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Charleston Business

Following Halloween's success, Charleston's film industry continues to grow

Jul 17, 2019 09:42AM
Photo: South Carolina Film Commission Director Tom Clark.

By Dustin Waters

In 2018, the Holy City welcomed a killer into its midst. That masked madman would go on to terrorize audiences across the country and bring in more than $252 million worldwide.

The 2018 release of Charleston-filmed “Halloween” was many things to many people. For some, it meant the revival of a much beloved horror franchise and a return to form for proto-slasher star Michael Myers. For others, it was an opportunity for Lowcountry-based Rough House Pictures to prove themselves with a big-name film outside of the Hollywood system.

But for a crew of skilled artists, craftspeople, and professionals, it was more than just another day at work: it was a chance to do what they love in the place they live—even if they do sometimes find themselves treated as interlopers by locals who don't understand that the people who make movies are also their neighbors.

As one of two key staff members, South Carolina Film Commission Director Tom Clark shouted across their office in excitement to project manager Dan Rogers when he heard the news that “Halloween” has surpassed $150 million in the domestic box office. Despite his excitement, Clark isn't so much concerned with how much local films bring in as much as what that means for the state's economy.

“For us, it's really all about the local jobs and local spending. And that's not just the local crew jobs, but the people who play background, the police, and fire, and all the people who are hired by these movie business,” says Clark. “For us, we get pretty excited when there are jobs.”

In addition to the amount of jobs and local spending the film industry brings to the region, Clark also points out that many of these movies and TV shows serve as pretty effective tourism ads for the area—regardless of whether fans are hoping to relive their favorite scene from “The Notebook” or retrace the steps of Michael Myers. 

This year has brought with it another season of the Charleston-shot Stephen King adaptation “Mr. Mercedes,” while Mt. Pleasant-based Rough House Pictures also produced Danny McBride's new HBO series “The Righteous Gemstones.” Rough House was founded by McBride, Jody Hill, and David Gordon Green, all of whom moved from Los Angeles to the Lowcountry after shooting “Vice Principals,” their previous Rough House collaboration shot in Charleston.

An added benefit of the expansion of streaming services is more TV series for the Lowcountry, which means long-term production for the area and local crews working continuously throughout the year. One factor limiting the number of film productions coming to South Carolina is the state's comparatively smaller budget for incentives, which Clark says always maxes out around $15.5 million annually.

“Now, we're much smaller because of the amount of money we have to offer to Hollywood. We're much smaller than, say, Georgia, which by comparison to us is doing hundreds of productions a year versus our maybe two series and a couple of feature films,” says Clark. “Keep in mind that Georgia is giving away more than $600 million a year to Hollywood to make movies. We're kind of the ready, steady little engine that could.”

Veteran location manager Steve Rhea is one of those rare cases in the film industry, getting his start in big budget motion pictures when Hollywood quite literally came knocking. With the 1982 comic book adaptation “Swamp Thing” set to film locally, filmmakers were on the hunt for a proper setting for the film's titular monster. They found Rhea in his office at the Gibbes Museum of Art sorting through old photos of plantations and swamps. After learning of his education in media arts, the crew drafted Rhea as an assistant location manager, and thus began a career that's spanned almost 40 years.

“Even though I was one of the key people to make South Carolina and Charleston in particular a prime location destination in the United States, what I really wanted to do was make it a production center where we build our own resources here, where we have all the crew, equipment, gear, infrastructure necessary to make films in South Carolina,” says Rhea. “Which I would hope would lead into a very strong industry where we have an international reputation for excellence.”

Blessed with breathtaking locations and a talented theater community, the Charleston area was met with success early on when it came to attracting film productions, Rhea says. Then came a nationwide mass exodus of film projects to Canada in the early '80s due to an attractive exchange rate and incentive programs. Eventually, individual American states began to set up their own incentive programs to bring productions back into the U.S. South Carolina established its current program in 2005. 

Rhea served as one of the founding members of the Carolina Film Alliance. Led by fellow original alliance member Linda Lee, the CFA is a nonprofit that focuses on educating citizens on the benefits of the film industry, the expansion of effective film incentives, and helping members develop their careers in the film industry.

Having worked as best boy and rigging grip on productions like “Halloween,” “Mr. Mercedes,” and “The Notebook,” Brian Knox is perhaps most proud that his career in film has paid his mortgage for the past 12 years. Knox grew up in the Upstate and gained his interest in film by watching movies with his friends in high school. Looking to pursue an education in filmmaking, he was unable to find a four-year institution that offered a good film program and out-of-state tuition seemed too costly. Knox decided to study at Trident Tech, which led to him working on a few small shoots and ultimately “The Notebook.”

From there, he started making decent money, met his wife, and bought a house. It's not the most remarkable story in movie making, but perhaps that's the point. Here's a local professional who makes a living doing what loves—making movies in Charleston.

“Sometimes, it can be a little frustrating when you get on these jobs with these guys who will hire a department head that's from Los Angeles or New York, certainly on commercials and things they'll do that,” says Knox. “They fly this guy here for all this expense and you meet him and shake hands with him only to find out that two of the members of the crew who are local have 10 years more experience. The more that we work, the more we try to develop the reputation that this is a place where you can hire professionals to get this kind of stuff done. Hopefully that word will get out there.”

Rigging grip Adrienne Brown is another Trident Tech alum who worked on the “Halloween” set. For her, one of the best things about that production was being able to work so close to her house. According to Brown, it's not rare for some local crew members to travel to Wilmington, N.C., or Savannah, Ga, to find work. Unlike many of her fellow crew members in other parts of South Carolina, Brown says she's been lucky enough to have more work at home than out of town—even though local film crews aren't always treated that way.

“In Charleston, there are some areas where the cooperation from the community is not the greatest. We haven't run into a lot of people who are trying to run us out of here, but I think a lot of people are not really privy to the way that film works, the jobs that it's providing, the money that we're putting into the economy, and what it does locally,” she says. “Most people, just about everyone that you meet who works in film, wherever they are, they try to get things from mom-and-pop places. For Charleston, it would be nice if there was a way that people could learn more about the benefits of filming in the area. North Charleston, they are on board.”

Costumers and filmmakers Karen and Keva Keyes recall getting their start in the industry by working as extras before learning their way around the business. The sisters joke about missing the occasional college class to get another kind of education on the sets of films and commercials. They recommend anyone with even a passing interest in getting into the film business to try their hand at being an extra, if only to see the full range of jobs behind a camera.

“Everything that exists in the civilian world, you can find an equivalent to that in the film industry—from carpentry, to food preparation, with us at wardrobe, painters, carpenters, transportation people,” says Karen Keyes. “We're not really that much different that the regular world. Ours is just more condensed and specific to create entertainment.”

Through their work outfitting an entire cast, Karen and Keva find themselves constantly sourcing clothes from local shops. Of course, this means sometimes buying 10 different ensembles only to return half of them due to some hiccup in production—a situation that can draw ire from a short-tempered shopkeep. But in the long-term there is no reason that all Charlestonians can't benefit from a good, old-fashioned scary movie.

“When we're working on things, we always hope that they will all be as successful as a “Halloween.” Television-wise, “Army Wives,” we had no idea it was going to be so successful when we started it. It brought a lot to the Charleston area, including opportunities for people to build their careers,” says Karen. “We appreciate when companies and studios are willing to look at South Carolina and give it a chance.”