- Associated Press - Monday, April 20, 2015

WILMINGTON, N.C. (AP) - When Leigh Wiley was a film student at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, she dreamt of the day when she could pack up her degree and see the world one production at a time. But Wiley, a North Carolina native, found the opportunity and community of the local film industry right outside her door too comfortable to leave behind.

After graduation, she scored a job with EUE/Screen Gems Studios before landing a six-year stint on Wilmington’s crown-jewel production, “One Tree Hill.” At times, her jobs have been a mixed bag of opportunities - including various work with locations, wardrobe, art and transportation departments. And a move to Charlotte in 2012, where she worked on two seasons of Cinemax’s “Banshee,” only further diversified her resume.

But for Wiley, 31, remaining within the state lines never felt like missing out on her dream. In fact, she said her life was a “wild adventure” right here.

Less than a month ago, however, Wiley joined the growing exodus of crew members who have sought refuge in other states as film jobs in North Carolina become scarce and prospects for future work dim as the state’s new grant fund quickly runs dry. According to Jason Rosin, business manager for the local film crew union IATSE 491, an estimated 20 percent of the state’s 4,000-member crew base has vacated - and more are expected to follow.

“I never thought the film incentive would change so much that I would have to leave the state to find work,” Wiley said from her new home in Atlanta.

That change was the N.C. General Assembly’s decision to abolish the state’s film incentive Jan. 1 in favor of a $10 million grant program, leaving many of North Carolina’s productions to seek out more financially attractive states.

Now, as the already-limited funds rapidly dwindle and the state scrounges for work, potential clients nationwide could find their patience with the state tested if the current legislative session doesn’t show some support for the industry, according to Joe Chianese, executive vice president of Entertainment Partners, which monitors incentive programs worldwide.

In the first quarter of the year, Wilmington has seen only three productions: the tail end of season two for Fox’s “Sleepy Hollow,” which will relocate to Atlanta for season three; the long-in-production feature film “Bolden!,” scheduled to run through early summer; and CBS’ “Under the Dome,” currently filming through late summer.

In the two months since the grant program opened enrollment on Jan. 26, three productions have arisen as good candidates for funding. Based on previous spending, “Dome” is considered a lock to max out at $5 million. Two projects in the western part of the state, including a possible TV movie remake of “Dirty Dancing,” also are being strongly considered, according to multiple industry sources.

Neither the N.C. Department of Commerce nor the state Film Office would confirm which productions or how many have applied for the grant until they have been approved or denied. But with those projects almost certain to claim all but a few scraps of available funds, Guy Gaster, director of the film office, said his department will soon be tasked with identifying smaller projects that might not need the promise of money to choose the state.

“We are still here and we still have some of the things that make our state great,” Gaster said, specifically mentioning the experienced crew base, scenic locations and the overall infrastructure already in place. “Do we necessarily have financial incentives available right now? Probably not. But at the end of the day, it is about finding that niche.”

According to Vans Stevenson, senior vice president of state government affairs for the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), productions small and large follow three “C’s” when discussing potential filming locations - cost, convenience and creativity. And if the grant fund is empty less than four months into the year, he said, North Carolina will struggle to find a place in the conversation.

“Right now, cost is the driving factor in the decision-making process because the movie and TV industry is risky,” Stevenson said. “You want to have the lowest production cost based on script requirements.”

While the MPAA keeps a watchful eye on the state legislature’s next move regarding film, other companies across the country have kept their interest in the state alive - for the time being.

Chianese, who is based in Los Angeles, said he has no doubt that North Carolina remains on producers’ minds.

“Without hesitation, I can tell you that people are still asking about North Carolina and are still interested in bringing projects there,” he said. “There are a lot of positive feelings about the state based on how it worked in the past, its crew and its infrastructure.

“But I think there is an acknowledgment that $10 million will only go so far.”

While its sterling reputation has been scuffed by the last year of political uncertainty, the state has been able to maintain industry relationships - something that, according to Chianese, other states have not had much luck in doing.

“I have dealt with producers who have spoke differently about other state jurisdictions that have found themselves in similar circumstances and they did not continue to hold an interest in those states,” he said. “But with North Carolina, people remain hopeful.”

Hope, however, can last only so long when it comes to matters of business, and Chianese said a show of goodwill needs to come out of this legislative session. At the very least, he wants to see the grant’s annual funding doubled.

“If there isn’t some sort of positive swing forward, people will lose interest over time,” Chianese said. “The state will fall lower and lower on the list of options.”

Within the tight-knit crew base, Rosin said, the mood is relief, not happiness, from the ones who have managed to find work on existing projects - and devastation for the rest. More than a year of campaigning and waiting has left many beaten and battered, with little optimism for the future.

“There aren’t many people within the (crew) paying attention to the current legislative process,” Rosin said. “They paid so much attention last year and look what it got them.”

When Wiley left Wilmington in 2012 for a non-film job, she did so after feeling a disconnect with the industry.

“I got a little burnt out on the film industry, partly because of the whole film incentive issue,” she said. “You already work crazy hours, but the industry was so volatile and we were constantly having to fight for our jobs. It was constantly about signing this petition, going to this rally, talking and emailing these politicians.”

Admittedly, Wiley said walking a mile in the shoes of someone with a normal 9-to-5 job didn’t suit her. Being in the thick of the battle over the last few years, however, has given her a new appreciation for how much stability Georgia’s politically supported film industry can offer.

“I think they have their stuff straight here,” said Wiley, who now works for NBC Universal.

But if North Carolina reinvested in the industry, perhaps with an attractive long-term strategy, Wiley is open to coming home in a heartbeat.

“I don’t want to be a Georgia Peach,” she said. “I want to be a North Carolina Tar Heel.”

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Information from: The StarNews, http://starnewsonline.com

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