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When state officials and industry leaders consider the future of film in North Carolina, they're looking beyond Hollywood.

Films of the future: Local, indie and low-budget 

Main story | Films of the future | Cucalorus Film Fest | Leatherheads on its way

click to enlarge Lou Buttino has big plans for UNC-Wilmington's film studies department. - PHOTO BY REX MILLER

When state officials and industry leaders consider the future of film in North Carolina, they're looking beyond Hollywood. They understand that film isn't just an industry, it's an ecology, and independent productions, from the low-budget to the no-budget, are a crucial part of the balance.

One of the unusual aspects of the state's new incentives is the relatively low threshold to qualify: A production that spends $250,000 in North Carolina is eligible for the same benefit as a multi-million dollar Hollywood picture.

Dale Pollock, a professor of film at North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, pushed hard for that provision as a way to foster low-budget, independent film in the state. Pollock is a member of the N.C. Film Council, a 24-member advisory board appointed by the governor. Before coming to NCSA, Pollock worked in Hollywood producing 12 films in 10 years.

"I want to really cultivate where I think things are going: these low-budget independents," he says. "There's been this revolution with the equipment that people can make movies with, and I think North Carolina's at the forefront of that."

A lot of those low-budget films are made by film students. Even during the industry slump, film studies has been booming at North Carolina's universities, particularly at the School of the Arts, a conservatory program, and UNC-Wilmington and N.C. State University, which offer film majors. While UNC-W's film department is only four years old, it's rapidly becoming one of the most popular on campus, with more than 350 film majors currently enrolled.

"When we talk about a tax incentive," says Lou Buttino, head of UNC-W's film department, "it shouldn't be lost on legislators that they're not only promoting business in this state—smart business, clean business—they're also fostering the growth of academic programs. If we have a vibrant film industry in North Carolina, then those people can find work."

Until recently, there wasn't much chance of that happening. "More than 65 percent of the people in the film school are native North Carolinians," Pollock says, "and 90 percent of our graduates leave. They go to New York or Los Angeles. Naturally, we want them to stay here."

That resonated with legislators in Raleigh, Pollock says. "We have students from almost every county in North Carolina, and we were able to go to legislators and say, 'There's a student from your county in our film school and we want them to stay in North Carolina when they graduate.' I think making it real like that had an impact. I think people were surprised at the degree of legislative support."

Even those filmmakers who leave often return to make films. One of the School of the Art's most successful graduates, David Gordon Green, has made two critically acclaimed films set in North Carolina, George Washington (2000), about a group of kids who cover up a tragic accident, and All the Real Girls (2003), about first love in a small town.

Tim Kirkman is another rising independent director with North Carolina roots. Though he moved to New York after graduating from NCSU, he returned to North Carolina to make his first feature film, a documentary called Dear Jesse (1998), which explored the connections between the young, gay filmmaker and the notoriously homophobic senator (both are from Wingate, N.C., and obsessed with gay men). His first narrative film, Loggerheads (2005), interweaves the lives of a young man, his adoptive parents and his birth mother using the geography of three different parts of the state: the beach with its loggerhead turtles, a deeply religious small town in the Piedmont, and a Victorian house in Asheville. It was made with a budget of half-a-million dollars. "I always say the state is one of the main characters in the film," Kirkman says.

His next project, Family Linen, is based on the Lee Smith novel of the same name. The $4 million production is scheduled to begin shooting in Asheville this August. "The book actually takes place in Virginia," Kirkman says, "but what excites me about shooting it in North Carolina is that it's by one of North Carolina's most beloved authors."

For indie filmmakers like Kirkman, it's not just about business. They have stories to tell that are deeply rooted in a sense of place. But those filmmakers will be able to take advantage of the incentives, too, and, as his star rises, will make it easier for Kirkman to keep telling his stories here.

Aaron Lee Syrett, the state's newly hired film director, comes from Salt Lake City, and his connections at Sundance can only help the state's indies. "I've been pretty much in the independent film capital of the world here in Utah," he says, "and so I understand the needs of independent filmmakers and their budget constraints." He believes North Carolina "is really poised to service independent filmmakers and the studio system, so it has a great mixture of types of film."

As big-budget movie making picks up again, even independent filmmaking that falls well below the threshold for film incentives stands to win.

Now the grips and electricians and scene painters are earning paychecks again, and many of those people are filmmakers in their own right, says Dan Brawley, director of the Cucalorus Film Festival in Wilmington. A $20 million movie comes into town, he says, "and that $20 million turns into five independent films. You can almost see that money turning into other people's films."

UNC-W is undertaking a project to serve the needs of low-budget filmmakers, while also expanding the offerings and opportunities for its students. It recently purchased an old movie theater five minutes from campus, which it plans to convert to a festival/teaching and soundstage space. Equipped with lighting grids, editing suites and a graphic artist station, it would cater to those working with budgets of $100,000 or less (that's about the smallest budget Screen Gems has worked with). Small soundstages like this are beginning to pop up across the country, but few are connected with colleges.

The facility also would be a place to offer master classes in cinematography and other film arts. And it would be a way to provide UNC-W students with hands-on experience, perhaps through an internship program. University acting students could audition for age-appropriate roles; graphic arts and computer science student could show their portfolios. "I want my kids in the front row," Buttino says.

The endeavor is also part of a larger dream seemingly shared by everyone in Wilmington's film community: an indigenous film industry fueled by local filmmakers working with every type of budget.

"People come into town and they use the resources we have, but then they take their stardom out of town," Buttino says. "What if they made a film and it stayed in town? What happens is that we start to build an alternative to the giants."

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