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Small town on the big screen: Scary fanfilm adds to Spring Hope’s growing movie catalog

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SPRING HOPE — With North Carolina in the midst of a moviemaking comeback, Spring Hope is getting in on the act.

Already the setting of the independent feature film “Shoot the Rooster,” due out early next year, the small town is now the shooting location of “Scream: Ghost of the Past,” a fanfilm based on the blockbuster Wes Craven film that spun the horror genre on its head in 1996 and spawned several sequels and a television show. 

The timing for the aspiring fanfilmmakers and actors involved might be perfect, with an unnamed “Scream” sequel set for production in Wilmington early next year. Fanfilms are based on copyrighted material, but as long as the projects remain noncommercial, intellectual property owners usually turn a blind eye. The projects provide real-world experience and the end product can act like a video resume.

Zoe Harris is co-directing “Scream: Ghost of the Past” for Emerald Moon Entertainment. A Wake Forest resident, Harris, 19, is on her way to the N.C. School of the Arts’ school of filmmaking in Winston-Salem by way of studying the basics at Wake Technical Community College. Harris has directed school projects, but this is her first short film.

“I would love to direct, but I’m open to anything in the film industry,” Harris said. “I want to work for a big production company like Disney or Netflix.”

Like most fanfilms, “Scream: Ghost of the Past” is being shot on a DIY budget.

“We’re using whatever we can get our hands on,” Harris said.

Hollywood is about connections. Fanfilms are no different: Harris became involved in the project through co-director Austin Bitikofer, who decided to film in Spring Hope after working on “Shoot the Rooster.”

Spring Hope native and Emmy Award-winner Stephanie Laing directed “Shoot the Rooster.” In the film, she tells the semi-autobiographical story of growing up here, leaving and eventually reconnecting with family.

Laing is a first cousin of Mark Cone, owner of SouthernNashNews.com and a contributor to The Enterprise. Cone’s production company, Tar River Films, took exterior shots around Spring Hope and at other locations in North Carolina for “Shoot the Rooster.” That’s how Cone and Bitikofer met.

Connections to Cone might have been the initial reason Harris and company decided to film on location in Spring Hope, but it’s more than that now.

“It’s a perfect fit for the tone we’re setting,” Harris said Sunday night prior to rolling cameras in an alley behind Main Street.

Harris, whose favorite film is “The Intimidation Game,” said she first knew she wanted to be a filmmaker when watching the magic of the Harry Potter movies as a 7-year-old girl.

“Movies are wizardry,” Harris said. “It’s an art form that lets you express anything you can imagine.”

INDUSTRY UPS AND DOWNS

The film industry in North Carolina has been a roller coaster ride since the 1920s. Several silent films were produced in the state, but once “talkies” took over, most production moved to California. A few feature films were filmed in North Carolina over the next few decades, topped off with “Ruby Gentry” staring Charlton Heston. From 1962-65, a private grant helped produce 19 films about North Carolina.

After decades of little to no action, Gov. Jim Hunt created the N.C. Film Office in 1980. From then to 1998, the film industry added more than $5 billion to the state’s economy.

Beginning in 2005, state tax incentives caused a spike in productions. From the mountains to the beaches, North Carolina served as a giant movie studio for nearly a decade, reaching a peak in 2013 with 34 productions. 

In 2014, state lawmakers stripped away incentives and filmmakers moved on to states like Georgia that offered better deals. By 2017, only one television show called North Carolina home.

Even without incentives, North Carolina offered skilled crews and scenic locations and remained home to the largest number of movie studios and sound stages of any state except California. Filmmakers slowly returned and smaller-budget movies and television shows started up again. In 2019, the state film industry had climbed back into the saddle with around $130 million spent in Wilmington alone. The money coming in paled in comparison to the state’s moviemaking heyday, but it was better than nothing, according to information from the Wilmington Film Museum.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, causing a six-month filming blackout.

In an innovative first for the movie business, Laing directed principal shots of “Shoot the Rooster” with a cellphone and sent two dozen cameras to cast members’ homes. The actors were able to set up the cameras and shoot their scenes earlier this year as a way to work during the pandemic and shutdown. The film’s cast includes Henry Winkler (“Waterboy,”) Margo Martindale (“Justified”) and Judy Greer (“Arrested Development”). Many of the actors, like Winkler, are accomplished writers and producers in their own right. They were able to set up their shots beautifully, Laing said.

Now five new productions have been approved for N.C. Film and Entertainment Grants, according to a recent announcement by Gov. Roy Cooper, a Nash County native.

The productions are projected to generate a direct in-state spend of more than $107 million while creating 8,671 job opportunities, including 650 well-paying crew positions for the state’s highly skilled film professionals, Cooper said.

With the help of public health officials, industry trade associations and alliances have developed protocols to aid in preventing the spread of COVID-19 at filming locations. Each production has a COVID-19 safety plan that provides extra precautions to protect those working in front of and behind the camera.

“Our state’s film industry continues to welcome new projects from prominent production companies,” Cooper said. “The industry provides good jobs and opportunities for local businesses, while also showcasing what North Carolina has to offer on a larger stage.” 

The five projects are:

• “USS Christmas” is a made-for-television movie about a newspaper reporter who finds love on an aircraft carrier. The production will film in the greater Wilmington area and is eligible to receive a grant rebate up to $1.1 million.

• Another made-for-television movie, “A Nashville Christmas Carol” will film in the greater Charlotte area. Based on the Charles Dickens classic, the movie tells the story of a busy film director and producer who is visited by the ghosts of country music past and present. The production has been approved for a grant rebate up to $1,1 million.

• “Parkside,” a feature-length film, is hailed as a relaunch of a classic franchise with a modern twist. Filming at the EUE/Screen Gems Studios in Wilmington, production is approved for a film and entertainment grant rebate up to $7 million.

• “Delilah” is a new series from Warner Bros. Television for OWN about a headstrong, highly principled lawyer in Charlotte who left a demanding white-shoe law firm a decade ago and hung her own shingle so she could make raising her children her top priority. Filming in and around Charlotte, the series is eligible for a grant rebate up to $5,406,624.

• The second season of “Hightown” will continue the story of a woman’s journey to sobriety overshadowed by a murder she feels convinced she must solve. The second season of the Starz series from Lionsgate Television and Jerry Bruckheimer Television will also film in the greater Wilmington area and has been approved for a grant rebate of up to $12 million.

Last year was a banner year for film and television production in North Carolina, said N.C. Film Office Director Guy Gaster. 

“Despite some setbacks related to COVID-19, it looks like 2020 will also be a great year for the state’s industry,” Gaster said. “It is exciting to have these productions up and running and we may have even more before the end of the year.”

In addition to the newest productions to be approved for funding from the grant, production continues on several non-grant-qualifying projects including the latest seasons of the reality series “My Big, Fat Fabulous Life” and “Love It Or List It” in the Piedmont Triad and Triangle regions respectively. Two other Piedmont Triad-based projects recently wrapped production: the SAG-signatory feature “Where’s Rose” and the new docu-series “Secrets of the Zoo: North Carolina.”

The N.C. Film and Entertainment Grant provides financial assistance to attract feature film and television productions meant to stimulate economic activity and create jobs in the state. Production companies receive no money up front and must meet direct in-state spending requirements to qualify for grant funds, according to information from the N.C. Department of Commerce, which administers the program. 

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