Iron Man 3 And The Economic Value Of Comic Book Fans

Not long after our interview with The John Locke Foundation's Jon Sanders, who blasted the North [...]

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Not long after our interview with The John Locke Foundation's Jon Sanders, who blasted the North Carolina film incentives program in a report for the organization as "good, old-fashioned corporate welfare," caught up with Aaron Syrett, Director of the North Carolina Film Office, to discuss their reaction to the Locke report and to see what they had to say in response to some of the report's assertions about the film industry's economic footprint in North Carolina. Not surprisingly, Sanders and Syrett were not in total agreement on most issues. The first thing's first, I suppose--the John Locke Foundation report claims that by leaving the incentives on the table instead of killing them in favor of an across-the-board tax cut, North Carolina is giving the film industry a kind of "favored" status. What is it that status is meant to support? Our film incentives that we offer are among the smartest film incentive packages in the nation. We're able to compete with every single state, without the highest percentage rate. Just by virtue of our industry that we've built over the past 25 years, we're able to offer a lower incentive and still compete for the big projects. Without the motion picture incentive, the industry would cease to exist in North Carolina. In 2009 or 2010, we were on the verge of losing our entire market share. Back into the late '90s, early 2000s when first Canada's incentives started, and then Louisiana got into it, New Mexico got started--we were losing our market share. Until about 2009, 2010 before we finally really retrofitted the incentive to work well, our marketshare was diminishing--almost gone. And that's what would happen again without it.

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One thing that struck me in their report is that they feel North Carolina is a great place to film for a number of other reasons, and that that kind of precipitous decline is simply not possible. It's a good way to look at it, because a part of that history is building infrastructure. But unfortunately, the way the movie industry now is, it's a global industry and we don't compete with just states, we compete with the world. We have to have the right tools to complete, and those tools are one, infrastructure; two, our awesome locations--no one's going to debate North Carolina isn't beautiful--and three, the incentives. It would just be a little short-sighted to think that without them we'd be just as successful because in the past few years we've proven that we haven't. In 2011, we saw our biggest jump ever and already in 2012, we've done more production in the state than in the history of North Carolina. One of the things that the film community tends to talk about is that there's the initial revenue of the filmmakers being in the state, but there's also a kind of secondary economy that's created in terms of tourism and things. The thing that struck me as really interesting, though, is that the Locke report poo-poohs that idea, saying it's not a real revenue generator for the vast majority of movies. Right now, though, you've got The Hunger Games and you've got the Marvel Studios films. Those seem more likely to drive it, but your local film economy seems to me to be changing so fast that none of these studies (yours or theirs) can really get a grip on what's next. With the incentives, you touched on secondary and tertiary economic development levels--starting with jobs and trickling down the the restaurants, the dry cleaners--even like the drapery guys. Every set has windows and so therefore every set needs drapes. People don't think about that aspect. And you talked about tourism, too--with Hunger Games, we had a big uptick in tourism. And I would just point to stuff like Iron Man 3, especially to your readers and what matters to you guys. I've been to Comic-Con. I know the economic value of comic book fans and their commitment to this genre. I would love to have a Comic-Con East in Wilmington, North Carolina, where Iron Man 3 is filming. That's a perfect seaside town, it's a little San Diego. Readers of and readers of Marvel Comics, they're committed fans. They're the type of consumer that wants to be part of their brand, and they will travel to see where that brand was made, because of their commitment to the stories that are being made with those characters. There are a lot of things in the report that are statistically sound--but again, I feel like when things are changing so fast that you're breaking records halfway through the year that were set the year before, maybe it's going to take a longer view before people can really gauge the success or failure of the program. How difficult is it to get a bead on a moving target like this? Sure.  All I can say right now is that we're creating jobs--and we're creating a lot of jobs in North Carolina because of the motion picture industry. I'd invite somebody firsthand to right now visit Wilmington, North Carolina or visit Charlotte, North Carolina and see what it really takes to make a movie. People don't realize--what they see up on the screen, they don't know how it's done. It's...the circus is in town. There's trucks, semis, heavy equipment, artists--we're creating a knowledge-based, creative economy in North Carolina that takes all sorts of skills from laborers to artists. With manufacturing or textiles leaving North Carolina, we're filling the huge void of jobs in North Carolina. Just take the stroll down to Charlotte or Wilmington and you'll see all these people working on different projects. And people will say, "Well, those aren't permanent jobs." Well, the movie industry is different and I would argue they are permanent jobs. Just because they're not working on Iron Man for the rest of their lives, when Iron Man ends, we have a pipeline of projects that those crew people then roll over to the next crew and the next picture. So we've legitimately created an industry--this is not a one-off picture as people tend to think about moviemaking. And each movie is different, too. It's amazing the things they need. Just the amount of water they'll go through, and ice in a day. You're not flying that in from Los Angeles, you're getting it here. Talking a bit about creating jobs: Have you been affected by the various controversies about the bits of Iron Man that are being shot in China, or things like the offshoring of the music? Does that affect you at all? It's not a North Carolina issue. It's a studio issue and they know what they need to do to make their movie. it doesn't affect how we do our job. We have two awesome, great symphonies that would love to score it. We have two world-class symphonies--one in Raleigh and one in Charlotte--that could handle it. But really those are creative decisions and decisions that need to be made by the studio.