WILMINGTON, N.C. (WNCN) — Perhaps you’ve recognized the lush western North Carolina landscape while watching movies like “Dirty Dancing” or “The Hunger Games.” Or maybe you’ve been transported to the North Carolina coast while watching coming-of-age dramas like “Dawson’s Creek” or “One Tree Hill.”
“North Carolina’s a great place to do business, especially film business. There’s just so many different things that you can film here in this state, from the mountains to the coast to big city scenes,” said Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo on Thursday. “It’s just a great place to do filming.”
The film industry has a storied history in the Tar Heel State, much of it centered in Wilmington, where Italian-American producer Dino DeLauretiis set up shop in the 1980s. He built the studio complex that’s known today as EUE/Screen Gems and was once one of the biggest in the country outside of Los Angeles and New York City.
Blockbuster hit “Iron Man 3” and the classic David Lynch film “Blue Velvet” are among the hundreds of productions that have taken advantage of Wilmington’s studios.
In the mid-2010s, however, major productions began to move to other states in the Southeast – Georgia in particular, where EUE/Screen Gems also established a studio complex – due to a series of political factors such as the end of North Carolina’s film tax credit program in 2014 and the passing of the controversial HB2, also known as the “bathroom bill,” in 2016.
“I remember when I got elected governor that the film business had pretty much dried up,” North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said on Thursday. “We had passed the dumb House Bill 2 and we had messed with the incentives program to really hurt it. And we had a lot of working families in the film industry living right here in Wilmington who were driving down to Georgia to get work.”
But prior to the current strikes by the writers’ and actors’ unions, television and film production in North Carolina was making a comeback.
So much so, in fact, that the first film production studios to open in “Hollywood East” since the 1980s are expanding.
With a live demonstration of a snippet of life on a film set that included a stuntman riding a motorcycle through flames and getting into a fight scene with other actors, Dark Horse Studios held a groundbreaking ceremony that was attended by Gov. Cooper, who helped bring back some of the film incentives.
The studio recently hosted the production of “George & Tammy,” a TV miniseries based on the relationship and careers of country music legends George Jones and Tammy Wynette.
The series, which premiered on Paramount, Showtime and CMT last December, stars Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain in the titular roles. For her performance as the “Stand By Your Man” singer, Chastain won the 2023 Screen Actors Guild Award for best female actress in a TV series or movie.
A big win like that for a small, new studio like Dark Horse is further proof to Saffo and Cooper that the bipartisan work being done on a legislative level and the efforts to entice more private businesses and foster public/private partnerships to boost the film industry are working.
“We’re very excited about the studios that are going to be built here,” said Cooper, encouraging the community to show their support for an industry he called “integral” to the state’s economy. “We’ve got to make sure that we show this industry that we appreciate them. We’ve got to roll out the red carpet to them. We’ve got to make sure that they know that they are wanted and valued in this state.”
While touting Wilmington’s outsized role in the film industry internationally, the mayor noted that of the state’s 100 counties, 70 of them saw production work last year.
“Film is here to stay in the state of North Carolina,” Saffo said.