Most of the talk about potential economic development in Guilford County these days revolves around giant carmakers or aircraft companies or other major brick and mortar projects, but there’s another sometimes overlooked type of economic development that brings millions of dollars into Guilford County each year. That’s the film, television and photography industry.
The NC Piedmont Triad Film Commission leads the effort to maximize those entertainment industry dollars and the Guilford County Board of Commissioners recently gave the group a stamp of approval in the form of a $35,000 grant, awarded on a unanimous vote.
Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing had not included funding for the film group in the county’s 2017-2018 budget, but the county commissioners wanted to see it in there, so now, five months after the county budget was adopted, the board has added the money. It will go toward the operating costs of the film commission, such as supplies and salaries. While it’s not an essential function of government – and not the type of thing the Republican-majority board usually funds – in this case the commissioners believed the return justified the expense.
According to information the film commission provided the Board of Commissioners before that vote, in 2014-2015, movies, TV shows, commercials and still photography brought $34 million in direct generated revenue to the piedmont region’s businesses, and, in 2015-2016, that number was $23 million.
Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Jeff Phillips said he feels the county will get a lot in return for the money the board just put into the effort to lure more entertainment industry projects here. Several other commissioners made the same point when they approved the $35,000, which joins money already committed from other area local governments. The cities of Greensboro and Winston-Salem gave $35,000 each this fiscal year, while the High Point Convention and Visitors Bureau contributed $10,000. Surry, Yadkin and Alamance counties each gave the commission $2,000.
Piedmont Triad Film Commission Executive Director Rebecca Clark said her group is working hard to bring in more of that business.
“I just got a request for a TV show looking at sites for 2018,” Clark said.
She said the Travel Channel television show Delicious Destinations was just the latest prospect showing interest in shooting in the piedmont.
“There’s a whole lot of shows like that,” Clark said.
Large motion picture productions film in Guilford County from time to time, but lesser hyped projects benefit the area as well. Clark said the commission works with film and television industry officials to attract TV shows, short films, photo shoots and big budget movies to Greensboro, Guilford County and surrounding counties. She said this area has seen a good amount of activity in recent years.
Once a film crew is here, Clark said, her organization assists them in any way possible. That can mean showing them pictures of potential locations, helping them secure permits to close a road, or a long list of other things.
“I do a lot of scouting,” she said. “I try to get in their brain.”
“I’m on call 24/7,” Clark added.
Major motion pictures that have filmed in the area – such as Leatherheads, The Disappointments Room, Cold Mountain and movies based on Nicholas Sparks novels – bring in a whole lot of business, Clark said.
She said that, when a movie or TV show films, it typically leaves a third of its total budget in the shooting location. She said low-budget films may bring in $500,000, while major theatrical releases may total $15 million in spending in a region.
In 2015, the makers of The Disappointments Room – a horror movie staring Kate Beckinsale that was filmed at a mansion in Sedgefield – spent $10.9 million in Greensboro and the surrounding area according to a state audit conducted after the filming finished.
Clark said she worked about a year and a half on recruiting The Disappointments Room to the area.
The film commission operates in Guilford and Forsyth counties – and all the counties that border those two. It actively pursues industry moviemakers and attempts to entice them to choose the piedmont as a shooting location. When successful, the rewards for area businesses can be big. The cast and crew of The Disappointments Room, for instance, used 1,402 room nights at Grandover Resort, the O. Henry Hotel, the Proximity Hotel, Homewood Suites and the Sheraton Greensboro at Four Seasons. The economic impact of the production on the Sheraton alone was $192,360 over a 4-month shoot.
Productions spend money on things like supplies, makeup and wardrobe services, electrical and set construction and decoration. The studios making the film hire production assistants from the area, rent locations and patronize local businesses such as lumber stores.
Some of the Greensboro vendors used by The Disappointments Room included Triangle Rent A Car, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Piedmont Triad International Airport, the Humane Society of the Piedmont, the limousine service Landflight Express, computer rental company Intrex, Sherwin Williams stores and area florists and cleaners. The cast and crew visited local doctors, dentists and optometrists.
During that shoot, producers rented five private residences to stay in and, while there, used laundry services, office supply stores and document shredding services. Crews leased cars and trucks and producers rented office space from Koury Corp. The studio paid permit fees to the City of Greensboro, hired off-duty officers from the Guilford County Sheriff’s Department – and, of course, companies like A Sani-Can raked in a healthy amount by renting portajohns to the cast and crew.
Clark said a typical film crew has 200 positions. She said that often means jobs for graduates of area film programs at local colleges and universities. Over 300 people in Guilford County are listed in an online crew database and the piedmont triad region has 762 listed.
About a decade ago, Guilford County landed one of its biggest films. Clark said getting the 2008 film Leatherheads – a comedy about a struggling pro football team in the 1920s – was a huge win for this area.
“That was a positive on so many levels,” she said. “With what they shot here, they spent $5 million or $6 million – so it was a huge economic impact.”
Clark said that, at one time, football games were played in small town baseball parks, so it was fortunate Greensboro had the perfect spot for them.
“The way I got them here was War Memorial Stadium,” she said.
She said having a major star like George Clooney here brought a lot of attention to the area. Clark said any motion picture or television show benefits the area in that regard, on top of money it brings in. She said a film shoot focuses a lot of attention on an area.
“That’s the icing on top of the cake,” she said.
Clark gave one example of how simply having a movie production in the area can be beneficial. In one incident that got a lot of publicity, some kids – a 10-year-old, 6-year-old and 5-year-old – had set up a lemonade stand near the shooting of Leatherheads, with a price of 25 cents a glass. Clooney got a glass, realized he had no money on him and he told the kids to hold on a moment.
“George Clooney came back and gave the kid a $20 bill,” Clark said. “That story went viral; it went worldwide.”
She said it was a thrill to meet Clooney and the other stars on the film.
“He is so nice,” she said of the mega-star known for his good looks.
She said at one point he needed a room to stay in and the film commission tried to find him one. The O. Henry Hotel in Greensboro had a luxury suite available, but Clooney didn’t want that room.
“He said he wanted to say in the same kind of room everyone else was in – so he’s that kind of guy,” Clark said.
Other big names that have brought attention to the area are director Spike Lee and actor Scott Eastwood, the son of Clint Eastwood.
Guilford County and surrounding counties seem to attract a lot of horror films – in part because scary movies often use rural settings and the county has plenty of those.
“I used to joke that we’re the independent horror capital of the world,” Clark said.
The Twilight Zone, Cabin Fever, parts of the Hellraiser series, The Disappointments Room were all dark stories shot in the area. Cabin Fever, a 2002 film shot largely in Stokes County, was a low-budget horror film that got a tremendous amount of word-of-mouth publicity. There was also The Gravedancers, which filmed in Greensboro. Internet Movie Database summarized the plot of that movie this way: “After a night of drunken exploits, Allison, Harris, and Kira are chased and terrorized by the ghosts of a child pyromaniac, an ax murderer, and a rapist.”
As they say, all publicity is good publicity. Even a Bigfoot documentary show, like one recently filming in central North Carolina, can bring attention and visitors. In that case, for instance, it may bring in Bigfoot enthusiasts in pursuit of the hirsute hermit.
Clark said one thing she likes about the business the film industry brings in is that it often helps pump money into the piedmont’s most rural areas.
While people often focus their attention on the big films, sometimes it’s the small ones that bring money and attention. Clark pointed out that a short film in 2003, Two Soldiers, which is based on a William Faulkner story, was shot in this area and it won an Academy Award for best short film.
She also said that, in recent years, the State of North Carolina has been less willing to give out incentives to attract movie and TV projects to the state, while Georgia has been very aggressive in that regard.
Clark said she fought to get the new film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri to film in this area. That movie, starring Woody Harrelson and Frances McDormand, was a near miss, she said. In the end, the attractive incentives from the State of Georgia convinced the studio to choose that location instead, Clark said
“Georgia is one of the busiest states,” she said.
She added that one draw of the Greensboro area is its diverse scenery.
“There’s a huge range of looks in a 20-mile range,” Clark said.
Greensboro’s South Elm Street, for instance, has proven to be a prime location for period pieces.
“It’s beautiful and quaint, and it’s been used as New York in the 1800s,” she said. “So you can get that look. But you can go 10 to 15 miles from there and at David Couch’s Summerfield Farms. We have that in the [location] library. You also have small towns like Gibsonville and Browns Summit. A lot of people love that all-American small-town feel.”
According to Clark, another big draw is Oak Ridge Military Academy. She said there’s a lot of interest in shooting scenes at colleges such as NC A&T State University, Guilford College, UNC-Greensboro, High Point University and other area schools.
“That’s a very common request from production companies,” she said.
Clark, who grew up in this area and graduated from UNCG, said she’s really excited about being able to promote Guilford County to filmmakers and television producers.
“I’m from this area and I love it,” Clark said. “I was born and raised here.”
Clark said filmmakers, just like manufacturing companies, are constantly comparing the piedmont of North Carolina with other regions in other states and countries. She said many considerations that go into a location decision, such as incentives offered and whether the place has sites that fit the storyline as well as people qualified to work behind the scenes as camera operators, carpenters and production assistants.