Film industry offers jobs, tourism, worldwide exposure for S.C.
As Ray Kinsella wanders his corn fields in the 1989 film Field of Dreams, he hears, “If you build it, he will come.”
He turns to place the voice, which floats from Greenville native “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, but Kinsella stands alone.
His gut tells him to build “it,” and he must decide between selling his home and walking away or going all in to create something potentially magical.
South Carolina faces the same quandary, only the voices are less a whisper and more a shout from the rooftops assuring if the state invests more in the movie industry, the business will come.
Since 2019, studios reached out to film 44 television and motion pictures in the Palmetto State, but walked away because South Carolina had neither the incentive money nor the infrastructure to support their business, the S.C. Film Commission said.
Those missed opportunities amounted to roughly half a billion dollars in state spend between 2012 and 2019, according to the Carolina Film Alliance. That’s the equivalent cost to build Mercedes-Benz Vans’ plant in North Charleston or South Carolina’s entire Contingency Reserve Fund that Gov. Henry McMaster set aside for “rainy days.”
South Carolina already uses up every dollar of the state’s $16 million film incentive budget. The state’s budget is half as much as neighboring North Carolina, which offers $31 million in rebates a year. On the highest end, Louisiana offers $181 million and Georgia provides an uncapped transferrable tax credit.
S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Director Duane Parrish said South Carolina’s small budget is caught in the middle between states with no incentives and powerhouses like Georgia, which has gone all in with full infrastructure, studios and upwards of $700 million annually in tax credits.
Parrish also believes part of the reason that the film industry hasn’t received any more money since the incentive program’s inception in the early 2000s is that the state tends to prioritize money for other projects.
“We have had some years in legislature where there’s been additional money, but typically you hear a lot about teacher’s pay, state employee raises, and of course COVID changed things,” Parrish said.
Studios are finally wrapping up projects they postponed in 2020 and kicking off productions slated for 2021. And they’re looking to whatever states still has incentive money, said Senior Vice President, Production and Incentives for HBO/Warner Media Jay Roewe.
“This is a cutting edge thing I’m beginning to realize now,” he said. “The post-COVID period we’re in right now, the industry is working at the highest protocol of any industries out there. Further, we create jobs and put people to work.”
A Tale of Two or More Cities
After Netflix’s Outer Banks and HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones wrap up and cash in on South Carolina’s rebates, there isn’t any money left for other companies to film. As reoccurring series, those shows also have a hold on those rebates for years to come until they leave or cancel.
Given HBO’s success filming in South Carolina, Roewe said the premium channel is invested in the incentive budget growing not only because the rebates save money, but because they help grow business throughout the state.
“Studios create jobs and put people to work. When we bring a film production to [a state], we touch so many aspects of the economy from hotel and restaurants and food to construction, caterers, truck drivers, security,” Roewe said.
Since 2005, film and television productions in South Carolina have generated $338 million in in-state spending and resulted in more than 272,150 hotel nights and 35,736 state hires, according to the Carolina Film Alliance.
Across the border in Georgia, the 234 film and television productions that filmed there during fiscal year 2020 spent $2.2 billion in the state, according to the Georgia Department of Economic Development.
While South Carolina productions still have to pull in crew from North Carolina and Georgia to round out projects, Roewe said the talent here is “level-A” and handle HBO’s high expectations and demand for its crews.
If it weren’t for the ability to use in-state workers, studios would have to fly in crew, put them up in hotels and give them a per diem, which adds up.
“We are very big fans of South Carolina,” Roewe said. “Working with the Film Commission has been a very positive experience to us, along with discovering the talented crews there.”
More productions coming to create year round jobs would be life changing for South Carolina crew members like Ben Davidson, a rigging gaffer on Netflix’s Outer Banks.
The James Island resident first got into the business through Army Wives, but said it’s been difficult finding stable work since.
When he’s not working for Outer Banks, Davidson spends the rest of the year chasing jobs in Atlanta, Savannah and Wilmington. The challenge is further complicated now that he and his wife are starting a family.
“My biggest fear is having to make a decision between providing financially for my family and being present for the important moments,” he said. “I want to be able to coach little league, go to every dance recital and help my wife raise our child from the breakfast table, not from a Zoom call.”
Davidson has roots in the Lowcountry. He grew up here and his family lives nearby.
“I would have to move or give up my dream,” he said.
To make ends meet, Davidson started his own business to rent out equipment to production companies passing through. The side hustle allows him to work on commercials and grow his skillset so that if a regional company comes to film a commercial, he has the résumé to do the job instead of the company bringing in its own crew.
Those gigs still aren’t enough to sustain an annual income, and the thought of leaving his wife again after Outer Banks wraps up already weighs heavily on Davidson.
“It really makes me focus on getting jobs down here, but Gemstones will be the only job in the state,” he said. “If I don’t work on that, I’ll have to be out of town.”
Many of the state’s crew are in the same boat right now. Outer Banks and The Righteous Gemstones delayed filming their second seasons because of the pandemic and with overlapping schedules now, crew could only commit to one show.
Davidson appreciates South Carolina’s rebate program as it keeps him in the state in the first place and helps put local people in higher positions. Netflix, for example, hired three military veterans on the set of Outer Banks.
“It’s not just the folks operating the cameras, but the blue collar workers,” Davidson said. “If you’re willing to put in the hours and have some initiative, it’s not a high barrier to enter the film industry because we’re a right to work state.”
The Accidental Tourism
Plenty of people want to work in South Carolina, and Mount Pleasant’s production company Rough House Pictures wishes they had more flexibility to provide careers to them, President of Production and Development Brandon James said.
“There is a ton of opportunity, but without more shows, you don’t create as many jobs,” he said.
Ideally James wants to see the state’s incentives double. Once more projects come, the crew will follow, he said. Working in Charleston is a huge draw.
“There’s great food, great people and a ton of stuff for crew to do in their downtime,” he said. “Atlanta is a huge hub for movies, but it’s a big city. If you’re able to be in a place that’s as beautiful and friendly as Charleston, it’s an easy sell to get people to want to work here.”
Celebrities hanging around town also cultivate civic pride for residents who spot big screen stars in local shops and neighborhood restaurants. Whether inadvertently or not, celebrities bring businesses attention.
“We never want to make Charleston not feel like the Charleston we love, but we also want to make sure that we can add to the community and help people grow their businesses,” James said. “If by us making a movie here helps a restaurant or a hotel, or people find a job or enter a career they never thought possible, we think that’s cool.”
Actor, writer, producer and director Danny McBride got a taste of South Carolina in 2011 when he filmed another show, Eastbound & Down, in Myrtle Beach. He enjoyed the locations, the partnerships and the incentives so much, he and his partners Jody Hill and David Gordon Green relocated their families and their company Rough House Pictures from Los Angeles to Mount Pleasant soon after.
The production company has since produced HBO’s Vice Principals and The Righteous Gemstones in South Carolina, as well as the 2018 remake of Halloween with John Carpenter and Jamie Lee Curtis. They would film more if the incentives were available.
McBride is an invested member of the Lowcountry community and regularly shares his love of Charleston in national interviews. Catherine Bell of Army Wives also settled here while the show filmed in North Charleston over a decade ago.
“That’s the real benefit of what these incentives could do. They could bring permanent residents, permanent production,” said Dan Rogers, project manager with the S.C. Film Commission.
When reviewing scripts, beyond the story and setting, Rogers considers how every production will make the state look and if there is tourism appeal.
In Pennsylvania, fans flock to the “Rocky Steps” outside of the Philadelphia Museum every day and Atlanta has several Walking Dead tours created around the one show’s production.
“It’s all big-picture thinking,” Rogers said.