RALEIGH — It's mere coincidence that an exhibit about North Carolina's history in film and television that was two years in the making is opening this weekend across the street from the Legislature, where lawmakers decided earlier this year to end an incentives program that brought Hollywood to the Tar Heel state.
But even coincidences can be ironic, and that's the case here, say advocates of the tax incentives that legislators eliminated in favor of a much smaller grant program.
“The museum is celebrating the success of film in North Carolina and the attention that film has brought to North Carolina,” Johnny Griffin, director of the Wilmington Regional Film Commission, said of the exhibit opening Saturday at the N.C. Museum of History. “It's almost as if we're celebrating something in the past.”
“Starring North Carolina!” has its genesis in an earlier museum exhibit about “Gone with the Wind” that was so popular it went on tour to regional museums in the state.
Museum staff, excited by the attendance for that exhibit, decided about two years ago to follow up with one about North Carolina's history. And that history goes back at least to silent movies made in western North Carolina in the 1920s, long before Dino de Laurentiis decided to burn a facsimile of Orton Plantation for “Firestarter,” based on the book by Stephen King.
The exhibit opens with a zoetrope that belongs to the N.C. School of Science and Math in Durham and ends with a poster from the Melissa McCarthy movie, “Tammy.” It includes memorabilia from the expected movies and TV shows, such as “Iron Man 3” and “Dawson's Creek,” along with some not-so-famous works, such as “Pitch a Boogie-Woogie,” a movie with an all-black cast made in Greenville in 1947.
Loaners include the Smithsonian and film companies, but also a stuntman and a make-up artist. “One of the great things about this exhibit -- our own collection was small, and we didn't have a whole lot of really good things,” said exhibit team leader Camille Hunt. “But everyone was so eager to help out and came forward with all these amazing artifacts.”
From “Dirty Dancing,” filmed at Lake Lure, there's the Brooks Brothers sweater that Robbie the waiter was wearing when he and Johnny got into a fight. And there's most of a foot soldier uniform from “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” donated by stuntman Jimmie Lee Sessoms. A separate case holds a bloody ear and stocking-clad broken leg from “Blue Velvet”, loaned by Jeff Goodwin, a makeup artist who loaned about 70 items.
More famous is the bomber jacket worn by Kevin Costner in “Bull Durham” and a costume worn by Jennifer Lawrence in “The Hunger Games.”
“I just think that people who work behind the scenes, they're excited to have an exhibit that shows some of the work that they do,” said RaeLana Poteat, one of two curators for the exhibit, which covers 8,000 square feet and is the largest the museum has handled without help from an outside firm.
That work will disappear if legislators don't reinstate the tax credits or increase the pot of money available for grants, Griffin said.
“There's a difference between celebrating what was a part of North Carolina and what is a part of North Carolina,” he said. “I would hate to think we're looking at the last chapter of the film industry. I hope we're pausing in the middle of it to look at where we've been but hopefully, look at where we're going with it as well.”
Aaron Syrett, who quit this year as director of the N.C. Film Commission, said he hoped the exhibit “will shed some light on North Carolina's industry, which is about to go away.”
He hopes the exhibit will have a positive effect on legislators, who likely will debate whether to increase the grant money or perhaps return to tax incentives.
“We built a great industry for the past seven to eight years while I was there,” Syrett said in a phone interview from Utah. “To see it end like this over political posturing, it's sad.”
With the exhibit about the industry open until Sept. 6, 2015, across the street from the Legislative Building, lawmakers “can truly learn about it now,” he said.