Filmmaking in focus: South Carolina tries to lure film industry with incentives, but results are sketchy
The cast and crew were in place at St. Thomas Church on rural Cainhoy Road, waiting for sound designer Ian Boyd to figure out how to silence that strange buzzing noise in his earphones.
The big generator was humming behind a small structure opposite the church; perhaps it was messing with the frequency Boyd was tuned to?
Filmed in S.C.
1972: “Deliverance” (Beaufort, Oconee)
1981: “The Big Chill” (Beaufort)
1989: “The Abyss” (Cherokee)
1989: “Daughters of the Dust” (Beaufort)
1990: “Days of Thunder” (Darlington)
1991: “Sleeping With the Enemy” (Abbeville, Laurens)
1994: “Forrest Gump” (Beaufort, Yemassee)
1995: “Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls” (Berkeley, Charleston)
1996: “Last Dance” (Beaufort, Jasper, Clarendon)
1997: “G.I. Jane” (Beaufort)
2000: “The Patriot” (Charleston, other counties)
2003: “Cold Mountain” (Berkeley, Charleston)
2008: “Leatherheads” (Anderson, Greenville, Spartanburg)
2010: “Dear John” (Charleston)
2012: “Little Red Wagon” (Charleston)
Meanwhile, the extras settled into the pews and director Brad Jayne checked with the camera operators preparing for the long take. Producer Doug Coupe stood by. Actor Anslen Richardson, playing the preacher man, took his position at the front of the little sanctuary. Reflected light arranged by the gaffer and his assistants filtered through the northern-exposure windows.
Jayne to Richardson: “Ready?”
Production assistant: “Quiet on the set!”
Jayne: “OK, action.”
And the preacher man begins his sermon. The crew is silent. Script supervisor Aaron Rosenderry scribbles notes at a makeshift desk positioned behind the camera. Jayne stands motionless, watching the scene unfold on the monitor. The digital camera is mounted on a rolling dolly pushed very slowly down the center aisle by a grip.
The preacher man grows tall in the monitor as the camera pulls below him, then the shot widens again as the dolly is wheeled back to its original position.
The take lasts several minutes. Richardson is giving it his all, raising his voice for dramatic effect. A small choir hums “Amazing Grace” behind him. Worshippers exclaim an occasional “Tell it!” or “Amen!”
The preacher man is talking about death, and the lives that continue afterward.
It’s a pivotal scene from Jayne’s “Warrior Road,” a low-budget, independent feature film now in post-production, produced by Doug Coupe and shot entirely in South Carolina.
Film production in the state has tapered off somewhat after reaching a peak in 2006, a year that saw nine movie and television projects. The TV show “Army Wives,” shot in the Charleston area, will soon offer its seventh season, but large-scale production is otherwise difficult find in South Carolina.
Until 2011, the state did not have a large studio. And even now, its incentive program, administered by the S.C. Film Commission, is not competitive with the rebates and tax credits offered by North Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana and other states, some working in the film industry say.
Last year, the state lost out on the chance to host the $65 million production of “Beautiful Creatures,” a supernatural romance based on the popular young-adult book of the same title and directed by Richard LaGravenese under the auspices of Alcon Entertainment and Warner Bros. Pictures.
Producers of that film wanted to be in Charleston, but opted for the better financial incentives offered by Louisiana, according to Harald Galinski, director of Studio Charleston and preparer of the budgets and proposals he had hoped would land the deal.
Attracting film production depends on two interdependent things, Galinski said: competitive incentives and solid infrastructure. A state can reap the financial reward best when local crews, local businesses and local facilities are put to use. That’s why he and his partners have invested (so far) $250,000 in Studio Charleston. Located in West Ashley, the studio has three stages, 70,000 square feet of real estate and 40-foot ceilings.
Jayne’s movie has a budget of $600,000 — less than the $1 million minimum to qualify for the state’s 15 percent cash rebate program. He did secure a couple of modest grants, however, and the backing of an enthusiastic financier, Denis Gallagher.
Gallagher, a Daniel Island resident, is chairman and CEO of Student Transportation Inc. Not long ago he was working with Coupe and Jayne on some corporate videos. They travelled together a lot and got to know each other.
“I asked Brad what’s his real passion. I could see he was very talented,” Gallagher said. He learned about Jayne’s interest in filmmaking, heard about the short feature he made in 2006 called “Song of Pumpkin Brown,” and found out about a script he’d been working on, on and off, for years.
“He was looking for investors,” Gallagher said. “It needed a little more work, but he had it pretty well visualized.”
So the businessman asked some script doctors he knew to read the script, then arranged a conference call so they could give Jayne their feedback. The consensus was that this could be a very good movie with some tweaking.
“If you accept the changes, consider the film funded,” Gallagher told Jayne. The businessman had found himself embroiled in a new venture. He would have to set up a South Carolina-based production company. He would have to take calculated risks, significant risks. He would have to trust the artistic process.
That evening he thought up a name for the new venture, one that identified Charleston and simultaneously paid tribute to the history of American filmmaking: Charliewood Pictures.
Setting the stage
Over the years South Carolina has provided a setting for several movies, including big-budget films such as “Cold Mountain” (2003), “Ace Ventura: Nature Calls” (1995), “Leatherheads” (2008), “Dear John” (2010) and “Sleeping With the Enemy” (1991).
While the Charleston area has proved popular among filmmakers, several other parts of the state has attracted film production, including Beaufort, Anderson, Spartanburg, Cherokee and Jasper counties.
“Warrior Road” has filmed in and around Charleston, Folly Beach and Myrtle Beach.
Film production generally was drawn to the state by a 15 percent cash rebate incentive that, in years past, was augmented by an additional 15 percent rebate made possible by an annual and renewable proviso. But in the wake of the economic slowdown and provisocontroversy, the extra incentive dried up, Galinski said.
Still, South Carolina’s incentive program has its advantages: namely, a rare cash rebate that’s more appealing and requires less red tape than the far more common tax rebates. And it’s got a gorgeous landscape.
Galinski said location decisions are dictated by two main things: the story itself (where it’s set, the scenery it requires, etc.) and the national incentive map which gives shoppers an easy way to compare financial benefits from state to state.
It’s hard convincing producers to use South Carolina when our neighbor to the north offers a 25 percent tax credit and has a minimum spend requirement of $250,000, or when Louisiana provides a maximum 35 percent tax credit with a minimum spend amount set at $300,000, Galinski said.
What’s more, post-production expenditures also qualify under the incentive programs, but South Carolina has no post-production shop, forcing filmmakers to go elsewhere when shooting is done — and losing out on some extra savings.
Worst of all, Galinski said, is that the money budgeted by the state for film incentives — $10 million in 2011; $11 million in 2012 — isn’t always spent entirely.
So Galinski and other film industry professionals in the state, such as location scout Linda Lee and Carolina Film Alliance President Richard Futch, have been lobbying the legislature to make some changes. They are not seeking more money, Galisnki said, only that the fund budgeted are completely spent, and that the rebate rate is increased to a more competitive 30 percent or so. Possibly some of that could come in the form of a “bonus” for hiring locally.
“The cake has the same ingredients in there,” he said. “It might be a little more sweet, a little less spicy.”
Taken at face value, the business case appears strong.
For every $100 spent on rebates in South Carolina, $31 came back to the state in the form of taxes, $410 was generated in private-sector “economic output” (sales by businesses) and $230 was returned in the form of wages to state residences.
These numbers, reflecting film industry impact since 2007, were published by the S.C. Film Commission in December 2011. The audited report also found that film production since 2007 generated $87 million in sales for state businesses, supported the equivalent of 1,600 full-time jobs and paid $48.5 million in wages. State and local government received $6.6 million in revenues from corporate income, personal income, property and sales taxes.
In exchange for this economic activity, the state paid $21 million in wage and supplier rebates. The return on the investment seems pretty healthy, and incentive advocates continue to lobby the Legislature for ongoing, and improved, support.
Gallagher said he appreciates the support of the state film office, which not only provides financial incentives but links production companies with suppliers and crew and performs other logistical functions.
“(‘Warrior Road’) probably had 60 people employed for up to eight weeks, plus hotels, meals, catering,” Gallagher said. “Mostly all the money is spent here. Actors are on low-budget SAG (Screen Actors Guild) fees. They’re doing it for the art. South Carolina has such beautiful scenery. We’re stuck between North Carolina and Georgia, which have stronger incentives. From a film perspective, film operators are going to look to go to North Carolina and Georgia before they come to South Carolina. We just want to get competitive.”
Film production can employ a lot of people, he added. But to keep them employed long-term, the state needs more infrastructure and more business.
The business case
Marion Edmonds, communications director for the S.C. Department of Parks,
Recreation and Tourism, which oversees the state’s Film Commission, said one goal is to cultivate an environment that’s friendly to film production and encourages its growth while at the same time favoring movie projects that put local people to work.
It’s a bit of a balancing act, Edmonds said.
“We don’t want to create a system where nothing takes place unless and until everything about it is South Carolina,” he said.
“Army Wives” is a good example: When it started up in the Charleston area, many film professionals from elsewhere came to work on the show; some of them decided to stay and work on other South Carolina projects when “Army Wives” lay dormant between seasons, Edmonds said.
Evaluating which projects get state support is a wholly unscientific process, he said. There is a lot of variability and a lot of intangible benefit, such as good publicity or an economic trickle effect that’s hard to quantify.
So the film commission considers two main criteria: How a project can bolster the indigenous film industry, and how it can portray the state in a good light, Edmonds said.
“The industry wants consistency,” he said. “They want to be able to know and plan from year to year. They want to have some confidence.”
A big philosophical question, and a significant point of contention among the debaters of film incentives, is whether the state’s investment in the form of rebates results in a one-to-one return to the state’s coffers.
Some argue that an incentive program is only worth it if the state breaks even in hard dollars — for every $1 of taxpayer money spent, $1 in revenue should be generated.
But no film incentive program works that way. All states that woo filmmakers justify their programs by citing the benefits production brings to the private sector in the form of jobs, hospitality revenue (hotel rooms, catering, etc.) and tourism.
The S.C. Film Commission’s Tom Clark readily concedes that taxes paid out don’t equal taxes paid in.
“The point is that the government is not making money on this, the citizens and businesses are,” he wrote in an email to Linda Lee, a local location scout who has been working with the film office to improve its incentive program. “We hope that a balance of money left in the market, some pretty good paying jobs and a value to tourism — if we get the right film — will be the attractive points.”
Not everyone is so optimistic.
Greg LeRoy, executive director of Good Jobs First, a Washington-based nonprofit and nonpartisan group that promotes public accountability, said the taxpayer deserves an explicit breakdown of actual costs and benefits.
“Does the state break even? If it doesn’t you’ve got to ask yourself if there are other things going on,” LeRoy said.
The biggest problem with tax giveaways to the film industry is the fleeting nature of film production, he said.
“If what you do doesn’t result in some infrastructure, both physical and institutional, then throwing a bunch of money at some productions isn’t likely to have any enduring impact.”
One idea is to link film production to local colleges and universities that train computer programmers and technicians, then bring on board interns and assistants who can work on special effects, animation and on-set jobs, LeRoy said.
The competition is fierce; about 40 states have some kind of incentive program or tax credit policy, and there’s a complex game of musical chairs going on, he said. Filmmakers are always concerned about the bottom line and will end up in places that offer the best financial deal, regardless of whether local economies truly benefit.
Besides the economic question, there’s a moral concern, he added. Some states offer incentives so generous that they effectively subsidize risk.
Filmmaking is by nature very risky. Many movies flop, and sometimes for good reason. Taxpayers, LeRoy noted, underwrite movies that might not have been made otherwise.
“What kind of people are you attracting when you take that much risk out of film production? he asked. “Do we really want to de-risk (film) production that much?”
At Studio Charleston, Jayne and his crew were shooting a bar scene. The preacher man, in his pre-preacher, younger days, played trumpet in a club and experienced an introspective moment of clarity about his life.
Actor Anslen Richardson, trained by local horn player Charlton Singleton to look good faking it, breathed and blew and bent his body in synchronicity with the simple melodic line played over a speaker. The camera crossed behind a small group of listeners. The black-blue colors of the bar filled the monitor screen.
Producer Doug Coupe stood by, watching quietly. After the shot — one of the last before post-production — he reflected on the 20 or so locations used by “Warrior Road” because of their scenic beauty and sense of place: the Cainhoy church, Folly Beach, Bulls Island, the Myrtle Beach boardwalk, a juke joint on Edisto Island, a farm house on Wadmalaw Island.
“This movie is so P.R. for South Carolina,” he said.
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook.com/aparkerwriter.