Dark Horse Studios broke ground on its $20 million expansion in August. (Photo courtesy of Dark Horse Studios)

Industry strikes may have quelled filming and no major projects are currently underway, but Wilmington’s film scene is readying for a renewal.

In August, Dark Horse Studios broke ground on a $20 million expansion. As its name suggests, the newcomer is preparing to make a big splash. The project will add two new sound stages here, the first new construction catering to feature-length productions in more than a decade. 

And last month, Cinespace Studios acquired Wilmington’s flagship film mecca, EUE/Screen Gems studio, as well as its sister studio in Atlanta, where Stranger Things films.

As a big Hollywood studio with a global footprint, Cinespace is clearly betting on Wilmington film’s resurgence. 

“We view this as the beginning of the next chapter in Wilmington film,” said Johnny Griffin, director of the Wilmington Regional Film Commission, Inc. 

Roughly 1,000 people work in the industry in Wilmington today, according to Griffin. 

A career in film has its perks, but it is often gig-based, with unpredictable and long hours. And as the past decade has shown, the industry is sensitive to fluctuating political whims. 

For example, North Carolina’s 2012 “bathroom bill,” which banned transgender individuals from using public restrooms associated with their gender identity, prompted the creators of Netflix’s much-devoured Outer Banks to film in South Carolina instead.

And in 2014, state legislators let the film incentive program expire, which sent projects and people packing to Atlanta–a decision that nearly wiped Wilmington’s film scene into obscurity. Pre-2014, feature-length films could get up to a $20 million rebate, and there was no limit for series; now, the maximum movie rebate is $7 million and the series ceiling is $15 million per season.

Sometimes, those political whims work in Wilmington’s favor. Last year, the city netted Eric LaRue, Michael Shannon’s directorial debut, after Arkansas banned most abortions following the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade. Shannon had just starred in Showtime’s George & Tammy alongside Jessica Chastain, which filmed in Wilmington in 2021.

That show was among the first projects to use Dark Horse Studios’ new space in a former warehouse. Kirk Englebright, who owns mattress stores and had no previous film experience, purchased the property thinking he’d use it for something else, but quickly pivoted when he got calls asking to rent it out amid an overflowing demand for studio space. 

Studios went on a voracious pandemic spree for straight-to-streaming content, which helped Wilmington see its highest windfall to date in 2021 at $303 million (adjusted for inflation, the expenses are comparable to previous local peaks in 2012 and 1996). 

And 2021 lured a lot of big titles into town, including The Summer I Turned Pretty, Hightown, and Florida Man, showing the Wilmington film scene could return with vengeance. Statewide, projects reported supporting about 27,600 jobs. 

Film activity in Wilmington typically accounts for at least half of statewide industry spending, and sometimes up to three-quarters, according to Guy Gaster, director of the North Carolina Film Office. 

Statewide spending has been only $67 million as of August. This year’s deflation is tied to the writers’ strike, which was resolved last month. But the actors’ strike is still ongoing, keeping new production at bay. 

North Carolina, which saw $259 million in film spending last year, is set up to attract small-to-mid-sized projects, Gaster said. Georgia’s gargantuan film industry–which netted $4.4 billion last fiscal year–tends to steal the biggest productions with its generous incentive program. 

“If you look at these superhero movies, you’re probably not coming to North Carolina,” he said. “Let’s say in Atlanta…you’re a small fish in a big pond. If you come to North Carolina, you’re a big fish in a small pond.”

Efforts to up our incentives again have stalled. Two bills introduced this year didn’t gain traction and seem unlikely to come up again, Gaster said.

Local film activity calmed last year but still outpaced the years following the post-2014 plummet. Now that the streaming wars are over, what’s in the stars? 

Gaster believes North Carolina can still lure $300 million statewide annually. 

Englebright is hopeful, toon. “I believe we are poised for a surge of activity,” he said. “We are very anxious to get our local crew base back to work and our stages full of activity.”

– Johanna F. Still

Catch up on an audio conversation on last week’s edition of The Dive here, or contact us with story ideas and feedback at wilmington@theassemblync.com.

That Island Spirit

This week, WHQR, Port City Daily and WECT hosted a 2023 election forum that included the Carolina Beach mayoral race. Three challengers are running against incumbent Lynn Barbee: Michelle Alberda, Tyler McDowell, and Chad Kirk (who didn’t attend the forum, citing a schedule conflict).

After two years on council and two years as mayor, Barbee came off as a seasoned incumbent who understands the sausage-making nuance of thorny issues like parking, flooding, and balancing tourism with a “small town feel.”

Alberda, a private wealth adviser, promised a closer look at the town’s finances and didn’t hesitate to criticize some of its past decision-making. She also suggested bolder moves like exploring a public-private partnership for a parking deck. 

Meanwhile, McDowell, a lifelong Carolina Beach resident, struggled with the finer points of several questions–enough so that, in his closing remarks, he promised to run again in two years with “more information than I had tonight.” 

As a journalist, Carolina Beach politics are fun to cover. It has a fierce independent streak, the candidates genuinely care about their town, and they tend to focus on what they can actually do something about. And the town has a level of civic engagement that, even when it verges on chaotic, results in better voter turnout than some of its municipal neighbors. 

Case in point: Back in 2017, I helped moderate a packed candidate forum at the Carolina Beach Courtyard by Marriott, where residents had better, sharper, questions than we did. I remember a stand-out response from then-candidate JoDan Garza, whom I had privately written off as a quirky donut-shop manager, but who proved a legitimate contender who listened to his neighbors and helped address their concerns. 

I underestimated Carolina Beach: It’s a town of possibility, where you don’t see the same old faces win in each election. There’s something to be said for that.

–Benjamin Schachtman

Around the Region

Municipal Money: With less than three weeks to go before the election, WHQR broke down who has donated to city council candidates’ campaigns and how they’re spending that cash.

Overbooked: This fall, UNC Wilmington welcomed more students than it could traditionally house. Port City Daily reports that 141 students remain in “overflow rooms,” which has helped the university realize that housing needs to catch up before it grows even more. 

Keyboard Candidate: WHQR takes a thoughtful look at how Facebook could influence the upcoming mayoral election in Southport. A sitting alderman who actively posts political content online is challenging the incumbent mayor.

Around the State

Take Me to Higher Grounds

A growing local coffee chain draws on familiar notes of communion and spirituality in a quest for corporate dominance.

A UNC Student’s Overdose Death at Duke

A Carolina freshman died in March after being found unconscious in a Duke dorm room. Neither university said anything publicly.

Shepherds of the FLOC

Temporary farmworkers often face harsh and illegal conditions. The union that represents them is in turmoil.

The Assembly is a digital magazine covering power and place in North Carolina. Sent this by a friend? Subscribe to The Wilmington Dive or to our statewide newsletter.