Where have all the movies gone? Beaufort seeks to lure film industry

pdonohue@beaufortgazette.comDecember 16, 2012 

Nearly everyone in Beaufort has a memory of being on set with movie stars or of seeing the Richard V. Woods Memorial Bridge and other local landmarks on the big screen, their home and way of life forever preserved in celluloid.

Between 1980 and 2000, more than 18 movies were shot in and around Beaufort.

But none since then.

People such as Bill Reynolds are trying to keep those fading memories of the city's cinematic golden age alive.

Earlier this year, Reynolds, a 53-year-old Columbia native who spends part of the year in Beaufort, bought a 15-passenger van and began offering tours of some of the area's most notable film locations.

Among the stops on the Beaufort Movie Tour are Gump Medical Center -- better known to locals as the University of South Carolina Beaufort's Center for the Arts -- Beaufort National Cemetery and the Richard V. Woods Memorial Bridge, all locations from classics such as "Forrest Gump," "The Great Santini" and "Prince of Tides."

"The movies that were filmed here are timeless, and they mean a lot to people," Reynolds said. "It is a shame that they haven't filmed any movies locally in a while."

It's been 12 years since a major Hollywood film was shot in Beaufort, a drought that has many local and state leaders wondering whether the city will ever regain its lost luster in the face of a changing film industry and fierce competition from similarly serene and photogenic locations in neighboring North Carolina and Georgia.

Luring Hollywood back to Beaufort could be tough, local leaders say, because North Carolina and Georgia have something South Carolina does not -- aggressive tax incentives.

"North Carolina and Georgia are eating our lunch when it comes to incentives," said Robb Wells, who leads the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce's Tourism division. "The success of Beaufort as a film location depends on the state-level investment and right now, South Carolina's tax incentives aren't competitive."

BEAUFORT'S HOLLYWOOD HEYDAY

Shot in 1980, the film adaptation of novelist Pat Conroy's novel "The Great Santini" appears to have been the first Hollywood movie filmed in Beaufort, but the Oscar-nominated flick starring Robert Duval and Blythe Danner was hardly the last.

Over the next 20 years, "The Big Chill," "Forrest Gump," "G.I. Jane," "Full Metal Jacket," "The Prince of Tides," "Something to Talk About," "The Jungle Book" and a dozen other films were filmed locally, and the area's continued cinematic success seemed a foregone conclusion.

Plans and feasibility studies soon emerged locally to turn the old Battery Creek High School or the cavernous and now-abandoned Port of Port Royal property into giant sound stages on which producers could build entire sets.

Those ideas never got beyond the planning stage, and studios soon began shipping more and more of their movies north of the border.

"In the early 2000s, films started moving from the states to Canada," said Ron Tucker, president and CEO of the Beaufort Film Society. "You had Canada really pushing hard and recruiting films to Toronto and Vancouver, cities that could easily stand in for New York or Chicago or Los Angeles. Those were the years of the runaway films."

AN ARMS RACE OF INCENTIVES

To get back in the game, many states soon began offering steep financial incentives in the form of tax breaks and rebates, which can help reduce a production's budget and provide the states with an instant industry that requires little or no infrastructure and a tourism boost through added exposure.

Louisiana and Michigan are seen by industry leaders as having pioneered this practice and soon states such as North Carolina and Georgia followed suit to lure movies and television shows to their states.

North Carolina offers a 25 percent tax rebate on production companies that spend at least $250,000 in the state while Georgia offers a 20 percent cut on similar projects, as well as an additional 10 percent if the movie or television show includes a Georgia promotional logo in its end credits, according to film offices in those states.

In May 2006, former Gov. Mark Sanford signed into law a bill offering a 15 percent tax rebate for productions that spend $1 million, and an additional 15 percent for equipment and goods purchased or rented from South Carolina vendors.

Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling said 15 percent seems like a paltry sum compared with what nearby states are offering.

"Without the state getting serious about tax incentives, there is hardly any chance at all that the film industry will return to Beaufort," Keyserling said. "I don't know that anyone at the state level really understands what a motion picture can do ... and that absence of leadership is a huge handicap for us."

Nationwide, about $1.5 billion in tax breaks are awarded to the film industry each year, according to a recent survey by the New York Times.

Keyserling cited deep cuts to the S.C. Film Office as evidence that state leaders do not see film production as a serious economic driver.

"I just don't know that anyone has that vision," he said.

Marion Edmonds, spokesman for the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, which oversees the state's two-man film office, said he expects the legislature to take another look at the state's incentive packages.

"This is a very competitive environment, but I think South Carolina is well-positioned because of our climate and what we bring as a location," Edmonds said. "People like what we have to offer."

Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, who was appointed Wednesday to the Senate Finance Committee, said he is open to re-examining the state's film tax incentives.

"I'm certainly willing to sit down and talk about what we might need to do to help the film industry in Beaufort return to its glory days," he said.

State officials offered the Lifetime drama "Army Wives," which films in Charleston, and George Clooney's "Leatherheads," which was shot near Greer, as recent examples that South Carolina remains relevant as a film location.

FOSTERING INDEPENDENT FILM

While large Hollywood productions have mostly vanished from Beaufort, local leaders have attempted to lure smaller-budget, independent films to the area, mostly through the annual Beaufort International Film Festival.

Tucker, who also serves as the festival's executive director, said the event has been successful in exposing Beaufort to filmmakers from all over the country and around the globe.

"Once upon a time, Hollywood was in love with this place, and now younger filmmakers are beginning to see why," Tucker said. "They would love to shoot here, but many of them don't qualify for the state's tax incentives because their budgets aren't over $1 million."

Keyserling said targeting independent filmmakers as well as technical and training video production could be a way to train local residents to work in film and make the area that much more appealing to prospective producers.

Apart from that, he added, there is not much more local leaders can do but wait for Hollywood to rediscover Beaufort.

"Rather than trying to play catch-up with what other states or cities are doing, we should be finding a new way to do it and become leaders in that," Keyserling said. "But if we got a TV series, just one, that would do it. That would bring us back."

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SC Film Office

Beaufort Film Commission

Beaufort Film Society

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