Wilmington film industry bounces back after global 6 month industry blackout

Wilmington film industry fights back from the pandemic with safety first

WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Three different productions are underway in Wilmington right now; its welcome news after a global shutdown in the film industry.

Filming for Hallmark movie USS Christmas is expected to wrap up Wilmington this week before crews travel down to Charleston. Cameras are rolling now on Scream 5 and preparations are underway to begin shooting Starz’s TV series Hightown.

Coming out of a record year, film workers expected 2020 to be booming. This past spring, the studio was busy with TV pilots and two feature films, but ever since COVID-19 shut down projects across the nation, its been a slow restart for the industry as they learn how to work in this new environment.

Stringent COVID-19 precautions

“The industry leaders have found a way in conjunction with public health officials to do this safely and so North Carolina is open for business again making films,” said UNCW film studies professor Chip Hackler.

Social distancing on set is a challenge, but its one crews have risen to meet. Productions in other cities have been shut down due to outbreaks of the virus, so the industry is taking their health precautions very seriously.

Everyone is wearing their masks and doing temperature checks before work and leaders have also divided the crew into “zones” to limit their exposure with others.

General members of the crew are tested for the coronavirus weekly for the duration of the production and rules are even more strict if you’re working in jobs close to actors.

“If you work anywhere near the actors and are on set in a capacity where you have to be in close proximity to them—since they will not be wearing masks when they’re on camera, you’ve got hair and make-up people, directors, cameramen—those people all have to be tested three times per week,” said Johnny Griffin, director of the Wilmington regional film commission. “You can see its very stringent in trying to keep everything safe, everything sanitized and just trying to keep the COVID away from the film sets.”

COVID-19′s impact on this spring’s productions

While film crews are excited to get back to work again, the pandemic has put projects underway this spring in a tough spot.

Neither of the TV pilots announced for Wilmington this past spring were completed. This Country only filmed for one day when they were scheduled to film for eight. Lost Boys shot for a week, yet were scheduled to shoot for two weeks.

Right now, the pilots are in limbo. No one knows if the studios will revisit the pilots, green-light the series or cancel them all together.

There’s no word on a release date for the Georgetown Project. The movie starring Russell Crowe wrapped up filming around Christmas.

Halloween Kills was supposed to be released this Halloween, but was pushed back a year and it will now come out in 2021.

Restrictions on theaters, put in place to slow the spread of the virus, are taking a toll on how these projects will be distributed to viewers.

“For television it’s no problem, just go straight to television or streaming. But if it’s theatrical—theaters are still not open in North Carolina. They’re open in a lot of states but they’re still not open to full capacity, so the films are trying to decide if they want to be distributed and be put into a theater that can’t even be filled to capacity," said Griffin. “Its another thing slowing down some of the theatrical film production. We can make it, but whats the distribution plan? You don’t want to put money into a project then not be able to distribute it the way you need to, to get that revenue.”

Film bouncing back in the Cape Fear

Pandemic or not, experts agree having a TV movie, a feature film and a television series all working in Wilmington is something to be proud of.

“Having the film industry in Wilmington makes it a more interesting place to live. It gives people something to talk about and it’s entertaining and that kind of thing. But in all seriousness, it does also create jobs and help the economy,” said professor Hackler.

Last year, productions spent more than $130 million in the community. For a town Wilmington’s size, that money has a showstopping impact.

The Port City’s small town charm is also catching the attention of production companies.

“Wilmington is being seen as a place that is less crowded, doesn’t rely upon mass transportation, has had low incidence of the coronavirus—so that has gotten attention for us. And companies have seen that and said, you know, Wilmington looks like a safer place to work right now,” said Griffin.

While no one could have seen a six-month film blackout coming, Griffin is optimistic for the future and says there are talks already of more productions coming to Wilmington before the year is over.

“I think we’re gonna finish the year in a good situation, considering all we’ve been through.”

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