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Filmmaking pours cash into Asheville area

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6/15/2011 - Filmmaking pours cash into Asheville area
by Jason Sandford

"INDUSTRY" is many different things here in the mountains of Western North Carolina.  Movie-making is one of the many things that can not only boost tourism and bring folks to the mountains for years to come, but helps local businesses in the process. 

 

             Restaurant owner Chris Canoutas can measure the impact of a big Hollywood movie production in straightforward fashion -- by the number of pepperoni slices, pounds of pizza dough and jars of tomato sauce he goes through.

 Those numbers have been up dramatically over the past few weeks, according to the owner of Pleasant City Wood Fired Grille in downtown Shelby, an hour's drive east of Asheville. 

"I would say I've seen about a 20 percent increase in business from the construction guys coming in and building the set, then the shooting and now the tearing down of the set," Canoutas said.

"We've sort of been their spot for coming in to wind down," said Canoutas, who serves up brick oven pizzas and craft beers, including Asheville-brewed Highland Gaelic Ale.

"It's made a good month great, and it's still going on," he said.

The increased pizza production is just one small example of the big economic ripple effect that the filming of "The Hunger Games" is having statewide, including Western North Carolina. Around the state, the $75 million production is pumping cash into small town restaurants and antique shops, putting money in the pockets of technicians and setting the stage for a future boost in tourist spending.

The movie is based on the hit young-adult science fiction books by Suzanne Collins. There are about 9 million of the three novels in print.

The story of the books will play out over four movies, with the lead role played by 20-year-old Oscar-nominated actress Jennifer Lawrence ("Winter's Bone"). The movie's director, Gary Ross, is perhaps best known for his work on "Seabiscuit."

"The immediate impact, like no other industry, can be felt quickly" with the hiring of extras and technical crews, and the purchase of everything from lumber to lunches, said Aaron Syrett, director of the N.C. Film Office. The arm of state government was created 30 years ago to encourage the state's fledgling film industry.

"It's like backing up a dump truck and dumping money directly into the economy," Syrett said.

Incentives as a lure

Asheville will get a boost, too, although confidentiality agreements in place with the movie's employees make it hard to tally a direct economic benefit while filming is ongoing. Suppliers and crew in Asheville -- and everywhere else, for that matter -- working with the filmmakers are contractually forbidden from discussing their deals.

What is known is that production crews have set up shop in the former National Guard Armory on Shelburne Road, and moviemakers have asked for a fireworks permit for filming scheduled later this month at North Fork Reservoir, north of the city.

Back in Shelby, it's easier to see the economic ripple effect. About 1,000 paid extras from around the country were in town recently for several days of filming in an old warehouse, which meant an increase in hotel stays and restaurant business.

Moviemakers shopped at antique, consignment and hardware stores for props and clothing, said Jackie Sibley, director of travel and tourism for the Cleveland County Visitor Center.

There's also been a buzz about all the activity, Sibley said.

"I think the media noticing Shelby" is good attention for a small town that will pay off in the future, she said.

Shelby and Asheville aren't the only cities benefitting from the economic windfall a movie production can provide. Above and beyond "The Hunger Games," North Carolina's been enjoying one of its best years ever in terms of film activity, according to Syrett, the film office director.

"All in all, 25 movie and television projects have committed to North Carolina this year," Syrett said. "We're seeing a real resurgence in activity."

That's good news for the state's film industry, which once burned as bright as a klieg light. At the height of activity in the 1980s and '90s, WNC saw the production of movies such as "Last of the Mohicans," "Dirty Dancing" and "The Fugitive."

Around Wilmington, the Dino De Laurentiis-funded construction of movie studios has anchored television show production over the years. The CW/Warner Bros. series "One Tree Hill" is now entering its ninth season of production there.

For feature filmmaking, the state's prospects dimmed when other countries began offering aggressive incentive packages. A wake-up call for the state's ability to compete sounded when the production of "Cold Mountain" went to Romania in 2000.

The film was based on the best-selling Civil War novel by Asheville-born author Charles Frazier. Much of it was set in Haywood County.

State legislators approved an incentives package in 2006, a lure that was sweetened in 2010 when Gov. Bev Perdue approved legislation that provides for a 25 percent tax credit not to exceed $20 million on productions spending more than $250,000 in qualified expenses within the state. The updated package also expanded what kinds of expenses qualified.

"We now have some of the smartest incentives designed around our economy and our infrastructure," Syrett said.

Lasting impact

There's also potential for a longer-range economic impact on the state's tourism industry, because "people go where movies are made," Syrett said.

The small town of Forks, Wash., is cited most often as the prime example. The community of 3,500 people has become a travel destination for the fans of another hugely popular young-adult book and movie series, "Twilight."

Closer to home, Chimney Rock Park, Lake Lure and the Biltmore Estate have seen a regular influx of tourists because of the sites' connections to movies made there.

Chimney Rock Park, with its stunning sheer cliffs and sparkling waterfalls, served as the dramatic backdrop for scenes in "Last of the Mohicans," while nearby Lake Lure is now home to a "Dirty Dancing" festival honoring the summer camp drama and sexy moves of stars Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze.

The filming of "Last of the Mohicans" perfectly showcased the park's scenic beauty, which directly translated into interest from tourists, said Mary Jaeger-Gale, the park's spokeswoman.

"It changed awareness of us national and internationally," Jaeger-Gale said. "It took us to a whole new level of attendance and we've never dropped back."

The Biltmore Estate also continues to benefit from movie fans seeking out familiar environs. It has provided the setting for 14 major motion pictures since the 1948 making of "The Swan," which starred Grace Kelly.

"A lot of people recognize us from the 'Richie Rich' movie," as well as the movie that was actor Peter Sellers' penultimate, "Being There," said Travis Tatham, director of special projects at the estate.

The most recent megamovie known to have been filmed at Biltmore House was "Hannibal," with Anthony Hopkins and Gary Oldman.

"The economic impact is significant to us," Tatham said. "There's a lasting impression, and that's why we actively pursue projects."

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