Budget battle leaves uncertain future for film grants

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As the North Carolina General Assembly continues to debate the state budget, Wilmington’s film industry is anxiously watching to learn the fate of grants it says will help continue attracting productions to the region.

With negotiations well past the original July 1 deadline, lawmakers are now racing to beat an Aug. 31 deadline to allocate the $21.74 billion budget to a variety of projects. Film industry supporters hope that includes continued funding of a grant program designed to offset costs and create jobs for workers in the business.

Competing priorities make it difficult for industry observers and lawmakers to know how much funding legislators might give the grant program, if it survives the budget process at all. The Senate budget keeps the current $10 million for the program, while the House budget allocates a more generous $40 million.

Until lawmakers reach a resolution on the budget impasse, the Wilmington Film Commission is not able to promise any kinds of grants to prospective filmmakers.

“Right now, we don’t have any ability to recruit productions,” said Johnny Griffin, head of the commission. “We’re asked how to file for the incentive and right now, we don’t have anything to offer. That’s usually the end of the conversation.”

The current grant program can fund up to 25 percent of a production’s cost, meaning the $10 million grant potentially can draw a $40 million production. Last year, Wilmington had $175 million in film-related business, more than one-half of the state’s $300 million film production economy.

“The amount of business is tied directly to grant funds,” Griffin said. “The lower the fund, the smaller amount of business we’ll do.”

State Sen. Michael Lee, R-New Hanover, said getting the film fund higher is one of his top priorities, as is modifying the film grant program to make it more effective.

“We’re pushing really hard to get something in the budget,” he said.

Along with Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Pender, Lee has introduced legislation that could help make the fund more effective. The state budget only covers two-year increments, making it hard to draw longer-term productions like television series. His bill would allow the Department of Commerce to negotiate the grant, guaranteeing funding for up to five years. Rep. Ted Davis, Jr., R-New Hanover, has introduced a similar measure.

Rep. Susi Hamilton, D-New Hanover, said the budget choices that could affect film grants show the legislature is arbitrary in its decisions, noting that U.S. Air and NASCAR would receive state funding.

“Who’s making the decision that it’s OK to pick winners and losers after all?” she said, adding that changing the program to a grant instead of a tax incentive has already damaged the state’s film industry. “We had a Cadillac, now we have a Pinto. We still need a car.”

She said that tax incentives are a better way to attract film productions to the state.

“Grants are for government entities, incentives are for business,” she said.

But with competing priorities in the budget, support for the film industry grant program has limits, even from legislators close to Wilmington.

Rep. Rick Catlin, R-New Hanover, said it would be hard to support film grants if there are unmet funding needs for the educational system.

“Do we give it to Hollywood, or give it to teacher assistants?” Catlin said. “If it comes down to that choice I will support our educational system. Many parts of the state never got any benefits from the film incentives.”

email terrylane@luminanews.com

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