Some question if disruptions from ‘Sleepy Hollow’ pilot were worth it

  • Posted: Sunday, April 21, 2013 12:36 a.m.
    UPDATED: Sunday, April 21, 2013 1:02 a.m.
St. Luke's Episcopal Church has been transformed in The Old North Church.  Workers were unloading a camera under the cover at the rain poured.  The movie set was creating the fog with a machine.  photo by Wayne Hinshaw, for the Salisbury Post
St. Luke's Episcopal Church has been transformed in The Old North Church. Workers were unloading a camera under the cover at the rain poured. The movie set was creating the fog with a machine. photo by Wayne Hinshaw, for the Salisbury Post

By Emily Ford

SALISBURY — The Hollywood television studio that took over nearly 12 blocks of downtown Salisbury for five nights in March to film “Sleepy Hollow” paid the city less than $30.

Twentieth Century Fox paid $29.94 for water and the rental of hydrant meters, according to a city spokeswoman.

The city waived a $150 special event permit fee for the use of Bell Tower Park because the studio improved the gazebo, city spokeswoman Elaney Hasselmann said. In contrast, the city of Gastonia charged 20th Century Fox $1,700 for one day of filming in front of City Hall and rental of a municipal parking lot, according to a Gastonia official.

Preliminary figures from the N.C. Film Office show 20th Century Fox spent about $8 million in the Charlotte region filming the “Sleepy Hollow” pilot.

Several downtown Salisbury restaurant owners said they lost thousands of dollars during filming because the streets were closed. Business owners who believe they are going to lose money due to a film project can try to negotiate with a studio for compensation, according to the N.C. Film Office.

Twentieth Century Fox should learn May 13 whether the Fox TV network will air the pilot and order the series. The supernatural thriller features Ichabod Crane, played by British actor Tom Mison, as a Revolutionary War captain who travels forward in time to solve a police officer’s murder.

Salisbury, which was depicted as the town of Sleepy Hollow where the legend was born, was a lynchpin in the project. Salisbury provided crucial backdrops for the storyline, including Ichabod Crane’s time travel, battles with the Headless Horseman, chase scenes and more.

During filming, Hasselmann said she thought the studio would make a donation to the city. That didn’t happen.

“There will be no donation made to the city of Salisbury, however, we understand that Twentieth Century Fox may be making donations to arts organizations in our community,” she said.

A studio spokesman in Los Angeles said he could not comment on financial details of the project as a matter of policy.

The Post could not find any local arts organization that received a donation from the studio. The local Wells Fargo branch did pass along $1,000 from the studio for parking space rental to Lee Street Theatre, and several people affiliated with “Sleepy Hollow” toured Waterworks Visual Arts Center.

The studio made substantial, undisclosed donations to both St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, where crews filmed on the front lawn for several days, and First Presbyterian Church, whose Maxwell Chambers Trust owns Bell Tower Park. The city leases the park from the trust.

While church leaders said they did not want to reveal dollar amounts, the Rev. Whayne Hougland of St. Luke’s said the studio was generous.

Chris Bradshaw, property committee chairman for First Presbyterian, said he hopes “Sleepy Hollow” will return and use church property again. “It was worthwhile for the church,” Bradshaw said.

A big budget

Aaron Syrett, director of the N.C. Film Office, said $8 million is a big budget for a pilot.

“It was an ambitious pilot,” Syrett said. “They invested a lot of money.”

None of that money went to local downtown restaurant owners, who told the Post they lost thousands of dollars during the project.

Not only did regular customers stay away because the streets were closed, they said, but “Sleepy Hollow” didn’t eat local. An out-of-town caterer prepared all meals for the cast and crew.

In North Carolina, businesses that are shut down for film projects can negotiate compensation by calling the N.C. Film Office, Syrett said. The office then puts the business owner in touch with the studio, he said.

No restaurants were shut down in Salisbury due to “Sleepy Hollow.” A letter from the studio to business owners instructed them to “maintain their normal business hours throughout the filming period.”

Studio representatives who visited downtown restaurants assured owners that filming would not impede their business, several owners said.

Although urged to stay open, some owners said they would have been better off closing because they were paying employees to staff empty restaurants.

Did “Sleepy Hollow,” in effect, close several Salisbury businesses?

“A restaurant could argue that,” Syrett said.

But no Salisbury business called his office to complain or ask for compensation, he said.

“Nobody here knew about that option,” said Heather Teeter, owner of Sweet Meadow Cafe who said she hopes “Sleepy Hollow” will return and use local restaurants for catering.

Owners had a sense they should be compensated for night after night of empty restaurants, “but we were never directed to the proper channels,” Teeter said.

She said during filming she called the city administration, Salisbury Police, N.C. Department of Transportation and the 20th Century Fox location manager with concerns about the inaccessibility of her restaurant, located on a street that was closed every night. No one directed her to the N.C. Film Office, which Teeter said she didn’t know existed until this week.

Nothing after the fact

Businesses can’t ask for compensation after the fact, Syrett said. Negotiations should begin before filming, he said, when studio representatives visit business owners.

“If they feel they are going to be shut down, they could raise their hand,” Syrett said.

The city will conduct a review of what happened during the shoot “to determine the best course of action to minimize negative impact on local businesses should future film projects arise,” Hasselmann said.

Unlike other street closures in the city, the request to shut down a large portion of downtown for “Sleepy Hollow” did not go before City Council. Instead, City Manager Doug Paris approved the street closures.

City code does not require City Council to approve street closures, Hasselmann said. Requests to close streets go before City Council as a courtesy, she said.

“As for the street closures, the filming of ‘Sleepy Hollow’ was fluid in nature and a unique situation that required flexibility on the part of the city,” Hasselmann said.

The studio hired five off-duty Salisbury Police officers each evening. Payment was coordinated directly between the studio and each officer, Hasselmann said.

To shoot “Sleepy Hollow,” the studio hired about 150 well-trained, well-paid crew members, as well as 924 extras who made minimum wage or a little better, Syrett said.

The N.C. Department of Revenue audits film projects to determine whether a studio qualifies for the tax credits that have made North Carolina such an appealing location. Studios that spend more than $250,000 qualify for a 25 percent refundable tax credit, Syrett said.

Revenue figures from the audits are released on May 1 each year, so “Sleepy Hollow” likely will be included in the 2014 audit results, Syrett said.

A fee or for free?

Some cities charge a permit fee for film projects to cover administrative costs, while others do not, Syrett said.

“Cities want to make their jurisdiction film-friendly,” he said. “… They know the economic impact of these projects.”

Twentieth Century Fox likely bought everything from gas to paint in Salisbury stores during the shoot, Syrett said.

The Holiday Inn hasn’t released how many rooms the studio booked, but “Sleepy Hollow” generated a substantial amount of hotel occupancy tax revenue, which supports tourism and marketing efforts in Salisbury and Rowan County, said James Meacham, tourism director.

While Gastonia charged the studio for using City Hall and a parking lot, the city has waived fees for film projects before, said Jack Kiser, Gastonia senior executive for special projects.

“It would depend on the situation,” Kiser said. “They have shut down the streets and we don’t charge them.”

For another project — a promotional shoot for the TV show “Homeland” — Gastonia charged the studio several thousand dollars for taking over Main Avenue for a day, he said. The fee still didn’t cover the city’s administrative costs, said Kiser, who worked 16 hours that day.

But landing a film project brings jobs and investments to a community, Kiser said.

The $8 million investment by 20th Century Fox for “Sleepy Hollow” is significant for the Charlotte region, Syrett said.

“What other industry can come in so quickly and drop that much money into a community?” he said.

For Hougland of St. Luke’s, “Sleepy Hollow” was more than a chance to make money.

“They compensated us, and they should, but it wasn’t a ton of money,” he said. “Our main goal was to help the community.”

St. Luke’s recognized that the church played a key role in bringing the film project to Salisbury, where the economic impact will multiply if the series gets picked up and crews return this summer, Hougland said.

“We wanted to be as hospitable and accommodating as possible because it would benefit the whole community,” he said.

Moving forward, Salisbury needs to think more strategically about not only “Sleepy Hollow” but film projects in general to make sure everyone in the community benefits, Hougland said. The city was a little star struck by the “Sleepy Hollow” experience and faced a steep learning curve, he said.

Twentieth Century Fox has made no promise to return to St. Luke’s or Salisbury, but if the studio does, the church would like to help negotiate the use of local employees and local businesses, Hougland said.

Studio executives kept commenting about how graciously Salisbury received them, he said.

“They want to come into a relationship with the community and make sure everyone is fairly treated, not necessarily run over the community,” Hougland said.

Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.

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