SC Experiencing a Perfect Storm for Filmmaking
John Goodman as Eli Gemstone. Credit: Fred Norris/HBO
When Rough House Pictures set up shop in North Charleston in 2015 to film “Vice Principals,” an HBO original comedy series starring Danny McBride and Walton Goggins, not even those heavily involved in film production in South Carolina anticipated the company’s next move. Just ahead of filming its highly anticipated re-boot of “Halloween,” starring the famed scream queen herself, Jamie Lee Curtis, Rough House moved from Los Angeles to the Charleston area, indicating that the switch had definitely been flipped to the “on” position for the state’s on-again-off-again film industry.
When Rough House’s decision was announced two years ago, it was one indication South Carolina’s volatile film industry was once again heading in the right direction. As the Rough House team unpacked the moving trucks, many in the state began waking up to the fact that the production company was now a pivotal force in American filmmaking. Founded by Danny McBride, David Gordon Green and Jody Hill, all alumni of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Rough House produced “Prince Avalanche” and “The Sitter,” both directed by Green as well as Hill’s most recent feature film, “Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter.” The company’s television series include one season of “Tarantula,” an original TBS animated series about the misadventures of a respected but uncertified tattoo artist; four seasons of “Eastbound and Down,” an HBO original comedy/drama series about a burned-out major league baseball player teaching physical education at his old middle school; and two seasons of the aforementioned “Vice Principals,” about rival high school administrators teaming up to take down their school’s highly competent principal. “Vice Principals” received the highest ratings for a comedy premiere on HBO until recently when Rough House’s own “The Righteous Gemstones,” also filmed in the state, stole the title.
With a production budget of $12.3 million, “Halloween” tapped into South Carolina’s $15 million in cash incentives, (as did “Vice Principals” before it). After the film’s release in 2018, it earned north of $255 million in Worldwide Box Office Revenues for R Movies and its DVD and Blue-ray sales are currently nearing $14 million. But with South Carolina’s incentives for the coming year already earmarked for other projects, Rough House made the tough decision to film its next two “Halloween” sequels in North Carolina where the amount of incentives offered by the state is more than double that of South Carolina.
Despite this loss, South Carolina continues to reap the benefits of having a big-time film production company in its midst. Not only did the Charleston area benefit from millions of dollars in real estate sales that resulted from Rough House’s move, the filming of “Vice Principals,” “Halloween and “The Righteous Gemstones, resulted in the creation of hundreds of jobs for crew members and service staff, as well an injection of millions of dollars into the overall marketplace through food and supply sales, hotel stays, restaurant visits, etc.
Gavin Munn as Abraham Gemstone, Kelton DuMont as Pontius Gemstone and Cassidy Freeman as Amber Gemstone. Credit: Fred Norris/HBO
Adam Devine as Kelvin Gemstone, Danny McBride as Jesse Gemstone and John Goodman as Eli Gemstone and. Credit: Fred Norris/HBO
Brendan Gleeson and Jharrel Jerome in Mr. Mercedes, season 3. Credit: AT&T Audience Network
Gabriel Ebert and Kate Mulgrew in Mr. Mercedes, season 3. Credit: AT&T Audience Network
The move by Rough House isn’t the only positive indicator for the future of South Carolina’s film industry. In fact, a perfect storm seems to be brewing for the state’s film industry, from the Upstate, to the Midlands, to the Pee Dee, to the Lowcountry.
Throughout the 1990s, when “location, location, location” was the primary considerations for television and movie producers, the state drew a seemingly endless string of productions that, in turn, nurtured a community of skilled and dedicated filmmaking professionals. By the turn of the century, the tide had changed. Film incentives became the determining factor in most location decisions, and South Carolina fell behind more aggressive states offering viable incentives to filmmakers.
As productions recruited to the state dwindled during the early years of the 21st century, the seven seasons of “Army Wives” (2007-2013) became the primary face of the once burgeoning film industry in South Carolina. In 2013, the Carolina Film Alliance, a membership organization dedicated to building the motion picture, television and creative digital media industries in the state, stepped up to encourage the passage of the Motion Picture Incentive Act by the legislature. While the details of the incentives have fluctuated through the years, resulting in varying degrees of success, last year saw a major win for the state’s film industry.
About the time Rough House Pictures was settling into its new home, the President of the Carolina Film Alliance, Linda Lee, along with other members of the organization’s board of directors, with the help of Tompkins, Thompson & Brown, a Columbia-based bipartisan government relations firm, convinced the state legislature to add a proviso to the film incentives package. The proviso reads in part, “Any uncommitted funds shall be carried forward from the prior fiscal year and must be used solely for wage and supplier rebate funds pursuant to the Motion Picture Incentive Act and may not be used for any other purposes.”
Brandon James, David Gordon Green, Danny McBride and Linda Lee with Gov. Henry Dargan McMaster. Credit: Zach Pippin
Amy Heath, Director of Tourism, City of North Charleston.
In the wake of that momentous victory, rather than pat themselves on the backs, Lee and her team decided to lean in...push a little harder. They met with even more legislators, expounding the importance of the film industry to more elected officials from across the state. The effort appears to be paying off.
“Today, we have more support in the state legislature than ever before,” states Lee, who has been a vocal advocate for South Carolina’s film industry since the formation of the Carolina Film Alliance. “More and more, they are seeing that film incentives provide jobs and employment for South Carolina residents, from actors and crew to vendors and local business. They understand that film incentives are not giveaways that primarily benefit production companies and out-of-state workers.”
From 2012 to 2019 over $1.2 billion in production business was lost to the state due to lack of rebate funding. Those locations that lost out on this business include Beaufort, Georgetown, Rock Hill, Greenville, Charleston, Columbia and a number of small towns statewide. Lee believes that now is the time the state decides if it’s in the film business or not.
Director of Tourism for the City of North Charleston couldn’t agree more. “We’ve turned away nine projects already this year because we don’t have the incentive money,” states Amy Heath, who serves as an advocate for the film industry for her city. “Now that more and more of our state legislators are looking at the film industry from the same standpoint as they look at a Boeing, a Volvo or a BMW, perhaps the amount of cash incentives can finally rise to meet the demand.”
According to Heath, small rural towns can be among the biggest benefactors of the film industry. “Film production leaves an area better off than the way it was before,” insists Heath. “These production companies willingly absorb whatever costs it takes to make the area where they film great. These contributions to a rural area can make all the difference in the world. It’s time to let the smaller communities across the state shine. I think there’s a lot more we could be doing. I don’t feel like we have enough advocacy for the film industry in the state.”
As the Carolina Film Alliance continues its work educating state legislators on the statewide benefits, the organization is currently reaching out to communities across the state for their help and input. “Through the Beaufort International Film Festival, organizer Ron Tucker has gotten to know a lot of people across the state,” adds Lee. “These people are very interested in bringing film productions to their areas. Over the next few months, we’re hoping to bring the main players in these different regions into the Carolina Film Alliance...truly make it the statewide organization it was always meant to be.”
A major production company, increased support from legislators, statewide expansion of film industry advocacy...These are three indicators of a perfect storm brewing for filmmaking in South Carolina.
Danny McBride and David Gordon Green chat with Speaker Jay Lucas. Credit: Sam Holland
Rep. Murrell Smith
“The State of South Carolina has shown itself to be an attractive place for filmmakers; we offer a rich and diverse landscape and a talented workforce to bring creative expression to the screen. The film industry has had an enormously positive effect by showing the world our unmatched natural beauty and highlighting numerous important cultural and historical features that has attracted countless tourists to visit. I am committed to building on the successes we have achieved so far and growing the industry to even greater heights.”
Rep. Murrell Smith, Chairman Ways & Means Committee, S.C. House of Representatives
“It is astounding that one production alone can employ 200 people. Having a large production company in South Carolina is the start of something really big. We are hopeful for continued growth and that this will propel the film industry in our state to greater heights. Since 2005, film and television productions in this state have resulted in over $338 million in in-state spending.
The television and film industry showcases South Carolina’s beautiful natural resources and all our state has to offer. People come from all over the world for a taste of what South Carolinians get to enjoy each day because of what they’ve seen in a movie or show. This fertile industry provides limitless opportunities for economic development, good paying jobs, and increased tourism dollars.”
Rep. James H.[Jay] Lucas. Speaker, S.C House of Representatives
Speaker Jay Lucas presides as Rep. Peter McCoy introduces the Rough House boys to the S.C. House of Representatives. Credit: Sam Holland