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Film in Wilmington Part III: Cucalorus Film Festival History and Future Intertwined with Industry

The question of whether competitive film incentives continue in North Carolina will be answered by the end of the current short session of the General Assembly. 

There are, so far, two proposals on the table:  one bill, sponsored by Representative Susi Hamilton (D-New Hanover County), would remove the sunset or expiration date on the current incentive package and slightly raise the qualifying spending threshold from $250,000 to $300,000.   

Governor Pat McCrory’s proposal is a much more complex program that limits the state payout to $6 million versus the current $20 million cap, raises the qualifying threshold to $1 million, and rewards long-term, capital investment. 

But quite apart from that debate and permanently entrenched in the Cape Fear region’s artistic landscape is one of the long-term fruits of the state’s film industry:  the Cucalorus Film Festival. 

Cucalorus celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.   Over those two decades, the Wilmington-based independent film festival has grown from a small group of film enthusiasts getting together to watch art films to a sought-after, respected celebration of new work.   

Cucalorus organizers credit the region’s burgeoning film industry with being a major factor behind the steady growth of the festival – which brings with it an annual spending flurry in the fall.


Twinkledoon.  It’s what Cucalorus was originally dubbed when it launched in 1994.  Back then, Wilmington was also bustling with film activity.   Dan Brawley, one of the Festival’s founders and the current Executive Director, remembers that time.      

"There were 20-30 feature films being made every year in Wilmington.  There were two studios at the time.   The reason Wilmington has a 20-year-old film festival, which is ancient in terms of film festivals, is because the industry brought all these young, aspiring filmmakers to town and they were working on projects at the studios and in their free time, they were making their own films.  And so all of a sudden, by 1994 -- the industry had been here for almost ten years -- you had a really serious independent film scene in Wilmington, North Carolina."

It’s the kind of artistic depth typically found in much bigger cities or in close proximity to a major university -- unusual for a city the size of Wilmington, says Brawley.   And while Cucalorus is a non-profit arts organization that receives no direct money from film incentives, the decline of the film industry would impact the Festival – both artistically and economically. 

"Just from a cultural standpoint, a big production like Iron Man III does more than I can ever do to fund the arts.  When you employ creative people, you are building an arts community.  And that’s what the industry’s done here for 30 years.  It’s built one of the most unique, independent, and fascinating cultural communities that I’ve seen anywhere in the country."

Cathy Meriam is a Cucalorus Board Member and a film industry professional – the kind that Brawley points to when he’s describing the creative explosion in Wilmington.  Her show is on hiatus.  It’s why she’s home in Wilmington on this particular day….  

"I work for HBO for a television show called Veep.  I’m a Director’s Assistant."

The production shoots in Baltimore, Maryland where incentives for film companies have been a source of heated debate in the state’s legislature -- much like North Carolina.

"It’s funny because I’ve been gone for several months and since I’ve been back it’s absolutely split down the middle with who you talk to.  There some people I know who’ve lived here and worked here for many, many years that feel very confident.  They’re not worried at all.   I’m finding that people who are newer to the industry are sort of in a panic mode. "

Meriam is in a position to follow the work, but from a producer’s standpoint, she confirms what incentive supporters have been saying throughout:

"Basically, a project is pitched and a company says, ‘We like it.  Here’s the money.’  As a producer I have to find the best way, the most economical way to use the money I have and make this the best show it can be.  It’s as simple as that and as complicated as that…  It is a numbers game. "

That numbers game – depending on the outcome – will affect not only Cucalorus – but also the annual boost the region enjoys, according to Brawley.  He cites a study, paid for by the Festival, that he guesses is now about five years old. 

"The estimated economic impact was $5.5 million…  Study after study has shown that cultural travelers stay longer and spend more.  We bring people from over 100 different cities across the country who come to Wilmington.  They spend five days here.  They stay in our hotels.  They eat in our restaurants."

But the debate raging in Raleigh over whether – how – to continue film incentives for production companies is, itself, a source of frustration for Brawley.   

"My true feeling is that the job we hire our politicians to do is to come together and do the people’s work.  I’d like to see our politicians put their philosophical beliefs aside and deal with the day-to-day issues that are necessary to cultivate the State of North Carolina or the City of Wilmington.  Because sometimes reality and philosophy don’t mix very well together."

Regardless of the rise and fall of the film industry of North Carolina, though, Dan Brawley and Cathy Meriam insist Cucalorus is here to stay.

Rachel hosts and produces CoastLine, an award-winning hourlong conversation featuring artists, humanitarians, scholars, and innovators in North Carolina. The show airs Wednesdays at noon and Sundays at 2 pm on 91.3 FM WHQR Public Media. It's also available as a podcast; just search CoastLine WHQR. You can reach her at rachellh@whqr.org.