business

Hollywood, Meet Wilmington

With Hollywood overheads making TV and movie production an increasingly risky business, entrepreneurs are taking their shows on the road

By Vivek Wadhwa

My resume calls me a "technology entrepreneur currently on a sabbatical." After co-founding two tech companies and a networking organization for fledgling entrepreneurs, I thought that my current Hollywood movie venture would take me into a different universe. I didn't think that my skills in business management or marketing would have any relevance in this world, and I certainly didn't expect to summon the principles of entrepreneurship or outsourcing.

That was, until I received an e-mail with a cryptic subject line: "Outsourcing begins at home." After reading a past column of mine (see BW Online, 3/12/04, "My Son, It's Time to Talk of Outsourcing...", entrepreneur Dave Julius had responded, arguing that outsourcing didn't have to go just to India. He gave me a quick history lesson on how the South once served as the outsourcing hub for America's textile industry -- and how such outsourcing could help Wilmington, N.C., regain its lost prominence as a major film center.

LAVISH INCENTIVES.

  As I learned, this beach town once had once served as a location for dozens of top films and TV shows. Yet, not one major film had been shot there for more than three years. And, after the demise of the popular teen TV drama Dawson's Creek, only one other small-screen series, One Tree Hill, was being filmed in Wilmington. And its producers were considering moving to a state that would sweeten the pot for them.

In an effort to attract jobs, states like Louisiana and New Mexico and countries like Canada and New Zealand have gotten into the business of handing out financial incentives to filmmakers. These giveaways include tax breaks, low-interest loans, cash grants, and rebates. Competition to offer the best deal is bordering on cutthroat. States typically have their bureaucrats review film scripts and spending plans, and offer incentives to projects that meet the criteria established by their legislatures.

Coming from the tech world, which flourished most feverishly at a time when politicians didn't even know how to use e-mail, I was astonished. I had been very active in mentoring budding entrepreneurs through an organization called The Indus Entrepreneurs, and I believed that creativity, business planning, and hard work were they keys to the success of any venture. So I was receptive to Dave Julius's message.

MAKING IT HAPPEN.

  The notion that you could produce a film in Wilmington as inexpensively as you could in Bollywood, India, came as a big surprise to me, however. We had just completed shooting My Bollywood Bride and expected the final price tag to total around $2 million. This was twice what we expected, but a fraction of what Hollywood films cost. For example, a recent three-day shoot in Los Angeles had run us about $150,000, about five times what it would have cost in Mumbai. So I wondered how Wilmington could possibly match Indian costs?

Dave and his wife, Catherine, had spent the last two years of their lives perfecting the plot of a TV series and assembling a team of actors and producers who shared their creative passions. Called Port City, the series revolved around the lives of eight men and women in their mid-20s. It would combine reality TV with the steamy style of late-night dramas like Melrose Place.

The Wilmington community showed great support for the project and made locations available for almost nothing. And the cast and crew were ready to accept very low wages in return for a share of the show's profits. Yet the biggest savings lay in the shooting. Dave had teamed up with filmmakers who had almost perfected the use of digital technology. With the right lighting and filters, an experienced cinematographer could create a production that looked as good as anything shot on 35mm film. The bottom line was that Dave believed he could shoot an hour-long show for about $200,000 per episode, compared to the $2 million that some cable shows run.

IMPASSIONED PLEA.

  I analyzed the business plan, and asked for objective input from some of my Hollywood friends. Having shot an entire film with supermodel Carol Alt using digital, producer and screenwriter Richard Martini told me the savings were for real -- and that the technology represented the future of the industry.

I asked Dave to contact the North Carolina Film Commission and present his business plan. If a new way of doing things really existed and we could do good for the community, we should get some help, I suggested. After presenting, Dave never received a follow-up. He later learned that the group was focused on bringing in business from other states.

Dave took this rejection as a reason to work even harder. After a passionate speech by Dave and Catharine on how important this was to the struggling artists in the Wilmington community -- and how entrepreneurship had to triumph -- I agreed to sign up as executive producer and help them.

SELF-FINANCED TRAILER.

  In the ideal world, you pitch a TV network on a show's concept and get funding for a pilot. And then you either make it or go back to the drawing board. With a cost structure so low, good script, and a couple of known actors, Port City should have been an easy sell. The problem: All the network executives Dave spoke to questioned whether a quality production could be made so cheaply.

So Dave assembled his team and, over a period of two months, they created a trailer -- self-financed. Predictably, this project took longer than planned, but actually came in under budget. And the early response from some in Hollywood was encouraging. Jai Khanna, one of the up-and-coming executives at Hollywood talent powerhouse Brillstein-Grey Management agreed to view the Port City trailer. Within minutes, he called back to schedule a meeting with his partners. He anticipated that TV executives would be similarly impressed with the quality and production values. For now, at least, Dave's tenacity has paid off.

Like any entrepreneurial venture, it has no certainty of outcome. Only time will tell whether Port City will become the next Dawson's Creek -- or never make it past the pilot stage. As they say in the TV world, stay tuned…

Wadhwa is the founder of Relativity Technologies in Raleigh, N.C. When not producing movies or battling venture capitalists, he mentors fledgling entrepreneurs

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