Main story | Films of the future | Cucalorus Film Fest | Leatherheads on its way

Paparazzi are heading to the Piedmont soon to catch a glimpse of George Clooney throwing a football. He’s directing and starring in the film Leatherheads, a romantic comedy set against the backdrop of the early days of professional football in the 1920s, when players wore leather helmets. The film, which also stars Renée Zellweger, began shooting in South Carolina this month in the small stadiums that dot the region, and cast and crew are moving next to North Carolina.

When they do, it may be a preview of things to come.

While screenwriter Duncan Brantley is a North Carolina native, the film is set in Ohio, Illinois and western Pennsylvania, where pro football started. North Carolina has always been a good chameleon when it comes to movie locations, although that’s not the main reason Leatherheads is being made here. Universal Pictures is capitalizing on a new economic incentive, passed by the General Assembly last summer, designed to lure feature film production back to North Carolina. The film is also taking advantage of South Carolina’s even more generous incentives.

“It had nothing to do with me,” says Brantley, who has lived in Los Angeles for four years, “but the first day of shooting was in Tigerville, S.C. That’s 50 miles from where I grew up, in Rutherfordton. How freaky is that? Of all the places in the world they could have filmed this thing, they ended up in my backyard.”

And other stars are already in or on their way to North Carolina: Ben Stiller and Jason Schwartzman for a comedy called The Marc Pease Experience; Anthony Mackie and executive producer Wynton Marsalis for Bolden, a biopic about New Orleans jazz legend Buddy Bolden; and Richard Gere and Diane Lane for a drama called Nights in Rodanthe.

Consider that five years ago, the state was reeling from disappointment over Miramax’s decision to film Cold Mountain in Romania. It didn’t matter that the novel’s author, Charles Frazier, took director Anthony Minghella on a road trip across the state that inspired him to want to film here. Even a stone soup of locally funded incentives, including $2.3 million from the Golden LEAF Foundation and in-kind services from Asheville’s Blue Ridge Motion Pictures studios, weren’t enough to make up for the millions Miramax could save by going abroad to shoot a film set in North Carolina.

Thanks to the new state incentives package, North Carolina is back in the game. There’s new leadership in place, too: Last week, the state hired a new film director to head the office charged with selling Hollywood on what we have to offer.

On a recent Tuesday morning at EUE Screen Gems studios in Wilmington, a catering truck unloads food for the extras waiting patiently in the commissary. Nearby, hairdressers style a set of wigs and carpet is being installed in another room that will house stunt auditions the following day. Screen Gems Vice President Bill Vassar walks around greeting crew and answering calls on his cellphone. For the first time in a long while, the 50-acre lot is packed with five film and TV productions: Marc Pease, Bolden, Nights in Rodanthe, a horror sequel Cabin Fever 2, and the TV series One Tree Hill.

Screen Gems is the heart of North Carolina’s film industry. With nine soundstages ranging from 7,200 to 20,000 square feet, it’s a Hollywood-style facility built on the site of an old coastal plantation. Screen Gems doesn’t produce any films in-house and has less than 30 permanent employees.

“The studio itself, we’re basically a hotel,” Vassar explains.

In the past 26 years, more than 300 movies and TV series have been made here, most of them Hollywood feature films with budgets of up to $50 million. But by itself, Screen Gems couldn’t stop the downturn in the state’s film industry. The slide started around 2000, when Canada and other nations began offering financial incentives to lure Hollywood productions. The exchange rate made Canada even more attractive. Meanwhile, the made-for-TV movie, a mainstay of North Carolina film production, went out of fashion and was replaced by reality TV. Screen Gems kept going, thanks in large part to the television series Dawson’s Creek (1998-2003) and One Tree Hill (2003 to the present). But by and large, the U.S. film business was in a slump, and North Carolina was no exception. (In 2003, Warner Bros. almost transferred One Tree Hill to Canada, too, but state, city and county officials and industry supporters managed to put together enough incentives to keep the show in town.)

Other states began to offer their own incentive packagesLouisiana, South Carolina and New Mexico among them. But not until last summer did the North Carolina legislature pass an amended film incentives package that made the state competitive again. North Carolina offers a simple 15 percent rebate on money spent in the state on goods, services and labor, up to a total of $7.5 million per production.

Frank Capra Jr., president of Screen Gems and son of the late director Frank Capra, says the incentives have already generated new interest from studios. “All of a sudden we started hearing from the major studios about their projects,” he says. In fact, he says some producers have recently discussed pushing back their schedules in order to wait for space to open at Screen Gems.

Capra has been at the studio for more than 20 years. He came to Wilmington to partner with Dino De Laurentiis, the Italian producer who made Federico Fellini’s classics La Strada and Nights of Cabiria, then made the coastal Carolina city home to his own film studios, effectively creating the state’s film industry out of thin air. The walls of Capra’s office are lined with photographs of actors and directors he’s known in his many years as a producer and studio executive.

Having spent most of his career in Hollywood, Capra is proud of what he’s built in Wilmington. “We’re like an L.A. lot, but not like an L.A. lot,” he says. “The L.A. lots are very nickel and dime, you pay for every little thing. They come and move a picture on the wall, you get charged for that. We want to have really good service, take good care of our clients. It’s not fancy, as you can see. It’s professional but workaday, which is good because producers don’t expect to pay L.A. prices.” In Hollywood, it’s all about the bottom line.

The incentives originally passed the General Assembly in 2005, but a provision requiring certain accounting practices meant the big studios were really collecting only 8 percent. Last year, the “add-back” provision was removed, and the full 15 percent incentive is now available to all comers. Without that revision, Capra says, “we would have been out of the ballgame.”

Even at 15 percent, North Carolina’s incentives aren’t as competitive as those in other states, which range from 20 to 30 percent. And while North Carolina is blessed with geographical variety that can provide many types of locations, they might be found just as easily in South Carolina or Louisiana or New England. But Capra says our state has two major things the others don’t: several professional movie lots and an experienced crew base of approximately 2,000 people statewide. The fewer people who have to be brought in from California, the cheaper the production. “When you look at the comparative budgets, we look real good at 15 percent, because if you’re honest about the actual costs, we have the infrastructure here that other states don’t have. We often are the least expensive place.”

For 26 years, Bill Arnold was the state’s film director, a position within the Department of Commerce’s Tourism, Film and Sports Development division. Arnold’s job was to recruit film business to the state and serve as liaison between Hollywood, N.C. filmmaking businesses, regional film offices and state government.

After a six-month search, the state has hired Aaron Lee Syrett, director of the Utah Film Commission, who will move to Raleigh in April. “I’m super excited,” Syrett says. “It’s one of those states where I think film commissioners aspire to be.” He has lived most of his life in Utah, but he also has a variety of experience in the film industry. He worked as a child actor, landing a role in the 1995 independent family film Friendship’s Field. “I did OK at it,” he says of acting. “It was really fun, and it helped pay for college.” After graduating from the University of Utah, he moved to Los Angeles and worked at the French film and television distributor Canal+, reading scripts and helping with contracts, among other duties. He moved back to Utah to produce crime prevention videos for the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Department, then studied to be a film producer before joining the film commission more than eight years ago. He says he’s attended the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, for 15 years and has been a major sponsor for eight.

“It’s a great state,” Syrett says of North Carolina. “They have a deep infrastructure, and that’s one of the things that really excite me.” He says the incentive package “just shows me the state’s commitment to this industry.”

That film is part of the Commerce Department instead of the Division of Cultural Resources demonstrates that film mattersit’s big business, having brought more than $7 billion to the state since 1980, according to the N.C. Film Office. But now, other states want a piece of the action.

Is the state prepared to do what it takes to stay in the game? And what about that crew, the state’s major asset? For the past several years, most of Wilmington’s electricians, gaffers, production managers and set artists were forced to look elsewhere for work. Some worked part of the year in L.A. or New York, or in nearby states like Louisiana and South Carolina.

Barbara D’alessandro is a production manager and assistant director who’s lived in Wilmington for 20 years with her husband, Joe, a camera operator. She’s currently working in Charleston as the production manager of Army Wives, a series for the Lifetime television channel that hasn’t aired yet. The show is filming there partly because of specific locations being used (an old naval base, for instance) and “because of the amazing incentive program that they have.” (South Carolina offers a 20 percent rebate.) But because Charleston has no crew base to speak of, “probably half our crew on Army Wives are from Wilmington,” she says. Even the incentives of the neighboring state are good for Wilmington.

D’alessandro believes incentives are smart business. As a production manager, she’s in charge of keeping track of the show’s budget. “We’re spending two-and-a-half-million dollars an episode here,” she says, on housing, hotels, lumber, office supplies, props and set dressing. Then there’s the per diem money given to cast and crew. “It just circulates through every aspect of the community.”

Until now, she and her husband have had to work as much as half the year in Los Angeles and elsewhere. They often work in Charlotte, a hub of TV commercial production, to pay the bills. But travel comes with the job, she says: “When people ask me about getting into this business, I tell them you can’t be a person who needs a consistent lifestyle. We’re like salesmen in a way; you never know at the beginning of the year how your year’s going to end.” But now, she says, Wilmington’s movie professionals are gaining confidence that there will be consistent work. “It absolutely feels like a boom again,” she says.

Johnny Griffin, head of the Wilmington Film Commission, estimates there are 600 film crew workers living in Wilmington now, and he says one day the previous week 450 crew were working on the Screen Gems lot.

Griffin, whose office is funded through local government and regional economic development projects, is one of four regional film commissioners in North Carolina. Their job is to recruit and assist film production in their areas. Griffin’s office, which also is on the Screen Gems lot, covers 11 counties in the southeast.

Before he took this job 7 1/2 years ago, Griffin was a location manager for Hollywood films. Then as now, he scouts locations to find just the right spot for the look of a particular movie. His office maintains a database of more than 20,000 images that he can send quickly when producers call. He helps make arrangements for housing, hiring local crew and renting equipment, and helping the producers spend money locallydoing so costs the studios less money, and it puts money directly into the local economy.

“We get a call from a production saying, ‘We’ve got a movie, these are the locations we need, we’re looking at four different states, you’re one of the states we’re looking at. Now, tell us why we should come to your state.’”

Griffin was part of the chorus of voices pushing for film incentives in North Carolina. Dealing directly with studios executives in Hollywood, Griffin knew what it would take.

“A lot of people felt like, since we had the studio, we had the crew, we had a history in the film industry, that was all we needed, that we could rest on our laurels and the production would come here because we have everything they need,” Griffin says. “The productions, though, essentially put pen to paper and run the numbers and look at the bottom line. And it didn’t matter that we had all of these things.”

A trip to Los Angeles last November with Secretary of Commerce Jim Fain was typical, Griffin says. “We were there three days, and I think we had 18 meetings with 78 individuals. We went to every major studio, and each studio essentially has a film division and a television division. So we went to Disney and had a meeting with 15 film executives and then we went and had a meeting with 15 television executives.” They also met with Paramount, Sony, Warner Bros. and HBO.

But it’s not all martini lunches at The Polo Lounge. Griffin’s job is to go to the bean counters, the vice presidents of finance and tax strategy, and convince them of the financial advantages of making a movie in North Carolina. “And the executives sit there and essentially tell you what is good about your incentive and what they don’t like.” So far, the feedback is good, Griffin says, but he’s cautiously waiting to see how the numbers add up once the studios have filed to take advantage of the incentive. “They literally make decisions over one and two percentage points. They can tell you in every other state what the incentive nets out to. North Carolina, they’ve got to test drive it, if you will.”

Unlike other industries, movie studio executives don’t care about the quality of the public schools or the corporate tax structure. They don’t need infrastructure to be built at taxpayer expense. And they don’t care if the area community colleges have training programs to provide workersthere’s no time for that. Nights in Rodanthe begins shooting in Wilmington in May. “By the end of June, they’ll be gone,” Griffin says. “They’ll have spent several million dollars here, hired a couple hundred people. It’s all short-term, here and now.”

That has been difficult to convey to state lawmakers, Griffin says, but Wilmington’s own legislative delegation understands. Democratic state Sen. Julia Boseman and Republican Rep. Daniel McComas, both from Wilmington, sponsored the incentive legislation. Before she was elected in 2004, Boseman was a New Hanover county commissioner. She knew people who had left town for work, and she understood the impact of the film business downturn on local businesses. She helped put together the package that kept One Tree Hill in town, and even before being elected to state office, she urged the General Assembly to take action. “We knew at the local level that film was leaving and they would not come back unless we were competitive.”

Boseman stresses that the film incentives are very different from other types of incentive packages the state has offered to large corporationsthese aren’t tax credits, and there’s no up-front cash payout from the state. “You don’t get paid any money unless you’re doing business here.” (The loss of revenue to the state is so relatively small that film incentives aren’t even on the radar of the N.C. Budget and Tax Center, a watchdog group that monitors state incentive packages.)

Even so, she says, “It wasn’t easy to get passed. Some people are just adamantly opposed to any type of incentives, and some people didn’t have a very good understanding of the industry.” Having to come back the following year to fix the mistake in the fine print made it that much harder. “I had to come back and re-debate it all over.” The final approval came from the House at the eleventh hour of the 2006 summer session. (Boseman thinks her outspoken call for Jim Black to resign as speaker was part of what made the vote a close one.) If the state heard from Hollywood that 15 percent isn’t quite enough to make it worth their while, she says. “I don’t think the climate would be good to increase the incentives right now. I don’t know that I could get it through the House again.”

So far, Boseman says the effect on her district has been easy to see. A man recently approached her at an event at Screen Gems and thanked her for making it possible for him to find work that lets him stay with his family. “It’s been very rewarding to me to help bring jobs back home that we had lost,” she says.