By David Schifter
Stroll the streets of Wilming-ton, N.C., and you’ll be hard-pressed not to run into a film, TV show or commercial shooting somewhere in town. This coastal city—the state’s fifth-largest and virtually unknown by the production community until the early 1980s—has established itself as the third-largest production center in the nation after Los Angeles and New York.
It all started when Dino De Laurentiis was scouting for the movie Firestarter in 1983. He found Wilmington, and he ended up liking the southern town so much that he bought a house there. While he and his wife have since returned to Los Angeles, they still maintain a vacation home in Wilmington.
Firestarter producer Frank Capra, Jr. was on the original scout with De Laurentiis and soon followed suit. “After working on two pictures for Dino, I returned to Wilmington in late 1996 when EUE/Screen Gems purchased Carolco Studios,” he recalls.
Capra was hired as studio president and has enjoyed coastal living with his family ever since. Screen Gems boasts nine soundstages and is the largest production facility on the East Coast.
“The area is cost-effective,” Capra continues. “We have a strong crew base, lighting and grip, camera companies, wardrobe and props. It is the largest studio outside L.A.”
As part of this movement, hundreds of movie professionals have trekked Wilmington, packing up their Hollywood experience and embracing its casual, affordable lifestyle.
This also offered locals an opportunity to learn a trade in a business once dominated by L.A. and New York. Artists trained to become production designers. Electricians became best boys. Experts moved in to train them, and the town hasn’t been the same since.
One pioneer crew member is Chunky Huse, a key grip and owner of Gypsy Grips, who began his Wilmington film career 18 years ago. He was brought in from London to work on Year of the Dragon. Huse says he hired shipyard workers from the Port of Wilmington and trained them to be grips.
“I came here for one film and fell in love with the place,” Huse recalls. He committed to Wilmington when he returned to shoot King Kong Lives, packing up his family and moving from England. “It was like starting over. It was good, though. I didn’t rely on old friends getting me work.”
Huse’s credits include over 105 feature films, including Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, The Empire Strikes Back and Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. His wife, Nini Rogan, is a script supervisor.
There are many other Wilmington converts. Dennis Hopper bought a historic downtown building and built a theatre on the top floor. When John Travolta was filming Domestic Disturbance he ended up buying a beachfront home and a boat. Linda Lavin (Alice), and Pat Hingle (Batman) also call the area home.
Key and dolly grip Peter Wagner and his wife left the hustle and bustle of L.A. when his East Coast roots started calling. “I’m too old in my ways to learn a new craft,” says Wagner. “At least Wilmington had a studio and a film business.” They considered a move to his home state of Virginia, but they fell in love with Wilmington after working on a movie in 1993.
On the heels of the crew base, New York and Los Angeles actors also saw the chance to reduce the competition. The early birds established themselves with the talent agencies and casting directors. Today, there are roughly 25 talent agencies in North Carolina to represent actors. Fincannon & Associates and AMVF Casting are the two full-time Wilmington casting agencies.
So what makes Wilmington so attractive? Summer is long, and because North Carolina is a right- to-work state, producers reap a financial advantage as well. They also like the region because they can shoot a variety of locations here. The area has portrayed New York, New Orleans, Seattle, Philadelphia and of course, the old South. Wilmington also doubled for Boston for the WB series Dawson’s Creek, which is credited with pumping a significant amount of dollars into the local economy.
But things haven’t always thrived for the film industry in Wilmington. The whir of the cameras began to slow three years ago as the town felt the familiar sting of runaway productions to Canada and New Zealand. The downward slide had many industry professionals questioning their career choices.
But crew jobs remain at decent levels. According to Johnny Griffin, director of the Wilmington Regional Film Commission, the number of working crew in all of North Carolina has always stood at between 700 and 1,500 statewide. And the North Carolina Film Commission says Wilmington can support up to five productions shooting simultaneously.
Frank Capra, Jr. remains optimistic. He says Wilmington budgets are being designed to be more like Canadian film budgets, which he feels will bring much of the work back. “The Canadian dollar isn’t as strong as it was,” he says. “Filmmakers are more tepid about overseas travel. We have to find incentives, rebates—something to level the playing field.”
By David Schifter