Incentives necessary to keeping movie industry in North Carolina, backers say

The Charlotte ObserverJune 26, 2014 

— Like a movie rushing to its climax, supporters of North Carolina’s film industry Wednesday mounted a last-ditch fight to keep the incentives they say make the state a favorite location for Hollywood.

Losing them, one Wilmington lawmaker said, would amount to a “death knell” for the industry in North Carolina.

Advocates, including a bipartisan group of lawmakers, spoke to reporters as the General Assembly nears the end of its session with no consensus on film incentives, or even assurance that any will be passed.

They urged Gov. Pat McCrory to visit production facilities in Wilmington or Charlotte before lawmakers adjourn. And they suggested his new economic development czar, Charlotte’s John Lassiter, might help find a compromise.

Supporters made their case a day after a conservative group began airing radio ads urging the state to end the “Hollywood handouts.”

Film production companies can get a 25 percent credit up to $20 million on qualifying expenses. Supporters say the industry provides 4,200 full-time and over 15,000 part-time jobs, with economic benefits in the millions.

A Senate proposal would award grants totaling $20 million. That’s a third of the total of $61 million that the incentive program paid out last year. The House budget contains a similar provision but left final amounts to be negotiated with the Senate.

McCrory proposed a system of tax breaks more closely tied to film-related jobs and specific expenses.

But supporters said those efforts don’t go far enough. They touted a growing feature film industry along with what EUE/Screen Gems CEO Chris Cooney called “the golden age of television.”

Democratic Rep. Susi Hamilton of Wilmington said losing the incentives, or something very close to them, would be the industry’s death knell.

“If the incentives go away the industry will go away,” she said. “They will phase out.”

Beyond Wilmington

Film workers and executives all touted the jobs the industry brings, a point echoed by Democratic Rep. Rodney Moore of Charlotte.

“This is a jobs bill,” he said, adding that Georgia and South Carolina “are poised to welcome the film industry.”

Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo likened the threat to this month’s announcement that three companies will bring 3,900 jobs to York and Chester counties in South Carolina, just outside Charlotte – and North Carolina. Saffo called for leaving incentives in place for a year while experts and officials study the matter.

Meanwhile, Americans for Prosperity began new radio ads this week calling incentives “special interest handouts” by Hollywood lobbyists. The ads are only running in the Asheville, Greensboro and Raleigh markets.

“We’re running ads in areas of the state that are not Charlotte or Wilmington,” said Donald Bryson, the group’s deputy state director, “because those are areas that are paying for a special interest handout that basically benefits two parts of the state.”

The state Film Office lists 37 feature films or TV shows that finished production in the last 18 months. While most – including “Homeland” and “Banshee” – were filmed in Charlotte or Wilmington, others were shot around the state.

Marthe Pineau, a set designer from Wilmington, said she and her buyers travel throughout the state to look for props. “We go everywhere,” she said.

‘Longer-time investment’

Supporters of incentives invoked Lassiter, a former Charlotte City Council member who chairs the state’s Economic Development Board as well as its new Economic Development Partnership, an entity expected to oversee the film office.

Speaking in Wilmington last week, Lassiter criticized the incentives as biased “to too many temporary jobs and not enough longer-time investment.” But he said the state should find a way to “keep those industries here and growing, not simply hopping from place to place based upon who’s providing the dollar of the month.”

“What has to happen is we want to do the kind of things that create a long-term investment in an industry,” he said Wednesday.

“I don’t think some (changes) in the current incentives is going to be the death knell,” he said. “That’s a little fatalistic for me.”

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