NC’s long history in the movies

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 10, 2014

RALEIGH – Did you know that hundreds of silent films were shot against the backdrop of the North Carolina mountains in the early 20th century? Or that most cities and towns once had African-American movie theaters, but they showed second-run films and typically were smaller and less ornate than whites-only theaters?

Those are two points I took from a walk through the state’s film history at the “Starring North Carolina” exhibit, which runs through Sept. 7, 2015, at the N.C. Museum of History. For $10, slightly more than a movie ticket, it’s a show worth seeing.

Planned or not, the 8,000-square-foot display couldn’t come at a better – or worse – time or place for film industry advocates in North Carolina.

The General Assembly this year eliminated the controversial and generous film incentive program – which was credited with inducing a surge in film and television production in recent years, but was costing state taxpayers tens of millions of dollars a year. Lawmakers replaced it with a more modest and unproven grant program, which will start next year. Industry officials in North Carolina say the change already is driving movies and TV shows away from North Carolina to other states with more attractive perks.

Also, the exhibit resides at the Museum of History, a stone’s throw from the Legislative Building, where lawmakers will get back to work in January and where film incentives no doubt will be discussed, as they have been each year in recent memory. Legislators won’t have to walk far to take in the industry’s past as they consider its future. The exhibit closes in September, likely just after the General Assembly wraps up its business for the year.

“Starring North Carolina” recalls 100 years of filming roughly 3,000 “screen events” in North Carolina, from the mountains to the coast. It also celebrates North Carolinians who have made it big onscreen, from Johnston County-born Ava Gardner to Andy Griffith from Mount Airy.

Among the notable items on display is the blood-stained, yellow prison jumpsuit and shackles worn by Dr. Richard Kimble, played by Harrison Ford, in “The Fugitive” (1993), much of which was shot in western North Carolina, including Swain and Jackson counties.

Also, there’s the denim jacket worn by Drew Barrymore’s character, Charlene “Charlie” McGee, and her body double in the 1984 thriller “Firestarter,” which was filmed in Wilmington, Lake Lure and Chimney Rock. And behind a glass case is an outfit worn by Katniss, Jennifer Lawrence’s character in the blockbuster 2012 film “The Hunger Games,” which was shot in many N.C. locations.

The exhibit also includes props and other paraphernalia from North Carolina-filmed TV shows such “Dawson’s Creek,” “Sleepy Hollow” and “One Tree Hill,” and such movies as “Bull Durham,” “Iron Man 3,” “Blue Velvet” and “Dirty Dancing.”

As I walked through the exhibit, I expected to get hit over the head with news about the incentive’s demise. It was much more subtle.

There’s a plaque that includes brief details about the incentive program. And nearby, as you reach the end of the exhibit, another plaque boasts North Carolina’s diversity of shooting locations and its “established movie and television infrastructure.”

“In the 30-plus years the modern industry has operated here, that infrastructure has come to include a huge base of trained professional cast and crew members, ready to move the state forward into the next era of filmmaking,” it reads.

That era might not be as glamorous as those of the past. One film industry supporter told me that the exhibit was in the works long before the Legislature decided to reduce the incentives available to production companies.

“What was a celebration is now a wake,” he said.

Patrick Gannon writes for Capitol Press Association.