'The Hunger Games' fuels Hollywood's appetite for North Carolina
From “Blue Velvet” to “Bull Durham,” North Carolina has a long filmmaking tradition. With the release of this weekend’s much-anticipated debut of “The Hunger Games,” state film officials are hoping the state will re-emerge as one of the top shooting destinations outside of California.
The post-apocalyptic tale based on the first of three bestselling novels by Suzanne Collins is expected to be one of the highest grossing movies of the year -- a major selling point for the state that hosted the production last summer.
“The Hunger Games,” starring Jennifer Lawrence, is one of the biggest productions North Carolina has hosted. With the film’s budget exceeding $80 million, Santa Monica studio Lionsgate spent an estimated $60 million in the state, employing 180 crew members and more than 4,000 extras.
“This is going to impact us in the way that ‘Dirty Dancing’ and ‘The Last of the Mohicans’ did,” said Aaron Syrett, director of the North Carolina Film Office. “It shows the industry that North Carolina can handle these large films and that we have the talent and resources to make it work.”
The film office has wasted no time taking advantage of the hype surrounding the Lionsgate movie, sending out an email blast to filmmakers proudly touting the locations used in “The Hunger Games.”
Over four months last summer, the crew filmed throughout the Charlotte area, including at an old cotton mill outside of Hildebran that was transformed into a coal-mining village that is home to the movie’s heroine, Katniss Everdeen. They also shot at a former Philip Morris cigarette manufacturing plant in Concord and in the dense forest areas near Asheville and Black Mountain that served as the backdrop for “The Hunger Games,” in which teenagers fight to the death on live television.
“The Hunger Games” contributed to North Carolina having a record year for production in 2011, generating $220 million in film and TV spending, up from $75 million in 2010. Other productions in the state included such TV series as Showtime’s “Homeland” and the CW's young adult drama “One Tree Hill,” as well as several movies, among them “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island,” which filmed partially in Wilmington.
This year, North Carolina will host another big film, Marvel Studios’ “Iron Man 3,” starring Robert Downey Jr. The production, which will soon begin filming, is expected to spend $80 million in the state.
North Carolina’s film office attributes the increase in activity mainly to the decision by the state legislature to beef up its film tax credit in January of last year. The state, which offers a 25% refundable tax credit on qualified production expenses, increased the cap on how much individual projects could receive to $20 million from $7 million.
Although North Carolina provided ideal locations for “The Hunger Games,” the film tax credit was a key factor, said Todd Christensen, the movie's location manager, who also worked on the Oscar-nominated picture “Moneyball,” which filmed in California.
“They hadn’t done a big film in North Carolina for some time, but they had a great attitude toward us as a film crew and letting us do what we needed to do,” Christensen said.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, North Carolina was one of the busiest states for filming outside of California and New York, thanks to a string of movies including the baseball drama “Bull Durham” and Academy Award-winner “The Last of the Mohicans,” which filmed in the Pisgah National Forest among other locations.
Despite its reputation for being film friendly and a so-called right-to-work state where non-union crews are welcomed, North Carolina lost its competitive edge when Canadian provinces and other states such as Georgia and Louisiana began to grab larger shares of the business by offering generous film tax credits. Now the state is enjoying a comeback, industry officials say.
“The industry is seeing us as a serious filmmaking state,’’ said Bill Vassar, an executive vice president of EUE/Screen Gems, which operates a 10-stage production facility in Wilmington that will be rented to Marvel for “Iron Man 3.” “It’s elevating us again.”
-- Richard Verrier
Photo: Jennifer Lawrence, left, portrays Katniss Everdeen and Liam Hemsworth portrays Gale Hawthorne in a scene from "The Hunger Games." Credit: Associated Press / Lionsgate, Murray Close