Downtown merchants ask city for help after ‘Sleepy Hollow’ cost them customers
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct an error.
SALISBURY — Downtown merchants met with city and tourism officials Monday night to ask for help the next time a film crew comes to town, whether it’s “Sleepy Hollow” or another project.
The recent “Sleepy Hollow” pilot shoot “was an unpleasant experience for most of the businesses,” said Toby Hagmaier, president of the Downtown Merchant Association and owner of Southern Spirit Gallery. “But we have a positive attitude if it happens again toward making sure that it works better.”
The city shut down a nearly 12-block area for five nights and a Saturday morning in March during filming of “Sleepy Hollow,” a supernatural thriller that has been picked up by Fox and will air at 9 p.m. Mondays this fall.
Merchants said although sidewalks remained open during filming, many customers thought downtown was “closed for business” and stayed away. Restaurant owners and retailers said the street closures went too far, lasted too long and cost them business, in some cases thousands of dollars.
Twentieth Century Fox has not announced where it will film the “Sleepy Hollow” TV series. If Salisbury is chosen again, crews would return this summer.
Aaron Syrett, N.C. Film Office director, said Tuesday night that 20th Century Fox, which spent $8 million in the Charlotte region filming the pilot, is still looking for a home for the series.
Merchants on Monday asked City Manager Doug Paris for better communication between the city and downtown and more support from studios for downtown businesses during filming. They also suggested ways to encourage people to come downtown, even though streets may be closed.
Paris was receptive to the ideas and said the pilot was a “learning experience.” Whether Salisbury lands “Sleepy Hollow” or another film project, the city wants to facilitate a better relationship between studios and local businesses, he said.
Paris said he would invite downtown liaisons to the planning table the next time the city sits down with a studio. Merchants appointed Heather Teeter, co-owner of Sweet Meadow Cafe, to represent restaurant owners and Gwen Matthews, co-owner of the Literary Bookpost, to represent retailers.
He also pledged to hold a meeting with city staffers and downtown merchants to go over the “Sleepy Hollow” experience and discuss possible changes.
“I’m sure there’s a solution,” he said.
Matthews, who drafted a letter to Paris and the Salisbury tourism board on behalf of the merchant association, suggested the city require a studio to buy a certain amount of Downtown Dollars for their crew to spend in downtown businesses. She also proposed setting up viewing stations near downtown filming locations, a common practice in other cities.
“Of course, the downtown merchants do not want to be an obstacle to future events like the ‘Sleepy Hollow’ filming,” Matthews wrote. “We want to capitalize on them.”
Merchants added that local restaurants want a shot at feeding film crews, instead of an out-of-town caterer.
The studio paid some downtown businesses and nonprofit groups that allowed film crews on their property.
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and First Presbyterian Church each negotiated significant, undisclosed donations from the studio. The Salisbury Post accepted an offer from the studio to rent the parking lot at Church and Fisher streets, which the Post leases from First Presbyterian’s Maxwell Chambers Trust.
Publisher Greg Anderson said the rental fee didn’t cover the Post’s lease payment.
Wells Fargo allowed the studio to use the bank’s parking lot but did not charge a fee, Market President Bill Greene said. The studio made a $1,000 donation to Lee Street Theatre instead, Greene said.
The city charged 20th Century Fox less than $30 for water. By comparison, the city of Gastonia charged $1,700 for one day of filming outside City Hall and rental of a municipal parking lot.
The difference is philosophical, Paris said.
“We are very business-friendly,” he said.
Paris said he does not want to charge a fee unless a business receives a city service. When 20th Century Fox used private property, the studio paid. But when crews filmed on public streets, the city did not charge a fee, he said.
The studio negotiated privately with off-duty police officers who provided security on the set.
Paris said the city wants to see the local community benefit from film projects, not fill city coffers.
“We don’t have a fee structure where we charge companies for just being in town,” Paris said.
Downtown merchants didn’t learn until it was too late that they could have requested compensation from 20th Century Fox by going through the N.C. Film Office.
In North Carolina, businesses shut down by filming can qualify for compensation. Syrett said even though Salisbury businesses remained opened, merchants could have made the argument that “Sleepy Hollow” in effect shut them down.
Paris said the studio tried to compensate one restaurant but did not receive the proper documentation. He said he didn’t know which restaurant.
Bob Lambrecht, co-owner of Critters Gifts, said in California, studios regularly paid him for disrupting his business. He earned $3,000 just because Will Ferrell ran naked in front of his store, Lambrecht said.
“I don’t want to take advantage, but we are just stupid if we think they can disrupt our businesses” without compensation, Lambrecht said. “We don’t get a paycheck unless customers come in.”
Mark Lewis, president of Downtown Salisbury Inc., said Salisbury is not alone in finding its way as North Carolina attracts an increasing number of film projects.
Several cities are drafting policies about how to deal with film crews, he said.
Salisbury performed well by getting the “Sleepy Hollow” project so quickly, Lewis said.
Merchants agreed they want film projects in downtown Salisbury.
“We just want to make sure it gets better next time,” Hagmaier said.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.