I don’t remember where I was when I saw Hangover 2—it’s a forgettable film—but I distinctly remember the way the audience hooted and hollered when Zach Galifianakis mentioned the folks down in Raleigh. “He mentioned us! He mentioned us! He hasn’t forgotten! Amen, brothers and sisters! Amen! Praise be to Zach, and long live the 919!” It was like we, the benchwarmers, finally heard the coach call our name. For the 10th most populous state and a capital city boasting a Phelpsian number of golds on “Top Places to Live” lists, you’d think we’d get more Hollywood mentions.
I’m not sure I know how many movies I’ve seen. I can say, however, that there is a 95% likelihood that, in any given social situation, I have seen the most movies out of anyone in the group. That statistic is completely baseless and excludes the situations involving my time working with filmophiles inside the TV industry, but let’s just say for argument’s sake that it’s true. I also have a darn good memory of the movies I’ve seen. I can’t remember the placement of key lights or anything, but I can remember shots, lines, actors’ movements, camera movements, and probably everything else. Why brag about all this? Aside from the fact that I like to brag, I want you to realize I know what I’m talking about when I say that I can think of almost no Hollywood movies set in the Triangle, and barely any in the state as a whole. And I find that strange. This is a flyover state, so it makes sense to a degree. But North Carolina is absolutely known for its film and TV production sensibilities. Back in 2010, NC passed two major tax incentives: House Bills 1973 and 713. The former created a simple 25% film refundable tax credit for projects up to $20 million; the latter eliminates the 6.9% corporate income tax on the tax credit taken by a production company and instead allows them to take a full 25% break of qualifying expenses. These weren’t hollow gestures. I’m no mathemagician, but that basically that means production teams have up to five million reasons to shoot right here in our home state. It’s a law of economics: people respond to incentives. You would have to imagine that someone out there—a director, a director’s kid, a director’s cousin’s brother’s nephew’s college roommate—sees that environment and asks, “You know, why don’t I set a movie in North Carolina? Isn’t that Raleigh place supposed to be pretty cool? Didn’t they just top a list for “best place for me to film this exact movie?”
Everyone remembers Chad Michael Murray and One Tree Hill, right? Made in North Carolina. And all the teen drama of Dawson’s Creek? Shot out on the North Carolina coast. That new show Sleepy Hollow on Fox? Shot in North Carolina. Banshee on Cinemax? Shot in North Carolina. Under the Dome, Iron Man 3, Kevin Smith’s Tusk, Homeland, Revolution, Arthur Newman? All shot (at least in part) in North Carolina. Of those, though, how many are actually set in North Carolina? One and a half. One Tree Hill took place here, and Revolution was in a futuristic area that was likely part of North Carolina, but we’re never 100% sure (and that’s sort of the point to begin with). The rest represent a mishmash of places ranging from Manitoba to Maine, but, as I already said, not North Carolina. How many of those one-and-a-half were centered around Raleigh? Exactly none. As for remote or “the middle of nowhere”, there are two sub-trends. First, “remote NC” flicks are usually set on the coast; I Know What You Did Last Summer and many Nicholas Sparks movies (let’s use Night in Rodanthe as our example) quickly come to mind. By the way, did you know I Know What You Did Last Summer took place in North Carolina? I didn’t until researching some of this piece. Second, almost all of these “remote generic southern state” movies break down into “remote horror” and “remote romance.” The classic Cape Fear and the aforementioned Last Summer both emphasize the desperate, terrifying nature of small, encapsulated, inescapable spaces. This is none more evident than in The Descent, which takes place in Appalachia rather than the coast. It’s a movie far too terrifying for me to describe, so just trust me on this. Nights in Rodanthe basically incorporates both trends with passionate, old-people love instead of knives and/or monsters. As for the portrayal of North Carolina as small-town America, we see it in movies such as The Odd Life of Timothy Green, The Foot Fist Way, and George Washington. I’d go into more detail, but you know what small-town America means. (The most interesting part of these examples is that all three were made by North Carolina School of the Arts alums: Paul Hedges, Danny McBride and Jody Hill, and David Gordon Green. I can’t argue with their choices of shooting only in stereotypical small-town North Carolina, it’s likely part of the maturation process reflected in their films and they’re in no position to shift any perceptions, but even these North Carolina folks, those who understand and appreciate the state, have yet to find production material fit for the Triangle or what Raleigh showcases outside the typical Hollywood narrative.) Lastly, NC-centric productions tend to portray the state as humorously backwards. Eastbound and Down (a hilarious product of the aforementioned McBride, Hill, and Gordon Green), Talladega Nights, and The Campaign depict the state’s folk as dumb, our accents silly, and our state as economically desolate. (That scene when Ricky Bobby wants to take the family to a fancy, classy dinner and they end up at Applebee’s? Hilarious. But the underlying insinuation? Not so funny.) Don’t get me wrong: I am a huge fan of all these productions. I can’t tell you how often I quote Ricky Bobby and Kenny Powers. I do not want in any way, shape, or form to say that I disagree with the humor or subject matter of these productions. But, all of these productions cast a negative light on NC for the wider, mainstream American audience. We, as North Carolinians, might get the inside, elbow-nudging, hardee-har-har jokes by the folks with Tar Heel state ties—such as Ferrell and Galifianakis—but you have to imagine that a lot people with no experience in the area might actually believe it. I’d like to think Americans aren’t that shallow, but I’ve seen too many click bait articles “blowing everyone’s mind” that what happens in movies might not actually happen in real life.
No, Mr. Non-North Carolina Native, we don’t all worship snakes like Will Ferrell does in The Campaign. I mean, it’s funny because there are people around here that do, but…No, we’re not all like that…No, we don’t do that either.
That’s South Carolina.
Out of top 75 highest grossing movies last year, 49 were set in non-fictional locations. Of those 49, 27 were set in “major” locations like Los Angeles, New York City, and London. Of the 22 set in “non-major” locations, 17 were set in non-descript areas such as “the West” in Lone Ranger or “somewhere off the coast of Somalia” such as Captain Phillips. Of the remaining five, two are set in North Carolina. One of the two is in Raleigh (Bad Grandpa). The other, Safe Haven, is in Southport. It’s a Nicholas Sparks film. In 2011 and 2012, only one movie took place in the Triangle. It was the regional competition scene in Pitch Perfect, set at North Carolina State. It was shot in Louisiana.
Let’s get back to my original point: Why not Raleigh? We may have movies shot in North Carolina, but why aren’t there more set in the, or more specifically, the Triangle? What are the obstacles, real or imagined? It can’t be a lack of economic incentives. Raleigh has a great vibe, right? Does it not have the same swagger as Miami, urban sprawl as L.A., or stereotypical sensibilities of the South? Maybe. Is the Triangle not famous enough? Maybe. Are we simply unknown, despite our sizable population? Also maybe. Is it historical? Has the Triangle just not been mentioned enough in other movies? Is it that people associate the Triangle purely with Durham thanks to Bull Durham? Is it because Kiss the Girls, the Alex Cross movie with Morgan Freeman, portrayed Durham as woodlands full of terrible accents and Chauvinistic serial killers? It’s certainly possible—the perils of a small sample size. Is it a bias from film scouts who don’t know enough of the Triangle? Unlikely. Is it a lack of film talent with power in the mainstream film industry? Definitely not. We’ve discussed some pretty big names associated with North Carolina, and those are only a handful of actors and directors. I haven’t even started on writers or producers. What does the Triangle have, then? Or not have, to ask another way? We’re a metro area with the highest concentration of PhDs in the world. We have three major universities. We’re routinely ranked as one of the top-rated places to live. Our population and economy is exploding with cutting-edge jobs. North Carolina is a swing state for presidential elections. We have a huge blend of cultures between the Old South, the New South, and (folks like myself) Damn Yankees who went to Duke. We have the three geographical features you could ever want to set a movie in, those being the Smoky Mountains, Piedmont, and the Outer Banks.
So why not Rollywood? It’s not an easy answer, and it will be interesting to talk solutions along with obstacles, which we can plan to do thoroughly in coming reports and editorials. Be sure to reach out via Twitter or email with questions, comments or thoughts of your own.