How many people from all over the United States flock to South Carolina because of iconic movies and television shows filmed here? Take an informal poll in Beaufort or on the streets of Charleston and learn that countless tourists are attracted to the beauty of the Beaufort River due to the opening scenes in The Prince of Tides, and they seek out settings like Middleton Place Plantation because a key scene in The Patriot was filmed there. The website, hookedonhouses.net features an entire section devoted to homes featured in The Notebook, filmed almost exclusively in South Carolina.
Tourism is the principle driver of South Carolina’s economy, according to a 2013 South Carolina Parks, Recreation and Tourism report to Regulatory Task Force. A whole section of that report is devoted to the boon of the state’s film industry contribution to tourism. “We have a unique place and a unique look,” says Tom Clark, film office manager for the South Carolina Film Commission, which is under the umbrella entity SCPRT and is based in Columbia. He explains that there is no state with quite the same geographic, environmental and historic features as South Carolina, and that results in great interest from the multi-billion-dollar film industry. “Filming in South Carolina promotes tourism, which then promotes more filming. They work hand-in-hand,” he adds. “We get calls all the time with people asking, for example, where Amanda Seyfried’s character met Channing Tatum’s character in Dear John.” (They meet on the Isle of Palms fishing pier.)
The S.C. Film Commission has had many transformations and has been directed by numerous organizations since its birth under S.C. Gov. Richard Riley in the 1980s. South Carolina began to show up on Hollywood’s radar, and the state needed an organization to look out for South Carolina’s best interests. Originally, the Commission was part of the office of the governor. It then fell under the auspices of an arts commission, then a development board, then tourism, then commerce, then back to its current home with SCPRT.
“We’re where we should be because of the types of films made here. They are always helping to promote the state,” says Tom.
The main roles of those involved in the Commission are these: recruit, market, travel and meet. Tom says they read a myriad of scripts and then search through thousands of images on a database of houses, barns, river banks, railroad trestles, beaches and streets throughout every corner of the state to determine if any might work for a particular film project. The Commission alerts those in Los Angeles — agents, producers, location scouts, directors and others — if there are potential sites. Tom and those on the Commission regularly fly to California to meet and market South Carolina to key figures in the film industry. If there are possible areas for filming a project, a location scout and another representative for the film typically fly to South Carolina and scope out the sites. If filming is scheduled in the state, hundreds in the Commission’s database, from actors and actresses to grips to gaffers, are alerted and names are provided to the production company.
Those in the state with appropriate film industry talents are able to put their resumes, skill sets, brochures, tapes and photographs onto the S.C. Film Commission site. It is up to the individuals, not the Commission, to secure jobs on production crews. Tom says approximately 200 people are active in South Carolina. “We have enough crew in our state to cover about a film and a half,” he says for when the filming for multiple projects occur at the same time.
Recently, filming took place in Charleston for an HBO project called Vice Principals, while production of the pilot for the new Cinemax series Outcast, by Robert Kirkman, creator of The Walking Dead, took place in Rock Hill. Both will air to the public in the coming months.
The benefits of filming in South Carolina are enormous. First of all, residents are hired, and an industry where individuals have honed talents is kept alive. Harrison Palmer has been involved since he attended USC in the 1970s. “You do what you love, and I learned early on that what I love is to be involved in music and film.”
Harrison, 59, first worked in concert production and then eased into filming. He has worked as an electrician, grip and rigor for many films in the state. His son, John Paul George Richard Berkowitz Palmer, a 25-year-old, is following in his father’s footsteps. Currently, Harrison is the president of the film union that covers North and South Carolina as well as Savannah, Ga. He says it is up to him to get a job on a production crew that films in the state; however, the Commission helps promote the state and those like himself.
The downside is that often it is a career of feast or famine. Work when there is work; look for work when there is none, which can often require travel outside the state to seek projects elsewhere and be away from friends and family for weeks and months on end. He has tried to teach his son that when he is paid for a project, he must budget so that the money lasts.
“But it’s also such a rewarding career,” says Harrison. “It keeps you young in spirit. I always tell people, ‘If you don’t want to grow up, make movies.’ It’s the fulfillment of the Peter Pan syndrome. I love the business. I took to it, and I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
One factor that has contributed to bringing filming work into the state for freelancers like Harrison is the 2004 Motion Picture Incentive Act. The gist of the Act reads as such: “The South Carolina Film Commission may rebate to a motion picture production company a portion of the South Carolina payroll of the employment of persons subject to South Carolina income tax withholdings in connection with production of a motion picture. The rebate may not exceed 20 percent of the total aggregate South Carolina payroll for persons subject to South Carolina income tax withholdings, and may not exceed 25 percent for South Carolina residents, for persons employed in connection with the production when total production costs in South Carolina equal or exceed one million dollars during the taxable year. The rebates in total may not annually exceed 10 million dollars and shall come from the state’s general fund.”
Tom points out that the rebates do not compare with states like Louisiana or Georgia, but are still important to help promote South Carolina to Hollywood. The more the rebates, the more sizeable the crew in the state. “The competition is stiff since states started offering incentives,” he says. “When we meet with a production company interested in possibly filming here, we talk to them about the estimated return on their investment.”
This past year, South Carolina gave away approximately $7.5 million while Georgia gave away about $300 million. However, there are locations in South Carolina that offer what other states cannot. “This year, we will give away more because it’s already a busy year for filming,” says Tom.
Peak years for filming were 1999: The Patriot, Rules of Engagement and The Legend of Bagger Vance; 2002: The Notebook, Cold Mountain and Radio; and, 2006: Army Wives pilot and Leatherheads. This past year, a new paranormal thriller series to debut this year for WeTV, called South of Hell, was filmed in Charleston starring former Charleston resident, Mena Suvari.
The income that the state experiences because of filming is the result of multi-tentacles. For example, when Reckless, a CBS series, was filmed in Charleston in 2013 for a 2014 release, the production of almost 200 people required more than 20,000 lodging nights, food, laundry services, rental cars, building supplies, lighting, décor and Porta Johns. “It is huge,” says Tom. “It’s like a bunch of tourists converging on the area and spending money there for weeks and months at a time.”
One season of Reckless, which includes 13 episodes, might have cost the state around $7.5 million, but the project spawned in excess of $18 million. Thus, injected into the state was something in the neighborhood of $10 million.
Army Wives, which aired from 2007 to 2013, was filmed all over Charleston and surrounding areas. “That show, especially, has been a big draw for tourism to South Carolina,” Tom says.
One of the greatest thrills, personally, for Tom — besides meeting such actors as George Clooney — is the education that takes place because of the Commission. Mandated by the South Carolina Legislature are training seminars and grants to help students and professionals learn to work on films or advance their professions. Tom has helped create the training and grant program through the Commission. After working in television production for 20 years, he began to manage the Commission eight years ago and says that investing in local and emerging talent is rewarding.
For example, Tom was able to entice Russell Carpenter, cinematographer for Titanic and director of photography for Ant Man, to work on a grant program for a short film that helped students learn the process. The schedule of seminar topics is posted regularly on the Commission’s website. There are even unpaid, for-credit internships available through the Commission.
Being involved on so many levels has kept Tom and others interested in the burgeoning tourism trade that is the film industry in South Carolina. “To know we are partly responsible for a number of scenes in many movies and television shows over the years, and to know that we have helped promote South Carolina … that’s a really cool thing. It’s interesting and creative, and I’m excited to be a part of it.”