Fresh out of college in 1984, I moved to Wilmington, N.C., to start my first job as a journalist at that city’s daily newspaper, The Star-News. Wilmington, a sleepy port city of 70,000, was in the first act of a highly improbable transformation into “Hollywood East.” It started the year before with the filming of Firestarter, a thriller produced by Frank Capra Jr. and starring an 8-year-old Drew Barrymore as a girl who could kindle infernos with nothing more than her imagination and an evil eye. Capra brought his production to the Wilmington area after spying a local rice plantation, which ended up being the principal setting for the film, in a decorating magazine.
After wrapping the production ahead of schedule and under budget, thanks in part to red-tape-slashing by a friendly local government, Capra’s producing partner, Italian filmmaker Dino De Laurentiis, was so enamored with the region as a production locale that he assembled a group of investors and built a no-frills hangar-style studio across the street from the city’s small airport. Soon enough, the casts and crews of productions ranging from Sleeping with the Enemy to Blue Velvet to Weekend at Bernie’s were passing through its gates. The excitement was contagious. I, for one, will never forget making a late-night beer run to my neighborhood convenience store and bumping into Dennis Hopper and Isabella Rossellini (literally).
These days, Wilmingtonians are more likely to gawk at their shared good fortune, than to gawk at movie stars.
In the 25 years since the studio opened, the Wilmington area has played host to the creation of more than 300 films, mini-series and made-for-TV movies as well as six television series, including Dawson’s Creek. The studio facility, now known as EUE Screen Gems, has grown to 100,000 square feet of production space and back lots filling 15 acres, and North Carolina ranks second only to California in terms of economic activity related to film production. Today, Wilmington is a city of 101,000, with no less than 10 percent of its job base connected to film and TV production, according to the North Carolina Film Office. EUE Screen Gems is but the hub of a private-sector wheel whose spokes include equipment rental firms, post-production houses, casting agencies, catering firms, insurance underwriters, animal wranglers — you name it. From one forgettable B-list thriller, an A-list economy has been ignited.
Great, but it couldn’t possibly happen here, right?
In many important respects, Kingston is far ahead of where Wilmington was as a Hollywood stand-in when Dino De Laurentiis made his fateful investment. Consider:
• BCDF Pictures, a venture spearheaded by filmmakers Brice and Claude Dal Farra, is converting a farm in Kerhonkson into a 50,000-square-foot production facility, with plans to locally shoot and edit at least 12 theatrical-release films during the next three years. In addition to the scores of actors, musicians, editors, grips, gaffers, electricians and other freelance professionals required for each project, BCDF also employs several dozen full-time, year-round staff members. Their latest project, Peace, Love & Misunderstanding, starring Catherine Keener and Jane Fonda, wrapped filming in Ulster County this summer and is slated for release next year, with a potential debut at the Cannes Film Festival. Over the course of the entire production, more than 500 local residents worked, under Screen Actors Guild rules, on the project.
• Film productions have pumped $15 million worth of direct economic investment into the region so far in 2010, up from $5 million to $8 million last year, estimates the Hudson Valley Film Commission (HVFC), the superb and powerful advocate for bringing productions here. The lion’s share of this year’s investment, perhaps as much as $13.5 million, landed in Ulster County.
• New York, following the example of Louisiana and other film-friendly states, is finally offering a five-year program of incentives to local productions, allowing tax credits against 30 percent of specified expenses — a huge incentive for most producers.
Kingston, not just Kerhonkson, is poised to benefit in a major way from all of this. Already, the Midtown production facility Seven21 has made money renting an entire floor to the recent production, Rock Steady, and also played host to a large contingent of BCDF staffers scouting ancillary space for filmmaking. And Uptown on Wall Street, the Back Stage Productions (BSP) space has been designated a soundstage qualifying for certain tax incentives. Additional spokes on our fledgling wheel include the Center for Creative Education, which will train high school students in digital production, and the Kingston Digital Corridor initiative, which aims to lure more digital artists and entrepreneurs to Kingston.
Film production is the logical vehicle for moving all these enterprises to a new level, while also raising Kingston’s profile with potential newcomers and investors outside the movie business.
So, how do we open the door – wide – to our own economic Firestarter?
Film professionals all describe a relatively simple game plan for Kingston:
• Become an essential and enthusiastic partner in the Hudson Valley Film Commission’s efforts.
• Designate a single, passionate point-person, preferably in the City Clerk’s office, to handle filming requests and help filmmakers cut through any red tape or unreasonable obstacles to production.
• Don’t, under any circumstances, impose fees or charge filmmakers for anything beyond direct, out-of-pocket costs for police or other city personnel explicitly required by a production.
That’s pretty much it, refreshingly.
“Picking a production location is all about lowest cost, fewest hassles and word of mouth, period,” says Ulster County’s own Ron Nyswaner, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter and producer. “If somebody has a terrific experience filming in Kingston, the word gets out that Kingston is a great place to film and other crews follow. But if word spreads that the Kingston charges fees and makes things difficult, that type of word-of-mouth will absolutely kill any interest, promptly.”
If the Common Council puts on the table any proposal that strays from that straightforward truth, please urge your alderman to summon his or her inner Drew Barrymore.
Hayes Clement, Ward 9 alderman on the Kingston Common Council, is a marketing consultant and former business-development executive for HBO International. He can be contacted at HayesClement@gmail.com.