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War between the states over TV, movie money

By Mark Washburn
Mark Washburn
Mark Washburn writes television and radio commentary for The Charlotte Observer.

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  • Current N.C. productions

    These are among the major TV and movie projects in North Carolina in the last year.

    “Tammy”: Studio movie, Wilmington.

    “The Honeymoon”: Independent movie, mountains.

    “The Ruckers”: TV reality, Charlotte.

    “Under The Dome”: TV series, Wilmington.

    Untitled: HBO series, Wilmington.

    “Shuffleton’s Barbershop”: TV movie, Charlotte.

    “Careful What You Wish For”: Independent movie, Charlotte and the mountains.

    “Widow Creek”: Independent movie, Triad.

    “Sleepy Hollow”: TV pilot, Charlotte.

    “The World Made Straight”: Independent movie, mountains.

    “Banshee”: Cinemax series, Charlotte.

    Source: N.C. Film Office

Sweetheart deals for Hollywood are a dicey business.

Some states offer big incentives for movie and television producers. North Carolina gives the industry 25 percent back for productions done in the state, such as the Showtime espionage thriller “Homeland,” which is filmed in the Charlotte area.

Opponents grumble that Hollywood shouldn’t get payouts that aren’t offered to other industries. Proponents say that tax breaks bring big projects into the state that pay off big with payrolls and other spending.

Audited numbers for 2012 will come out soon and will include incentives paid to “Homeland” and “Iron Man 3,” which was filmed in Wilmington. In 2011, North Carolina paid producers $30 million in incentives. Producers who qualified for incentives spent $220 million in salaries and other expenses. For 2012, the industry will probably show spending near $300 million and incentives of $45 million.

Most projects are filmed in Wilmington, where there is a modern studio lot. Charlotte has attracted “Homeland,” “Hunger Games” and the Cinemax series “Banshee.” Producers like it here because everything – lumber to catering – is cheaper than New York or Los Angeles and because the state has a reliable, professional cinema workforce.

North Carolina is among the most generous states in offering incentives, along with Louisiana and Georgia. This is why the state has attracted increasing numbers of projects since the 2010 incentives deal kicked in.

There is some movement in the General Assembly to rescind incentives, which are to run through 2015, but it is highly unlikely the move will succeed.

Opponents have long griped that giving incentives is just a race to the bottom. If one state offers 20 percent, another will offer 25 percent. Producers love such races, particularly among Sun Belt states that offer good year-round weather.

South Carolina, which has backed away from incentives, is thinking about getting back in the game. It wants to lure the new CBS series “Reckless,” a steamy legal drama set in Charleston. Already the pilot was shot there. (Charleston is also where Lifetime’s “Army Wives” is shot.)

But producers for “Reckless” can get a better deal down in Georgia, and even use Savannah as a Charleston substitute. A bill has been introduced in Columbia that would raise rebates from 15 percent on supplies and wages to 30 percent for supplies and 20 to 25 percent for wages.

If “Reckless” succeeds on CBS, it could spend up to $70 million for filming a series, the state estimates. In Columbia, the bill has already cleared the Senate and has a good chance of passing in the House.

North Carolina could feel pressure to keep its incentives appealing because of what its neighbor is up to and because of possible redevelopment of Eastland Mall as studio space.

Three developers have been picked by Charlotte as finalists to redevelop the mall – ARK Ventures Inc., run by Rick and Noah Lazes, who created the NC Music Factory on the edge of uptown; Studio Charlotte Development, whose point person is Charlotte movie executive Bert Hesse; and Film Studio Group of Los Angeles.

Each is expected to deliver a detailed proposal to the city by May 30, and a winning development project is to be chosen July 12. If major money goes into the project, it will represent an investment that the state can little afford to ignore when the next incentive race begins.

Media Movers

Fox Television Stations, which acquired WJZY (Channel 46) and WMYT (Channel 55) in January and will move Fox network programming to one of those stations in June, has announced two key appointments from within the company. Lynda Grahl will be vice president of finance and Jay Abbattista will be vice president for sales. Grahl comes from the Fox-owned station in Detroit, where she served as vice president of finance. Abbattista comes from Fox’s Washington, D.C., stations where he was local sales manager. Grahl started this week and Abbattista starts Monday. Both report to the stations’ new general manager, Karen Adams, a Fox veteran who replaced Shawn Harris as general manager of the stations when the deal closed this month. …

WCNC (Channel 36) picked up another honor for its “Money & Justice” documentary that examined how campaign spending affected judicial races. Stuart Watson, John Gray and Jeremy Markovich won a third-place award in for public service in the prestigious National Headliners competition this week. … “United Way & You” is a new monthly series on WTVI (Channel 42). In April’s episode, airing 12:30 p.m. Sunday, longtime volunteer Mike Polesnak and United Way’s Dennis Marstall discuss how agencies are evaluated and certified before donor dollars are invested. Anne McNeill, a United Way volunteer and manager of corporate affairs for IBM, hosts the program. …

Former WBT-AM (1110) “Charlotte’s Morning News” host Al Gardner and his wife, Robin, a former reporter for the Independent Tribune of Concord, have returned to Charlotte, where they still own a home. Gardner, 66, says he’s retired but intends to stay active after spending the last year in radio in his hometown of Philadelphia.

Washburn: 704-358-5007
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