MOORESVILLE – For local fans of the blockbuster film “The Hunger Games,” there was something surreal about watching Katniss Everdeen and Gale Hawthorne sit along a hillside and plan their hypothetical escape from the totalitarian government that rules their land. That’s because they’d flee into those misty blue-green formations in the background. The ones that are part of the Blue Ridge Mountains just two hours to our west.
Beth Petty, director of the Charlotte Regional Film Commission, is the woman to thank for convincing Gary Ross, the movie’s director, that North Carolina was the ideal place to film.
“When ‘The Hunger Games’ called me and said, ‘Can you play a futuristic, apocalyptic-type environment,’ I said absolutely, we can do that. When Homeland called and said, ‘Can you play Washington and the surrounding area?’ I said absolutely. And when Banshee said, ‘Can you play a small-town Amish countryside, I said absolutely.”
That’s because the commission recruits feature films, independent movies, documentaries, commercials and television shows to 12 counties in North Carolina – including Iredell, Mecklenburg and Lincoln – as well as four in South Carolina.
At a gathering of the Mooresville-South Iredell Developer’s Council on Sept. 9, Petty told local leaders that the state risks production crews packing their bags and searching for greener pastures if the General Assembly refuses to renew its filming tax incentive plan, which ends Jan. 1, 2015.
Signed into law by Gov. Bev Perdue in 2010, the N.C. Film Refundable Tax Credit refunds production companies 25 percent of their total filming expenditures – more specifically for costs that benefited in-state companies and vendors, Petty said.
Erik Olson, vice president of Silverman Studio Group, works out of Concord for the California-based company. He said the N.C. Department of Revenue tasks production companies with keeping the receipts from every monetary transaction they make while here, from car rentals to late-night Chinese takeout.
“What puts us on the radar screen are the film incentives for North Carolina,” Petty said. “It’s so important that we have those. That’s what brings in the big shows like ‘The Hunger Games.’”
Films and shows are entitled to the cash back if they spend between $250,000 and $20 million in the Tar Heel state. “The Hunger Games” alone added $60 million into the local economy, Petty said, including 21,000 hotel nights and the hiring of 300 construction workers who built sets.
Since 2007, production companies have pumped $1 billion into North Carolina, the lion’s share going toward paying for local labor such as electricians, carpenters, drivers, seamstresses and camera operators, Olson said.
Petty said North Carolina is one of the top five states directors flock to due to the incentive program. Still, Georgia is quickly becoming a formidable threat with its 30 percent transferable tax credit and more than 20 projects underway within its borders.
“Now the market is more competitive than ever. Digital technology has forced Hollywood to literally reinvent itself overnight,” Olson said. “As producers, we are no longer tied to film labs or the confines of a traditional studio environment to manufacture our product, which is intellectual property. Our multi-billion industry is one of America’s greatest exports. It is desired and consumed in almost every market on the planet.”
The Silverman Studio Group is also looking into building a 50,000 square foot film production village in the Charlotte or Mooresville area that would spread across several hundred acres, Olson said. The space would cater to traveling bands of film crews to ensure they had a comfortable space to call home when they visit the region. It would feature sound stages, rooms for makeup and set design, a lumber mill to build stages and even a cafeteria for actors.
He believes such a space would increase our motion picture capacity tenfold. Charlotte can comfortably juggle about six TV shows and two feature films at once right now.
But the economic footprint of a movie or commercial shot in the area goes far behind the paid help that brings it to the silver screen.
Shane Smith, owner of A Tasteful Solution catering company, said things like feeding the crews that created two Hallmark movies in the Winston-Salem region have come to account for between 15 and 25 percent of his business. They’ve also caused him to hire more chefs and delivery people.
“People have no idea how much money comes into this region because of the film industry,” he said.
The potential demise of the state’s tax incentive clause has a lot of people in L.A. watching and waiting to see what the legislature will do, Olson said. And the legislature doesn’t officially resume business in Raleigh until May 14, 2014, N.C. Rep. Robert Brawley said.
“A producer wants to make sure that a location is viable for all years of production, for the seasons of a TV show,” Olson said. “You can’t replicate the Banshee train depot in Mooresville easily. But to stay here, they like the incentives, even if they want permanence for the sets.”