The State of Filmmaking in South Carolina

Jamie Lee Curtis and director David Gordon Green on set of “Halloween.”  Credit; Ryan Green/Universal

From the onset of the Golden Age of Cinema in the early years of the 20th century, South Carolina has boasted its share of big screen credits. With location, location, location being the three primary factors production companies used during this era to select sites for their films, South Carolina boldly put its multi-dimensional face forward.

From the mountains to the sea, small town storefronts to historic antebellum buildings, pristine waterways to tropical jungles, rural settings to modern urban environments, the Palmetto State served as the backdrop for more than 100 feature films, 70 movies made for television, and several television pilots and series. The Big Chill (1981), The Abyss (1988), Days of Thunder (1990), The Prince of Tides (1991), Forrest Gump (1994), The Patriot (1999) and The Notebook (2002) are just a few among the state’s most notable credits earned during the 20th century.


As the first century of filmmaking came to a close, the rules of site selection quickly began to change. Yes, production companies were still interested in location. But with the development of computer-generated imagery (CGI), just about any place on earth could become any other place on earth through a bit of movie magic. In selecting a location, production companies began placing greater emphasis on the availability of quality-of-life factors including accommodations, dining options and off-hours recreational opportunities, to name a few. These companies were also interested, in many cases, in the availability of skilled local crewmembers and suppliers, as well as the perception and receptivity of their industry in hosting communities.


But the major variable in attracting production companies in the 21st century is film incentives. “South Carolina’s cash rebate program was one of the first in the country and has remained the same since 2005,” states Tom Clark of the South Carolina Film Commission. “We have been able to recruit enough feature films and TV series to spend the entire amount allocated to us for the last three fiscal years. Annual direct spending by production companies averages around $180 million per year on wages and with South Carolina vendors.”


Clark adds, “Studios and production companies find the South Carolina rebates process to be straightforward and easy to use and the cash payment within 45 days of the end of physical production is very attractive.”


“We all know by now that incentives have become a primary consideration for where a production will shoot,” adds Harrison Palmer, president of IATSE 491, representing motion picture and television studio mechanics for SC, NC and Savannah, GA. “Shows used to be almost exclusively location driven to ever leave California…but incentive money in competing states as well as Canada and other countries has become a game changer, whether as a grant, a rebate or a tax credit. Incentives are now the number one ‘deal or no deal’ for studio actuaries and production accountants.”


Unfortunately, filming in the state since the beginning of the 21st century reached its pinnacle in 2006, with major projects taking place across the state. Since then, the shooting star that once was film production in the Palmetto State has ebbed, leaving local filmmaking professionals mostly talking about how good it used to be and longing for the good old days of full employment they enjoyed in the 1980s and 90s.


Admittedly, the new century dry spell has had some bright spots – the seven-year run of Lifetime Network’s popular series, 
Army Wives, that employed hundreds of locals comes to mind – but the trickle of two or three productions a year, many shipping in their own crews, merely whets the appetites of the state’s experienced film industry workers.

 

By the turn of the century, film production was recognized as a powerful economic engine in South Carolina. So in 2004, lawmakers stepped up and offered its first legislative action to help secure the industry’s future across the state. This bill provided a limited exemption from state and local sales taxes for a motion picture production company. Items included all supplies, technical equipment, machinery, and electricity sold to motion picture companies. Tax was due on the purchase, lease or rental of items not specifically covered by the exemption.


Then in 2005, lawmakers strengthened its previous year’s action by providing exemption from sales, use and accommodations taxes to a motion picture production company that intended to expend in the aggregate $250,000 or more in connection with the filming or production of one or more motion pictures in the state within a consecutive 12-month period. The action also provided up to 15% rebate for the employment of persons subject to South Carolina withholdings when total production costs in the state was equal to/or exceed $1 million during the taxable year. The rebate applied to all crew, cast and extras earning less than $1 million and subject to South Carolina withholdings tax, and up to 15% rebate on South Carolina goods and services for qualified motion pictures, videos, television series or commercials. This film incentive package made South Carolina a top contender for film production and attracted Hollywood investment in the state. 

Tom Clark, Director, SC Film Commission.

Brandon Gleeson takes the lead in "Mr. Mercedes." Photo courtesy of Bo Shurling.

Justine Lupe as Holly Gibney and Brendan Gleeson as Bill Hodges in “Mr. Mercedes” have lunch at the Idle Hour restaurant, Park Circle, North Charleston.

To make the incentive more competitive, a proviso was introduced in 2006 to increase rebates to 20% on wages and 
30% on supplies. (There has been a similar proviso each year since.) Qualified film productions recruited that fiscal year included Leatherheads (filmed in Anderson and Greenville), Asylum (filmed in Rock Hill and York), The Strangers (filmed in Florence), Who’s Your Caddy? (filmed in Aiken), Army Wives Pilot (filmed in Charleston and North Charleston), Death Sentence (filmed in Columbia), Reinventing the Wheelers Pilot (filmed in Charleston), Taking Chances (filmed in Chester and Rock Hill), Gospel Hill (filmed in Fort Mill), and Army Wives Season 1 (filmed in Charleston and North Charleston). This resulted in 7,100 jobs and millions of dollars in increased economic activity. WOW!


“I think Army Wives made the first significant impact in motion picture business on South Carolina,” says Martin Bluford, Southeast Regional Manager for High Output, Inc., a premier supplier of production services and equipment for film, television, theater and events, and member of the Carolina Film Alliance board of directors. “And the reason Army Wives initially came to Charleston was the state’s film incentives package. High Output grew along with the film industry during the show’s seven season run.”


On the heels of 10 major productions filmed in multiple locations across the state, the film industry hit a wall in 2007 when the South Carolina Department of Commerce used a loophole to cut back wage incentives to 10% for out-of-state hires with a $3,500 per person cap. The resulting negative impact on the film industry was immediate, with only two new qualified productions recruited to the state that year. They included The New Daughter (filmed in McClellanville) and Nailed (filmed in Columbia). Renewed for Season 2, Army Wives was allowed to stay at 20% for all wages.


The film industry continued to stagnate into 2008, with only one new qualified production coming to the state: Dear John (filmed in Charleston, Edisto Island, Folly Beach, Harleyville, Isle of Palms, James Island and Sullivan’s Island.) Army Wives was renewed for Season 3. Most revealing about that year is that the University of South Carolina conducted an in-depth study on the economic impact of seven films filmed on location in the state. The study found that even though the state had no permanent infrastructure in place, these films had a very positive economic impact, with every $1 spent on wage rebates generating a total income effect of $1.30 for the state.


With no changes to the film incentives in 2009, only two qualified productions were recruited to the state: Angel Camouflaged (filmed on James Island and Folly Beach), and Little Red Wagon (filmed in Awendaw). Army Wives was renewed for Season 4. (2009 was also the year that the state of Georgia blasted on the scene with their 30% all-inclusive tax credit for qualified film productions...they now claim the industry has a $9.5 billion impact on the state).

Cast of “Army Wives” (with hubbies), shot exclusively in Charleston, North Charleston region. Credit: Copyright by Dan Littlejohn/ABC Studios.

Harry  Treadaway as Brady Hartsfield in “Mr. Mercedes.” Credit: Bo Shurling

Another major blow to the film industry came in 2010 when, during an agency-wide reduction in force, the South Carolina Parks, Recreation and Tourism Commission that oversees the South Carolina Film Commission, eliminated four positions in the commission including the Film Commissioner, who was instrumental in putting the original film incentives package in place. $1.5 million of film commission funds were diverted to the South Carolina Conservation Bank. When PRT started using the Film Commission’s rebate money in 2010, it happened at a time when South Carolina’s Film Rebates had been severely compromised by the then Director of Commerce, rendering them virtually useless. Then, the Film Commission was transferred to PRT from Commerce, and the same restrictive policies stayed in place resulting in less film recruiting, and an ever-growing pot of rebate money, that appeared, on the surface, as excess funds not being used. When the Film Commission was transferred to PRT in 2009, PRT needed money for parks maintenance and advertising.  When nine Welcome Centers were transferred from DOT to PRT in 2014, even more money was needed.  PRT would request Proviso 49.8 in 2014 to guarantee that they would have access to un-committed rebate funds whenever they were needed. 


Qualified productions recruited included the continuation of shooting for Little Red Wagon, and The Bay (filmed in Georgetown); Army Wives was renewed for Season 5. 

 

In 2011, Army Wives was renewed for Season 6, and in 2012, Army Wives was renewed for Season 7, its final season.


That same year, the Carolina Film Alliance (CFA) began to actively lobby for the film industry and in 2013, a Bill was passed raising wage rebates to 25% for South Carolina residents and 20% for out-of-state residents; and supplier rebates to 30% for South Carolina expenditures. The film business ticked up slightly with the recruitment of Reckless Pilot and Reckless Season 1 (both filmed in Charleston).


When proviso 49.8 was introduced requiring that uncommitted film rebate funds MUST be used for deferred maintenance and capital projects on State Parks and Welcome Centers, it was done very quietly.  Linda Lee, president of CFA said, “If it hadn’t been for friends who were on the House floor at the time, we would never have known.  All we could do was get the word must changed to may, which in retrospect, had no effect.”  


Qualified productions recruited included The Inspectors Pilot (filmed in North Charleston), Outcast Pilot (filmed in Chester, Fort Mill, Rock Hill and York), South of Hell (filmed in Charleston), Identity Pilot and Ivy League Farmer (filmed in Charleston). 
In 2015 the qualified productions recruited included Sophie and the Rising Sun (filmed in McClellanville), Megan Leavey (portions filmed in Charleston), Vice Principals (filmed in North Charleston). Outcast Season 2 and The Inspectors Season 1 were renewed.


In 2016, CFA realized that because of the disparity in funds for the Wage Rebate ($10M) and the Supplier Rebate ($6.5M), the Film Commission would run out of Supplier money and leave Wage money on the table that could be used for non-film related projects. A new proviso allowed the Film Commission to rebate without distinction of source. Qualified productions recruited that fiscal year include We Love You (filmed in Charleston), Naked (filmed in Charleston), The Death of Eva Sofia Valdez (filmed in Myrtle Beach and Murrells Inlet), The Sinner (filmed in St. George, Cheraw State Park and Charleston). The Inspectors Season 2 and Outcast Season 2 were renewed. In 2017, qualified productions recruited included Mr. Mercedes Season 1 (filmed in North Charleston and Charleston), and Halloween (filmed in North Charleston and Charleston). The Inspectors was renewed for Seasons 3 and 4.

The Future of Filmmaking in South Carolina

When South Carolina began its 2018-19 fiscal year on July 1, the state’s film incentive’s package was sporting a revised proviso 49.8 that reads as follows: 

From the funds set aside pursuant to the Motion Picture Incentive Act, any funds committed to film projects shall be carried forward from the prior fiscal year and used for the same purpose. 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 purpose. 

This important change is the result of a persistent effort conducted by the Carolina Film Alliance. Its president, Linda Lee, advised by the statewide organization’s board of directors, has spent countless hours over the last several years advocating for the film industry in South Carolina. This past year, CFA’s efforts were bolstered by the hiring of Tompkins, Thompson & Brown (TT&B), a Columbia, S.C.-based bipartisan government relations firm that helped carry the film industry’s message to the state’s legislators. According to TT&B partner, Boyd Brown, the change to the proviso is just the beginning of changes needed to grow the film industry across the state.


“The three things to push always about the film industry are job, jobs and jobs,” adds Brown. “If this industry can tout anything, it’s job creation. We’ve got the talent in South Carolina and those are the jobs we need to keep here.”


Senator Marlon E. Kimpson of South Carolina’s District 42 agrees. “I think you’re seeing more and more legislators become knowledgeable about the benefits of allocating resources to this growing industry and measuring the return on that investment in terms of job creation, expenditures in the jurisdiction where the movie is being filmed, and recognizing the marketing advantage it brings to the state,” he says. “This appreciation is more popular among the legislators whose districts have benefited from the economic growth caused by the film industry.”


“Just look at the return on this investment,” urges Brown, also a former South Carolina legislator. “There’s so little that goes into it and so much that comes out of it. So if we scale up what’s going into it, then we can scale up what we’re getting out. It’s an industry that creates a lot of jobs…that’s real jobs for real people. It’s one in which the multiplier effect is very clear. Unfortunately, it became a political volleyball over the last 16 years. It’s just dumb to sabotage an industry for political purposes. Hopefully, those days have come to an end.”

Senator Marlon Kimpson.

From left: Michael Thompson, J.Warren Tompkins and Boyd Brown, TT&B Government Affairs.

Film Incentives vs. Corporate Giveaways

  • The film industry, unlike traditional economic development efforts, does not require the state to spend millions of tax dollars, up front, in the form of available land, utilities, school systems and roads to be able to compete for brick and mortar industries.

  • Tax dollars spent on film incentives are completely transparent for public reviews. That’s not the case in many corporate packages.

  • Film has virtually no negative impact on the state’s infrastructure or other structures used. In fact, historically, there are instances of positive impacts on local infrastructure. Recent example: a production company shooting a TV series in Charleston in early 2018 needed a home located in a transitional-type neighborhood, so the producers rented the home from an elderly lady, who had been living here most of her life, and returned it to her sporting a $200,000 renovation.

  • Big corporations and industrial developments tend to place constant wear and tear on the state’s roads and bridges, often demanding construction of access roads for ingress/egress into their facilities.

  • There’s no tourism rollover for corporations. On the other hand, film provides international exposure to potential tourists via rolling credits and media releases.

  • In 2011 and 2012, SCPRT and the South Carolina Film Commission partnered with Strategic Marketing & Research, Inc. (SMARI) to research how TV shows and movies that are filmed and/or set in South Carolina influence travel to the state. This study suggests productions filmed or set in South Carolina may have influenced 1.6 million households visits and $1.7 billion in travel spending in South Carolina during the past ten years.
     

Michael Myers (Nick Castle) is back for “Halloween.” Credit: Ryan Green/Universal.

© 2019 Southeast Film Guide