Across S.C. movie dollars improve bottom line

May 6, 2010—Since the mid 1970’s when States began actively recruiting motion pictures and television shows, film commissions have shifted their approach from tourism towards economic development. Exotic and unique locations, once South Carolina’s main asset to attract producers, have taken a back seat to incentives and infrastructure. The coastal communities of Beaufort and Charleston captured the bulk of production dollars through 2005. Leaders at both the City and State level believed the incentive act of 2006 would give the state, and most likely, Beaufort and Charleston, the necessary boost to establish a hub of local vendors and technicians that would lessen the sticker shock that makes a destination with a small skilled labor force and little to no infrastructure an unviable choice.

If there was an award for most movie dollars spent per capita, Beaufort, SC would be at the top of the list. Until recently, the small city on the coast hosted “The Great Santini,” “The Big Chill” “Forrest Gump,” “The Prince of Tides,” “GI Jane,” and “Something to Talk About” “Forces of Nature” and “The Jungle Book.” According to Carlotta Ungaro, President of the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce, “many tourists plan their vacations to Beaufort just to see the house where “The Big Chill” was filmed.” The community’s small town quaintness, historic preservation, sea island beach and jungle vistas resulted in a revolving door for Hollywood from the 1980’s until mid 2005.

Charleston, on the other hand, hosted a more consistent, yet less memorable array of movies including “North and South Parts I & II,” “Scarlett,” “Queen,” “O,” and “Major League III.” The City did benefit from the availability of the Navy Base after it’s closing in the mid 1990’s – as use of its abandoned facilities at bargain prices was occasionally sufficient to a production. Combined with the city’s appeal as a location for national commercials, Charleston became home to a small crew of technicians and a film equipment and lighting company, High Output.

With the passage of the 2006 SC Film Incentives, the state saw a boom in production statewide with six features and two TV pilots shot in the subsequent nine months. Hurricane season, which coincided with the passage of the law, might explain why the coastal cities of Beaufort and Charleston failed to draw a single feature. Charleston did manage to land “Army Wives,” but as a pilot, it only provided a few weeks of production and a fraction of the expenditure of the features. That would change six months later when Lifetime green-lit a full season of “Army Wives” and nine months of steady work. Of the features, “Strangers" was shot in Florence, "Death Sentence" landed in Columbia, "Who's Your Caddy, went to Aiken and the George Clooney film "Leatherheads," which was the highest profile of all the films, was shot in Greenville.

“Strangers,” which was filmed in Florence, SC in 2006, had production expenditures totaling $2,389,896.00 with vendors ranging from Standard Coffee Service to a nutritionist from McLeod Health Services. Jay Schwedler, then President and CEO of the Florence County Economic Development Council, recently said “I’d do it again in a heartbeat. I think any community needs to be receptive and responsive to the film industry because it has a positive economic impact on that community. Not only did “Strangers” “shine a light on Florence,” Mr. Schwedler added, but “the film made a direct positive impact on the economy; hiring local vendors for food services, contractors for building sets and stages, which in turn bought lumber, hardware, paint, construction equipment, office supplies, and other necessities from local suppliers. Restaurants, hotels (6400 room nights) and props suppliers like antique, retail stores and consignment shops were also huge beneficiaries...”

The midlands saw a boost in 2006, when “Death Sentence,” the 15 million dollar suspense thriller starring Kevin Bacon and John Goodman spent a total of $13.2MM predominantly in Richland County. Local businesses, including City Art, Ace Hardware and Superior Southern Landscape all benefited from this production. According to Kelli Barbari, with the Midlands Authority for Conventions, over 2000 hotel room nights were actualized during production.

“Leatherheads” the George Clooney comedy about the early years of professional football, spent four months filming in the Greenville, Anderson and Greer in 2007. The production occupied 8,883 hotel rooms over the course of its 99 days in the up-state. Furniture rentals, construction materials, and drape rentals were just a few of the items contributing to the enormous spend with area retailers. In Greer, whose main street served as a depression era main street, local merchants saw almost as much spent by production as by the hundreds of visitors that came to see the production being filmed according to Reno Deaton of the Greer Economic Development board.

In Charleston, however, when Lifetime green-lit the first season of “Army Wives,” the production would guarantee nine months of steady production, sufficient to warrant the relocation businesses and technicians to compliment what was previously a modest offering. Transportation coordinator Lee Siler, who first worked in the state on “The Strangers”, settled into Charleston with the first season of “Army Wives.” He has since set up two new equipment companies in South Carolina: Film Trucks LLC and Palmetto Production Equipment LLC, which had combined sales of about $500,000.00 in sales revenue in 2009 “two thirds of that income came from South Carolina, the remainder from “The Conspirator” which shot in Savannah,” Siler stated, adding “I spent $82,990.00 in one year just to repair and maintain my vehicles – and all that money went to companies in Charleston.”

Ted Hergert, who had a small automotive repair business in the area, was originally contacted by the TV series Transportation Coordinator, Lee Siler, to repair military vehicles that had been shipped in from out of state. “I had a repair shop next to the production office and on the first season they’d rented a number of Humvees from a company in Kansas and none of them worked. The Transportation Coordinator had me repair them and then kept me on to maintain them.” An ex-Marine, Hergert proved to be indispensible in overseeing the show’s numerous military props, weapons and wardrobe. “They kept getting props and uniforms from out- of-state companies that weren’t correct – so I decided if I wanted it done correctly I’d better do it myself. Hergert now has the crew position of Armorer, which means any time a weapon is used on a set, he’s there to make sure that everything is done properly. He has since built up an inventory including weapons and all of the military wardrobe and props for the films “Dear John” and “Angel Camouflage,” which were recently filmed on Folly Beach. As “Army Wives” enters its fifth season, Ted Hergert’s Company “Southern Triangle,” located at the former Charleston Navy Base, will be supplying many of the show’s costumes and weapons.

Tom Morris, a Construction Coordinator who lives on Sullivan’s Island, uses a number of South Carolina Businesses if he’s working in state or not. Morris, who was responsible for over 16 million dollars of construction expenditures on Martin Scorsese’s film “Shutter Island”, also oversaw construction on “Leather Heads” and “Death Sentence;” and most recently Robert Redford’s “The Conspirators,” which was filmed in Savannah. Morris uses the South Carolina vendors he’s worked with over the past twenty plus years – because he knows they’ll deliver exactly what he wants on time, with no surprises. “Over the years you learn who knows the demands of the film industry” observes Morris “and that includes fast turnaround, extreme dependability, and consistent quality. I’ve use Charleston Lumber and Southern Lumber whenever I’m working in the area, and they’ve always been there for those inevitable last minute phone calls when I need large amounts of specialty material the next day.” Morris chose Shuman Owens in Ridgeville, to provide all the lumber he needed to create the Civil War Era’s period sets.

Morris has a long history of working with Randy Busse at JW Sales in North Charleston on “Leatherheads,” “Ace Ventura,” and “Death Sentence” just to name a few. “The first film our company worked with was “North and South,” comments Randy Busse at JW Sales in North Charleston. “We provided the Styrofoam columns needed to turn an abandoned house into a working plantation house. We have the most fun on the projects Tom brings us – and he knows we’ll give him whatever he requests. We’ve provided materials to most of the films that have shot in the area over the years, but it wasn’t until “Army Wives” that we saw a consistent amount of business.”

Phyllis Gallichet, of Cinema Catering incorporated in South Carolina in 2007, opening a branch office in Myrtle Beach. Having a South Carolina location offers a home base from which to operate the traveling kitchens which provide the numerous meals served on film locations. Cinema Catering employs ten local chefs and apprentices. "We currently have three catering trucks on the set of “Army Wives” and on a typical day we will feed in the neighborhood of 175 cast and crew members. “We buy everything locally, from the produce to the seafood to the propane used to cook; and as a result, the economic benefit trickles down to the local communities on every shoot.” said Ms. Gallichet.

It’s important to note that the economic impact of film production reaches every corner of South Carolina and that “Army Wives” is not the only Lowcountry based production. When “Dear John” was filmed in the Charleston area in 2008, $4,300,000 was spent in 130 days on a range of goods and services including lumber, lights, and automobiles. The Mills House, which provided accommodations to the cast and crew, was the biggest recipient of the productions total bookings of almost 5,000 room nights. John Hughes, whose family owns lumber company and rental business, provided a host of items from lumber to tents and chairs.

In all corners of the Palmetto state, South Carolinians supplied much of the behind the scenes manpower in the production of “Dear John,” “Leatherheads,” “Death Sentence,” and “The Strangers.” Combined, these four films paid out over $32 million dollars in salaries, having a consistent business presence also gave a number of area technicians an opportunity for a promotion which yields the biggest trickledown effect of all. Largely because of the spike in Production from 2006-2007, more South Carolinians are managing departments than ever before. When a South Carolinian runs a department, whether it is Wardrobe, Construction, Set Decoration or Lighting; they hire more local labor and use more local vendors because they have established relationships in the community. That involvement reaches down into the State’s Colleges and Universities – for example, Trident Technical College, where their advisory board is comprised of working technicians who help students obtain internships or first production jobs for graduates.

While Charleston has benefitted enormously from the on-going presence of “Army Wives,” Beaufort has watched its attractiveness eclipsed by nearby Savannah with the passage of incentives in Georgia in 2009. This sudden drop-off in activity has to do with competition with nearby states. Carlotta Ungaro said it all comes down to incentives: “The incentives make or a break landing a film. Right now they’re making them for Savannah and breaking them for us.” She cited the example of the Robert Redford film “The Conspirators,” which was filmed in Savannah during the fall and early winter of 2009. Movie scouts recommended Beaufort and Charleston for the film site, which were ideal locations for this Civil War era story about the trial of Mary Surratt, who was linked to the Lincoln assassination. Given Beaufort’s unique history, Ms. Ungaro bemoans the loss of this film in particular. “Beaufort County and South Carolina simply cannot compete with neighboring states like Georgia and North Carolina, whose incentives are significantly better than what we can offer. Since Georgia put in place a 30-percent incentive, they have seen $521 million in film incentives. Suffice to say we are no longer in the game.”

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