Guild threatened to strike, it led to networks producing such unscripted fare as Survivor and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?. The popularity of these shows helped to push made-for-TV movies, once a staple of the Wilmington film scene, off the networks. “[Reality television] was inexpensive to produce, and it made its surge, and it stuck around, replacing the television movie,” Syrett says. “Most of those productions went to Canada, and stayed there. Hopefully, they’ll make a comeback.”
With the incentives on one hand and the strike on the other, the state film industry seems to be treading water at the moment. The N.C. Film Commission’s Web site (www.ncfilm.com) lists only two current productions, the CW network TV series One Tree Hill and the feature film The Secret Life of Bees, which is currently casting and seeking crew members. The two projects illustrate the ups and downs of the state’s film scene; Hill is about to enter its fifth season and reach its 100th episode while also dealing with a retooled “four years later” format and the writer’s strike leading to a production halt; Bees recently landed Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson and Oscar nominees Queen Latifah and Sophie Okenedo for its leads, but could run into trouble if more Hollywood guilds vote to strike.
Syrett, who became director of the N.C. Film Office in April, previously worked for the Utah Film Commission, regularly dealing with representatives from the Sundance Film Festival. He sees North Carolina possibly becoming a major hub for independent films as well, citing such areas as Asheville (which produced Anywhere, U.S.A., a 2008 Sundance entrant; see “The year in North Carolina film“) and the Piedmont Triad (home base for the N.C. School of the Arts) as breeding grounds for new directors.
“Independent filmmakers are popping up and choosing good stories, and with the School of the Arts and the film programs at most local schools, we’re seeing a surge of North Carolina independent film,” Syrett says. He’s particularly proud of Sundance-bound Anywhere U.S.A. (formerly Asheville: The Movie). “That’s a true North Carolina independent film,” Syrett says.
Syrett’s also talking advantage of the Writers Guild strike to “hit the pavement hard” and aggressively pursue studios and producers to film in N.C. “We’re going to get North Carolina in front of people so that they’ll still know we’re still open for business,” Syrett says.
He plans to take this “back home” perspective even further by retooling the N.C. Film Office’s Web site to provide more up-to-date information and a possible new system that will allow North Carolina residents first access to job postings for upcoming productions.
“That’s my main goal, to get North Carolinians working in North Carolina,” Syrett says.
“People have proven they want this industry to work,” Syrett says. “They’re willing to role up their sleeves and get to work, and I really appreciate that.”