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The film industry’s future in Wilmington might be uncertain, but Cucalorus Film Festival organizers believe that their festival will continue to enjoy the limelight.

During its 20th season that wrapped up Nov. 16, Cucalorus paid homage to the city’s film beginnings, while launching several initiatives that officials believe will keep the festival viable and vital.

In this milestone year, Cucalorus screened more than 200 films, was supported by between 80 and 90 sponsors – including presenting sponsor PNC Bank – and spawned Kidsalorus, pop-up cinema and the 10×10 entrepreneurship challenge, in which 10 filmmakers each worked with a local startup to create a promotional five-minute video.

“Cucalorus is a learning institution happening within this metal building [Jengo’s Playhouse]. Filmmakers, staff, volunteers – it has been a successful laboratory. You’re always learning your job and learning quickly,” said Cucalorus’ communications manager Ryan Jaccard.

Officials see continued growth and expanded audience appeal as critical to the festival, especially since the replacement of North Carolina’s tax credit-based incentive with a small grant program is expected to bring fewer film projects to Wilmington. Already, some members of the local film community are pulling up stakes and moving to other film-heavy spots such as Atlanta and Louisiana, film officials have said recently.

Regardless of the incentives program change, Wilmington will continue as a locus of film activity, said Cucalorus executive director Dan Brawley.

“One of Wilmington’s great assets is its major studio [EUE/Screen Gems Studios] and equipment. You can learn your craft because there are so many talented veterans living here in Wilmington, resulting in a film industry community that is bigger than the city,” Brawley said.

Even in the face of dwindling incentives funds, EUE/Screen Gems executive vice president Bill Vassar noted that the studio is completely full at present and “will remain close to fully occupied for the next three months” with TV series Sleepy Hollow and Secrets and Lies, the Nicholas Sparks film The Choice and TBS comedy pilot Vacationland.

While Vassar said he expects business to “slow considerably” in 2015 because of the incentive program changes, he sounded a note of optimism in his email message.

“Our elected officials indicate that there is a consensus growing in Raleigh that there is value in strengthening the new film grant program in 2015. We truly hope that is the case,” he said.

While a healthy local film community is important for the annual film festival, Brawley pointed out that Cucalorus draws independent films from far beyond southeastern North Carolina. This year the organization logged about 1,700 submissions from filmmakers in 77 countries and screened films from 20 or so countries.

It’s important to keep that flow of exploratory, creative work coming to the festival, he said.
“This [incentives] transition will put more pressure on Cucalorus. It’s even more critical that we bring these artists to Wilmington and show them what a powerhouse Wilmington is; that they can come back and make their movies here. Cucalorus is in a position to accept more responsibility and drive that vision over the next 20 years,” Brawley said.

“One of the dreams I have after this year’s festival is to [develop] a collective vision for what the North Carolina film industry looks like in the future,” he said. “Under the Dome will be here, and that’s critical to what happens in the future; it helps maintain our crew base. A lot of people moving to Atlanta and Louisiana are North Carolinians. They will be back here when we get this [incentives] figured out.”

Regardless of what happens with the degree to which Wilmington continues as a locale for television, feature film and ad production, Brawley said that Cucalorus would thrive.

“The festival has a life of its own beyond this metal building on Princess Street. We have artists from around the world living here [in the Wilmington area] who are going to continue to want to be part of Cucalorus,” he said. “We’re not tied on a day-to-day basis to the big leagues.”

Filmmaking activity is propelled, to a large extent, by a well-regarded undergraduate program at University of North Carolina Wilmington, which Jaccard – a graduate of that program – calls “valuable.”

“I don’t see that program going away, and a master’s degree program is under consideration,” he said. “It injects into the community young people who want to work and will do whatever needs to be done.”

By Jenny Callison