An article I wrote early last year about film, Wilmington, and Cucalorus Film Festival!
"What’s going on downtown?” The Über driver asked as my friend and I hopped into the backseat. No one drives to Cucalorus, if they can help it. (Free booze.)
“Cucalorus Film Festival!” I replied enthusiastically.
There’s nothing quite like Downtown Wilmington, North Carolina at Cucalorus-time. For five days every November, the streets come alive with artists and those who love art. Some have been attending the film festival since its birth in 1994. Others flock from various places around the country and the world to attend the annual celebration of films and filmmakers. The product of this diverse assemblage of people is a magical gathering where anything seems possible. There are unique and thought-provoking film screenings, panels and learning opportunities, wild parties, drinks, laughter, and late-night karaoke.
As a graduate of the University of North Carolina Wilmington film school, I’ve been involved in Cucalorus for three years. The first two, I volunteered in the box office, meeting filmmakers as they came to pick up their badges and attending screenings with my free volunteer badge. This year, a short film I directed was accepted into the festival. My reward? A free Pegasorus pass. The golden ticket into any event and screening happening throughout the duration of the festival.
“Oh, I heard Wilmington used to be pretty big with film!” The Über driver said. “But not anymore.”
It happens all the time. Whether I’m talking to my hairdresser or chatting in the laundry room, for those outside of the industry, Wilmington film seems like a page out of a history book, something that now exists only within the walls of a museum. In fact, when I worked as a tour guide on the local EUE Screen Gems Studio lot two summers ago, the current sets and occasional celebrity sightings drew curious visitors from around the globe. Now, with no sets left to tour, visitors are directed to the “Starring Cape Fear!” exhibit in the Cape Fear Museum instead.
“I’ve lived here for 30 years, so I was kind of aware that the movies were happening, but because it doesn’t directly affect my life I didn’t realize how much was happening in the area.” Barb Rowe, curator at the Cape Fear Museum, told me.
When the NC Museum of History started to put together their film exhibit, she worked with them to create a smaller, regionally specific film exhibit in downtown Wilmington. Barb knew there was a story to be told, so she reached out to locals who were working or who had previously worked in the industry. “They were thrilled! They really wanted to see this exhibit happen.”
The exhibit takes you through Wilmington’s film history chronologically, starting with Dino De Laurentiis developing a production studio and shooting Firestarter in 1983. The studio, now known as EUE Screen Gems, released a number of film productions in the 80s, including the David Lynch cult classic Blue Velvet. In the 1990s and early 2000s, many television productions came to Wilmington, with popular shows such as Dawson’s Creek and One Tree Hill filming locally. Other byproducts of the Dino De Laurentiis founding the studio include Cucalorus Film Festival, UNCW’s Film Studies major, and Cape Fear Community College’s film production program.
“State of the art facilities, trained crew members, great locations…” Barb rattled off a list of things that make Wilmington such an attractive area for film. “You could film a city scene in downtown Wilmington and then run down to Southport and get a fishing village shot. In New York or LA, you couldn’t do that in a day. Well here you can.”
“Hollywood East” seemed to be booming. Then the incentives race began. In 2010, state lawmakers increased the tax credit incentives from 15 to 25 percent for productions who spent over $250,000. Rules and conditions applied, but basically, that meant for every dollar film productions spent in the state, they would receive 25 cents back. Suddenly, North Carolina was able to compete with other states with big film incentives. Major films like The Conjuring and Iron Man 3 came to Wilmington, as well as TV shows like Under the Dome and Revolution.
When the incentives expired in 2014, state legislature decided not to renew them. Instead, the incentives were replaced by a grant program, first $10 million dollars and then raised up to $30 million. Compared to incentives offered by other states, it wasn’t enough. The grant could easily be used up by just one feature film and two TV shows. Even then, the money was awarded based off of an application process, so nothing was guaranteed. Many productions left North Carolina and went right down the road to Georgia, a state which offers up to a 30% tax incentive to big budget films.
There’s a chart at the end of the exhibit that shows the number of films that were in Wilmington each year. In 2014, there were thirteen productions filming there. In 2016, there were just two.
“To see the industry just disappear like that is sad.” Barb shrugged. “If you’re married and have kids in the local school system and your wife might be employed here, you might stick it out and wait for something to come along. If you’re single, you might get up and move to Atlanta or somewhere else with more job opportunities.”
Besides the films, my favorite part of Cucalorus is Jengo’s Backyard. It’s another one of those whimsical spaces Cucalorus has managed to cultivate. Behind Jengo’s Playhouse, which acts as the festival’s headquarters and an intimate screening venue, there is a big backyard space with bonfires, twinkle lights, and an open bar. After grabbing a drink, it is a place for festival attendees, filmmakers and audience members alike, to mingle and get to know each other.
Dan Brawley, who has been running Cucalorus for the past 17 years, usually makes an appearance. You’d recognize him by his signature curly hair and the cute little dog that follows him everywhere he goes. I caught up with him a few days after the festival ended. He was starting his post-Cucalorus recoup process.
As he put it, “Recovery takes a while for those of us in the middle of the lovestorm.”
Regardless, Dan was still extremely passionate and willing to talk about his continuing journey within the film industry. He grew up in Wilmington, and his first real exposure to local film was in elementary school. “During the filming of Firestarter, Drew Barrymore came once a week to our fourth grade class because her stand-in was in our class and her parents wanted her to have a ‘real’ experience.”
After high school, he went to Duke University and studied art. Once he graduated, he returned to Wilmington and embedded himself in the local art scene. Cucalorus had been around for a few years already when Dan took over. Since then, Cucalorus has grown to become one of the largest film festivals in the south. On Facebook, their mission statement reads, “Cucalorus brings people together to celebrate, discover and create independent films. The annual festival provides a non-competitive environment to honor and support filmmakers. That's our mission. Our job is to watch your movies. For fun we like to eat anything with bacon and shoot off fireworks.”
Dan reiterated the focus on the filmmakers themselves, rather than the traditional award structure many film festivals use. “More than acting as a launching pad for the next big film, or being where filmmakers meet distributors, Cucalorus is really about filmmakers meeting each other. Downtown is a great laboratory for creating a temporary community, it’s the perfect little layout for creating unexpected social situations – something Cucalorus is known for.”
I myself have experienced this to be true. There’s something about being in Jengo’s Backyard on a freezing cold November night, surrounded by creatives, that really sparks the imagination. It makes it easy to forget the current realities of the Wilmington film community.
“The most tangible result and side affect of the incentives leaving is that I have a lot of friends who don’t live here anymore.” Dan’s conversational tone became more somber. “A lot of them moved to Atlanta, but some to Charleston or New York. If Wilmington had maintained the activity of the mid-90s, we’d be making 30 feature films a year. But a lot of that stuff is out of our control. The incentives race is crazy, but it’s kinda like building roads. If you want cars you build roads right? If we want the film industry to thrive in North Carolina, we have to have tax incentives that are competitive.”
Over the years, Dan spent time advocating for changes to the tax incentives that would benefit local North Carolina communities. Before the tax incentives were increased to 25%, Cucalorus led a demonstration in Raleigh called “25 to Survive.” Dan also tried to generate interest in creating greater incentives and benefits for local artists and filmmakers from North Carolina universities. Right now, Cucalorus offers a $10,000 grant program to local filmmakers, as well as a residency program that is designed to draw filmmakers to the area and help them discover Wilmington’s creative community.
“We’re doing the best we can to take advantage of the attention that people are paying to the incentives issue to try to bring to light the fact that there are lot of very talented people who have come through the state of North Carolina in the last 30 years. We need to strengthen those connections and create programs that directly target those filmmakers.”
Not everyone feels as positively about the situation as Dan.
Johnny Griffin, director of the Wilmington Regional Film Commission, answered a few questions about the current state of the industry in Wilmington. “The combination of a reduction in incentives and the controversial HB2 has had a great impact on the reduction in production. Money spent by productions is down about 65 - 70% and inquiries are down about 85%.”
This loss in profits is not just money that the studio, equipment rental houses, and local crew would be receiving. When the film industry was thriving in Wilmington, local businesses thrived as well. Caterers were called upon to provide food for the shoots. Flower shops, antique stores, and costume shops were used to create realistic production design on set. Sign printing stores would create signs and logos for the fictional worlds of the films. Restaurants, hotels, and boutiques saw an increase in business when actors and outside crew stayed locally.
That’s why, Johnny explained, smaller, independent productions simply aren’t enough to pay the bills. “Independent film is great, but you have to consider it to be a passion and an art, not a successful business model. Most independent films do not have a lot of money to pay crew and facilities their full rate. Without the mainstream ‘Hollywood productions’ to pay the bills, it’s hard for independent film to thrive. There are many crew who work on the mainstream productions to earn a living which allows them to pursue their passion of making independent films. The two are deeply intertwined and dependent upon each other for their respective successes.”
The final night of Cucalorus always ends with a karaoke party in Hell’s Kitchen, a downtown restaurant and bar that has been used in multiple film and TV productions. Some people wear costumes, the rest trickle in throughout the night, exhausted and happy after a long day of film screenings. Two filmmakers from England shot the sequel to their short film in the bathroom. The emcee, a guy wearing a red onesie and a wig, declared that enough time remained for one more song, a song that sums up the Cucalorus experience. The man behind the karaoke machine cued it up and a bar full of intoxicated people rallied together to sing “Happy Together” by The Turtles.
Every year, after being wrapped up in this ‘lovestorm,’ I don’t want it to end. It makes me wish film jobs were still as abundant in Wilmington as they once were, so I could stay here and find work instead of moving somewhere else with a community that may not be as close knit and that certainly doesn’t have a beautiful white sand beach 10 minutes down the road.
When the festivities die down, downtown is a little emptier, not quite as bright. But the energy left behind by Cucalorus brings to light the strong film community that still exists. Tax incentives that attract big Hollywood productions may be gone for now and the community is still hurting as a result, but one thing is certain: film is not dead in Wilmington.