Homegrown success: student, alumni projects help keep North Carolina in the film business

Known for its picturesque landscapes and multitude of distinct locations, the Tar Heel state has been a thriving hub for the film industry for decades. From the upcoming “Summer Camp” with Diane Keaton and Kathy Bates, shot in western North Carolina, to productions like “Halloween Kills,” directed by School of Filmmaking alumnus David Gordon Green (B.F.A. ’98), shot in the eastern part of the state, North Carolina is no stranger to bringing big-ticket projects home. 

Films like the comedy classic “Talladega Nights,” epic coming-of-age historical drama “The Color Purple,” sci-fi action film “The Hunger Games,” and countless others have set the precedent that North Carolina is rich not only in location but in talent, both in front of the lens and behind it. With one of the nation’s top film schools located in Winston-Salem, North Carolina is well situated to train talent and attract it back to the state. Despite these monumental successes, the journey to permanently establish North Carolina as a film hub hasn’t always been smooth.  

The state’s film industry was dealt a huge blow in 2015 when the film and television tax credit program shifted and the allocation amount was scaled back. This move, which lowered the fiscal benefit for productions filming in North Carolina, led producers to look for better deals in nearby states. Despite a track record of successful projects like the films “Iron Man 3” and “Cabin Fever,” produced by School of Filmmaking Assistant Dean Lauren Vilchik, and shows like HBO’s “Eastbound & Down,” created by Filmmaking alumnus Danny McBride (B.F.A. ’99) that boosted the local economy, the state lost upwards of $400 million in jobs across multiple industries and economic investments, according to a timeline curated by the News & Observer. 

The resilience of the film industry is like no other industry that I’ve seen. It’s remarkable.

Rebecca Clark, executive director, Piedmont Triad Film Commission

Fast-forward to 2021, the state’s film and television grant program increased the rebate amount for productions and once again caught the eye of producers and studios despite the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the North Carolina Film Office, the changes contributed to the state’s film industry closing out a historic year and reaching an all-time high with $416 million spent on productions.

“The resilience of the film industry is like no other industry that I’ve seen,” said Rebecca Clark, the executive director of the Piedmont Triad Film Commission. “It’s remarkable.” 

Johnny Griffin, the director of the Wilmington Regional Film Commission, said the impact on the state’s economy is critical. “Sixty percent of (what they spend) goes to labor – local jobs … and then about 40 percent of that is money that they spend on vendors and goods and services. …That’s why we do what we do, because the productions create jobs, and (the filmmakers) spend money on small businesses.” 

In 2022, the North Carolina Department of Commerce reported that filmmakers spent more than $258 million on 74 films, television shows and streaming projects. These projects alone created more than 16,000 jobs across the state. 

“The film industry in North Carolina was very robust and then it faltered,” said School of Filmmaking Dean Deborah LaVine. “What we know right now is that the industry is not a single entity and there is not just one way to make work in the industry.”

Almost a decade since the initial film incentive change in North Carolina and 30 years since the UNCSA School of Filmmaking was established, the state of production has rebounded, allowing major and independent productions to favor the Tar Heel state once again. The revitalization of the state’s film industry has significantly benefited UNCSA Filmmaking students, alumni and faculty. 

Finding synergy

Productions such as Hallmark’s “A Biltmore Christmas,” Netflix’s “The Ultimatum: Marry or Move On,” the Judy Blume adaptation “Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret,” boast UNCSA alumni in variety of production roles. Filmmaking alumna Anna-Ray Smith (M.F.A. ’20) has parlayed her training to land coveted roles, such as program coordinator for the Cucalorus Film Festival in Wilmington. She has also worked on projects including “Hightown,” Amazon Prime’s “The Summer I Turned Pretty,” and “The Boys of Summer,” and is the growth and outreach director for North Carolina Black Creatives. 

“Graduating from UNCSA gave me a specific outlook on the North Carolina film industry and provided invaluable skillsets to contribute to the arts to my home state." Smith said.

School of Filmmaking Student / Photo: Wayne Reich

School of Filmmaking student / Photo: Wayne Reich

Independent projects like alumnus Dan Mercer’s (M.F.A. ’19) “The Mourner,” alumna Clarke Phillips’ (B.F.A ’22) student film “Suga Brown” and alumnus Ralph Parker III’s (B.F.A. ’22) student film “Sammy, Without Strings” are also generating buzz in the film festival circuit. 

“There’s not just one center any longer,” said Dean LaVine. “Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Atlanta are central hubs, but with the advent of working remotely, an artist can live anywhere to develop their ideas and even create their work. For our filmmakers, there’s a rich opportunity to develop their stories in this region and other areas close by.” 

Filmmaking alumni McBride, Green and Jody Hill (B.F.A. ’99) offer a prime example. They created Rough House Pictures, which they moved from Los Angeles to Charleston, South Carolina in 2017. The production company is responsible for hit projects like “The Righteous Gemstones,” and “Halloween,” and has become a powerhouse while creating and setting film and TV in the Carolinas.

In a feature on McBride, the New York Times wrote, “It seems like creative utopia. The region’s lower production costs have made it easier for Rough House to develop an array of dream projects, relying on local crews fed and ferried by local businesses.”

A Sundance success story

A Little Prayer,” written and directed by alumnus and Winston-Salem native Angus MacLachlan (H.S. Visual Arts ’76, B.F.A. Drama ’80) and co-produced by Assistant Dean Vilchik, is another recent success story. Filmed locally in Winston, the film was a hit at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, where it secured a distribution deal through Sony Pictures Classic, with Variety writing that MacLachlan (“Junebug” screenwriter, also shot in Winston), “has slowly but surely emerged as an auteur of authentic stories representing the American South.”

The crew for “A Little Prayer” was composed almost entirely of current Filmmaking students and alumni, and it stars several Drama alumni, including Celia Weston, Anna Camp (B.F.A. ’04) and Steve Coulter (B.F.A. ’81). Filmmaking alumnus Abraham Bengio (B.F.A. ’18) was the sales agent and oversaw distribution of the film. 

Graduating from UNCSA gave me a specific outlook on the North Carolina film industry and provided invaluable skillsets to contribute to the arts to my home state.

Breanna Ray-Smith, Filmmaking alum

“For students to see a professional shoot, take it all the way through production, through film festival, to sale is an incredible experience,” said Vilchik, co-founder of the non-profit Film Partnership of North Carolina, a training program that helps build the skillset of underrepresented individuals in the local and regional film industry workforce. “(For students) to gain experience in production while simultaneously tapping into resources to increase their creative portfolio is key and the best value for the education at UNCSA.” 

As a filmmaker, having a project screen or premiere at a major festival could be a career-defining moment – having a Sundance-related project on your resume even before graduating is monumental. Alumna Jessica Zingher (M.F.A. ’23) worked in distribution for the film prior to graduation. “Watching Lauren and other professionals put topics we discussed in class like distribution, marketing strategy and dealmaking into action was an incredibly valuable experience.” Zingher said.  

The film was an example of how a Triad-area project could be successful. “Our devotion to the region… that spirit and that energy attracts like-minded people,” Vilchik said. “From the investor pool to the support of the Arts Council, to the support of UNCSA, to the support of the city, it became an all-hands-on-deck kind of thing. 

“Because of the school, because of the highly trained students, because of the timing and all of the resources we could pull together locally, it was effectively an affordable way to make the film.” Vilchik said. 

School of Filmmaking students in Bob Keen's visual effects class / Photo: Wayne Reich

School of Filmmaking students in Bob Keen's visual effects class / Photo: Wayne Reich

Dean LaVine said: “For the student who wants to make films about their origin stories, staying in the region and knowing you’ll have the facility, the infrastructure to make your films, I think is an extraordinary opportunity.” 

With the recent success of “A Little Prayer,” Vilchik said that several more projects with alumni connections could be in the pipeline to film in North Carolina in the near future. 

"An extraordinary opportunity"

The momentum is continuing in 2023 with several green-lit productions and nearly $10 million in grants and rebates utilized in the first quarter alone, according to the North Carolina Film Office. This increase of productions doesn’t just positively impact the local film scene – it also creates more unique opportunities and resources for filmmaking students. And for Dean LaVine, ensuring students are well-equipped to step into any number of roles in the filmmaking industry is a priority.

North Carolina is once again establishing itself as a mecca for film production. Its diverse scenery continues to inspire, while its local film community and wealth of talent promise a future of cinematic excellence. The School of Filmmaking recognizes this evolving landscape of the industry – the growth in North Carolina has not only transformed the state into a sought-after destination for filmmakers but has also propelled the school to the forefront of nurturing emerging talent; tomorrow’s award-winning films are only an idea away.

By Preetam Nayak

This article appeared in the 2023 issue of Scene.

October 16, 2023