Beth Petty once found 500 rats for a movie producer – and someone to dye them all the same color. She has shut down Tryon Street on a few hours' notice, for a car race. A couple of weeks ago, she spent a morning in prisons, scouting out cells for a commercial.
“Every day's different,” said Petty, Charlotte's film commissioner. Her job is to entice movies, commercials and television shows to the region. “You never know what you're going to be looking for.”
Taxpayers are footing much of the bill for her work. Officials have seen how feature films such as “Shallow Hal,” “Talladega Nights” and “Leatherheads” fill up hotels and restaurants and employ extras.
But City Council members this year criticized the commission for failing to meet its own goals. And officials have also asked for more specific information about the benefits of the commission's work. Other film commissions in North Carolina have found a way to measure economic impact, but Charlotte's hasn't yet.
“They may have an internal way of estimating” the economic impact of films on the city, said Brad Richardson, in the city's Economic Development Department. “I'll just tell you we don't understand it.”
Aaron Syrett, director of the NC Film Office, estimates that film and television production companies spent $160 million in North Carolina in 2007. About $30 million of that was spent in Charlotte, he said.
By contrast, however, production companies spent just under $100 million in Wilmington, said Johnny Griffin, director of the Wilmington Regional Film Commission.
Petty's department is part of the Charlotte Regional Partnership, a business-recruitment organization that gets half of its money from state and local governments, and half from the private sector. Together, the city and Mecklenburg County will contribute a total of about $300,000 to the organization this year. The contribution is based partially on a per-capita funding formula.
The film department's budget is a little over $200,000, Petty said. It includes her salary and that of an assistant, pays for trips to trade shows, refining the Web site and producing a guide to the region's film and television resources, she said.
This year and last, as part of the total funding for the Regional Partnership, the City Council earmarked $25,000 from its discretionary fund specifically for the Film Commission. Mecklenburg County has chipped in $25,000 for each of the two years, too.
At the city, the most recent vote on funding was close. City Manager Curt Walton had recommended against the commission's request, because the department had not met a promise it made the previous year: It had generated fewer “leads” – or serious interest from prospective television and film projects – than it said it would.
“We expect our partners to hit their marks and it didn't happen here,” said Councilman Michael Barnes, who opposed the request, along with Andy Dulin, Warren Cooksey, Patsy Kinsey and Warren Turner.
But on the other side, Council members John Lassiter and James Mitchell said the Film Commission benefits were clear.
“Our relatively nominal investment comes back to us in significant value,” Lassiter said.
“Clearly now, North Carolina is becoming a hotbed of the film industry,” Mitchell said. They joined Susan Burgess, Nancy Carter, Anthony Foxx, and Edwin Peacock in support of the initiative.
As part of the approval, the city has set new criteria to determine the commission's success over the next year, including calculating the total budget of the film projects that land in Charlotte, and the number of hotel-nights they generate. The crew and staff of “Talladega Nights,” for example, spent 15,000 hotel nights in the Charlotte area. For “Leatherheads,” the number was 9,000. The film commission also plans to do an economic impact study by next July.
Meanwhile Petty answers her cell phone on weekends and after business hours. She scrambles to find the perfect kitchen for a home improvement show or when corn will be just the right height for a commercial. She pulls off a country road to take a picture of a dilapidated shack, just so it will be in the commission's files.
She believes in her product: “You have a very modern skyline here in Charlotte, and then you're surrounded by beautiful small towns,” she said.