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Lights, camera, action ... take two 

North Carolina's film industry is booming again

Paparazzi headed to the Piedmont last month 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 in March in the small stadiums that dot the region, and cast and crew then moved to North Carolina.

click to enlarge GO LONG: George Clooney gets some quarterback football training in between scenes on set for the upcoming Leatherheads. - PETER GODDARD
  • Peter Goddard
  • GO LONG: George Clooney gets some quarterback football training in between scenes on set for the upcoming Leatherheads.

And their presence in our fair state 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: In March, 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.

click to enlarge LIKE FATHER: Frank Capra Jr., president of Screen Gems - ADAM GOLD
  • Adam Gold
  • LIKE FATHER: Frank Capra Jr., president of Screen Gems

"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 packages -- Louisiana, 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.

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