City keeps production with incentives, experience

When it came time to shoot the first season of “One Tree Hill,” WB execs thought they’d follow the small-town location formula that had saved big bucks on “Dawson’s Creek.” So, they contacted the Wilmington (N.C.) Regional Film Commission, negotiated a personalized incentive package, and relocated down South.

“But once we got into it,” notes “Hill” exec producer Joe Davola, “the advantages were much more than financial.”

Now in its fifth season, “Hill” continues production in Wilmington, Davola says, because the crew is professional and connected, and the lush scenery mirrors the script. Location rental is more accessible and affordable than in Los Angeles, and a state tax incentive established in 2006 refunds the CW (the show’s current network) 15% of cost.

Several motion pictures have recently wrapped in Wilmington, including “The Marc Pease Experience” (Paramount Vantage), starring Ben Stiller and Jason Schwartzman, “The Secret Life of Bees” (Fox Searchlight), featuring “Hill” co-star Hilarie Burton among others, and “Nights in Rodanthe” (Warner Bros.), starring Richard Gere and Diane Lane. HBO’s also prepping a pilot to shoot there, “East Bound and Down.”

Hundreds of films and television shows have shot in Wilmington since Dino De Laurentiis established a small studio there in 1983. Local production has faced ups and downs since the ’90s, when Canada emerged prominently as an affordable alternative. Because every state except Alabama, Alaska, Delaware and New Hampshire now offers incentives to filmmakers, the 100,000-person town has got serious competition.

“In the mid-’90s, when television movies of the week were produced regularly, we did 20 to 25 of those a year,” Wilmington Film Commission director Johnny Griffin says. “Before the incentives came about, we did more business because there were very few places outside L.A. offering production support. We’ve tried to play catch-up — 2007 shows an increase for us, and we’re hoping for an upswing.”

Griffin believes Wilmington’s bottom-line advantage is the high level of film industry professionalism rooted there.

“De Laurentiis launched a studio here which now has nine soundstages and a 50-acre complex,” Griffin says. “He trained the technicians. We now have about 650 experienced technicians who live here and work here — if a production comes to Wilmington, essentially they have at their disposal what they have in Los Angeles.”

“Nights in Rodanthe” producer Denise Di Novi also produced “A Walk to Remember” in Wilmington.

“The studio is small there, but it’s very, very good,” Di Novi says. “And the nice thing about doing those TV shows is that it creates a great crew. Not all tax-shelter states have nine-month-a-year television shows that film there.”

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