Charleston set painter Mollie Howey has it good. She just left the set of the Stephen King show Mr. Mercedes and is shooting the shit with friends at North Charleston's The Mill, swirling a beer in a hand-crocheted koozie, planning an upcoming vacation on her brother's boat. Paint splatter covers her jeans and a kitschy Han Solo blaster charm hangs around her neck. She's not rich, but she's incredibly happy.
Howey is also at the center of an arms race.
South Carolina's film industry hit a landmark this year. The state maxed out its tax incentives for the first time ever, using all the money allocated to lure film crews here for the first time since the state started giving filmmakers breaks in 2007. Essentially, Charleston killed it. The city saw back-to-back-to-back filmings of high budget Hollywood projects like Vice Principals, Marlon Wayans' Naked, and Mr. Mercedes. But now, as the fiscal year comes to a close, it doesn't look like a happy ending after all.
"Film production is all about the incentives arms race," explains Brad Jayne, one of the rare filmmakers to call Charleston home.
South Carolina just fell far behind in the incentives battle.
"Georgia is killing everyone," says Jayne. The Georgia government gives unlimited incentives to film companies, and as of last month, North Carolina is planning to do the same. Soon, South Carolina could be surrounded by states that offer endless money to films that shoot there.
South Carolina, on the other hand, just maxed out its film budget of $15 million, and lawmakers don't seem keen to add more funds. The House and Senate might not even have time to vote on two bills that would keep what limited money the film industry does get from being redistributed to other causes. That could translate to fewer paychecks for film industry workers like Jayne and Howey, but more money for things like golf and jobs for their peers in Georgia.
"Films want to come here right now, but we don't have the money for them," says Linda Lee, an orange-haired ailurophile who runs the Carolina Film Alliance and speaks her mind about the legislators who've delayed their vote on the film bills.
"I don't trust these guys at all," Lee says. "I have sent a thousand emails and talked to everybody's administrative assistant, but anything could happen at any moment."
Losing this arms race to Georgia and North Carolina could mean the loss of tens of millions in state revenue, thousands of film industry jobs, and a notable chunk of tourism klout.
When Howey returns from her summer vacation this year, she might not find work in Charleston.
Film incentives work like bait for Hollywood and New York big-wigs.
"The most important things [in filmmaking] used to be location, crews, and restaurants. Now it's all incentives," says Lee. "It's incentives, incentives, incentives, then maybe crew and location."
The state gives filmmakers either tax credits or rebates for filming here, provided the film company spends a certain amount of money at local businesses and hires in-state workers. You can film in South Carolina with out-of-state crew, or shoot in places like Florida that don't give any tax incentives, but it will cost millions of dollars more.
This is an industry that spends tens of millions of dollars in a matter of months. In most states, like South Carolina, a studio's budget has to be at least one million to qualify for the incentives. One million is nothing for projects like Vice Principals, which dropped nearly $17 million last year alone. Outcast spent $10 million in one year, The Inspectors spent $3 million, and the last season of Army Wives dished out over $16 million to the Charleston metro area.
"Army Wives hands-down was the best job any of us have had in the business. From the producers to the actors and the crew, everybody loved that job," says Howey, who built sets for every season of Army Wives and enjoyed time off in between seasons.
South Carolina gets revenue, exposure, and employment in exchange for paying out incentives. Since 2010, filmmaking has translated into 31,251 jobs for South Carolina workers, around 210,000 nights booked in South Carolina hotels, and a notable boost to our $20.2 billion dollar tourism industry according to the Carolina Film Alliance. Two words: Nicholas Sparks.
"That's $300 million dollars dropped out of the ass of an airplane flying overhead. That's money on the ground that didn't exist before," says the co-executive producer of Mr. Mercedes, Tony Mark. "Am I going to make a little noise? Am I going to park a car in front of your house? Yes. But I am also going to drop $35 million in your community in six months."
Army Wives alone drew dozens of workers from neighboring states and gave Charleston's film crews vital experience leading to higher pay. That halcyon time is over, though.
"We've seen a bit of a migration away from Charleston," says Karen Keyes, a long-time Charleston costume director who got her start on a Piggly Wiggly commercial in undergrad and is now lead costumer for Mr. Mercedes.
Mr. Mercedes will be the last project to film in Charleston this fiscal year — there's no money left for anything else. While the next fiscal year does start soon — July 1 — lawmakers haven't guaranteed that more funds will be coming then. That means Mr. Mercedes is the only job in the foreseeable future for Charleston industry workers like Howey and Karen.
"There's no more money now. Nothing else can come in," says Lee. "Even if we do get money at the beginning of July, there won't be projects until September."
"There's no guarantee we get the money after June 30," says John DeWorken, who is working with Lee to make film incentives a priority in the Senate. "The Film Commission cannot sign a film for next November without knowing what money is going to be in the budget."
Without tax incentives, films will simply go elsewhere, taking their spending money and jobs with them.
"There are a lot of us right now that aren't working because there's no money left," says Lee. "We're all a bunch of gypsies."
Film industry folk — whether they oversee multimillion-dollar projects like Tony Mark or paint banisters like Mollie Howey — will go where the money is. Right now, that is not South Carolina.
Caught in the middle of this multimillion dollar Monopoly game between Hollywood and state senators is Charleston's film crew. They are a familial league of craftspeople, bonded by long days backstage and their shared dilemma: choose between making a living, or living at home.
If you want to hit a nerve in a Charleston film worker, just say Wilmington.
There is a love-hate relationship between Charleston and its sister cities in the Southeast. Wilmington, Savannah, Atlanta, and Charleston regularly share crews, depending on the project and the loyalties involved. Mr. Mercedes, for example, brought the majority of its crew from Wilmington because that's where the show's directors are from. In film, like any industry, it's all about connections.
"After a 16-hour day, once we reach that point of hangry-ness, you've got to know who you're on set with," says one local indie filmmaker, Dominic DiMaria. "I find people that I like to work with and I hire them."
So Wilmington's people get hired in Charleston, leaving Charleston's crews to seek work in Wilmington, and natives in both cities complain that out-of-state crews are taking all the jobs. Wilmington to Charleston, Charleston to Atlanta, Atlanta to Savannah, and around they go in a vicious circle.
"Work comes and goes so you have to be flexible to make ends meet," says local casting director Matthew Sefick, who moved to Charleston for Army Wives.
Workers like Howey chase the jobs, trying to make ends meet without screwing over the coworkers who've become family.
"When I'm working I don't see my family or friends," says Diana Dich, the newest addition to Karen's costuming crew. "You kind of have to be grandfathered in, but once you are, the set is your life."
Karen Keyes and her sister Kiva have spent nearly two decades costuming in the Southeast, and have literally seen children grow up on set. They met Blanche, who runs the food truck for Mr. Mercedes, in the early 2000s. She still makes them breakfast every day — only now, her son helps.
"We met Ian when he was 10. Now he's a grown man and he and his mom run the company together," says Kiva.
One of Karen's current artistic directors used to take the breakfast orders and another costumer did her homework on set: "I remember Justin standing outside my trailer taking breakfast orders and now he's telling me what to do," Karen says, "and when I met Ashton she was this high. Now she's a costumer too, and she's a mom."
"We are a family," adds Karen.
"Friendships and love develop, people take others under their wing," says location scout Arthur Howe, a white-haired local who's been in the industry since the late 1970s.
For Howey, the film industry became home after her mother fired her from the actual family business.
"My mom fired me and I was like, 'What the fuck am I going to do with my life now?'" Howey says. So she took a job on Army Wives and joined a family that included the likes of Sterling Brown, an actor-turned-bartender named Bubba, the Keyes sisters, and even some Wilmington guys.
"I just got a happy birthday text from an Army Wives producer who hadn't worked in Charleston since 2011," says Sefick, who worked with Brown, Bubba, and Howey during the Army Wives golden years.
"Even if you haven't seen them in a few years, the camaraderie is so tight that it doesn't matter," says Howey, "when you see them again, it's like a day didn't pass because you've spent that much time with somebody."
Unexpected tragedy hit the film family this spring, when heart attacks killed two Army Wives crew members. Charleston workers drove to North Carolina to mourn the men who joined their neighborhood every filming season. Even Wally — the bartender at the crew's favorite North Charleston bar, The Mill — recalls 44-year-old crew member Michael James as a friendly guy who rented across the street and had "a thing for German watches."
That camaraderie makes vying for the same jobs all the more difficult.
Howey was one of the lucky ones this time, but that meant taking the job of a Wilmington worker and watching as many of her Charleston friends remain unemployed.
"A woman broke her ankle on Mr. Mercedes, so they called me and said, 'We need you here tomorrow.' I can't say no, because if I say no someone else is going to say yes and there goes my job. I'm not about to be like, 'Nah, man,'" Howey explains. "There I was in my pajamas trying to rearrange what I'm doing with my life."
When a job doesn't require commuting to Wilmington, you rearrange your life for it.
"A lot of my Charleston friends aren't working right now," says Howey.
Two bills are currently hanging in limbo in South Carolina's House and Senate that would guarantee the state's film industry incentives and lay ground for future increases.
"It's taken us years to get to this point," says Lee. "We could never ask for more money before because we could never spend it all."
Given that the budget maxed out this year, it seems prime time to revisit the incentives. Instead, voting on Senate Bill 74 and House Bill 3439 were delayed, rescheduled, and eventually put on hold.
"We thought: Let's get more films, see the success, and when the legislature sees that, then we can prove this is working and get more money for it," says DeWorken, who checks the legislature's schedule daily to see if the bills will make it to the floor. So far, he and Lee had little luck, though the senators have admittedly been preoccupied with Hurricane Matthew repairs, pensions, budget cuts, and adjusting to a new governor.
"It's the South; things change very slowly," observes filmmaker DiMaria.
Since the bills haven't been rescheduled, Lee tries to explain her case whenever she crosses a lawmaker, like in the courthouse hallway when she ran into Senator Nikki Setzler. "When he came out of the bathroom door, we were standing right there. He had very valid questions [about the Bills] and I know the answers," she says.
If the incentives in South Carolina run out, films don't come here, jobs disappear, and Charleston workers go elsewhere. North Carolina, for example.
"North Carolina got screwed over. Their governor took their incentives and put up that bathroom bill, and Hollywood's like 'y'all dumb. See ya later,'" laughs Howey.
But things are changing in the North.
On March 1, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper introduced a revised film incentives plan that would not have an annual cap. If Cooper's plan goes into effect next January like he intends, both North Carolina and Georgia will have unlimited incentive plans. South Carolina film budget caps at $15 million.
"In Georgia, it's basically that whoever shows up is going to get the money," says Sefick.
What would happen to Charleston if South Carolina was a no cap state?
"It'd be off the chain!" laughs Kiva, almost hysterical at the thought of that impossible scenario.
As the end of this fiscal year looms, time is running out for a vote on Bills 74 and 3439.
"If the city wants filmmaking here, it's going to have to come from the top. We filmmakers have obviously been asking for it since 2009. It's been seven or eight years, and we're seeing very little difference," says DiMaria.
His solution is to start apartment-hunting in Los Angeles.
"You try to change the environment, but when you can't, you might need to go somewhere else to do what you want to do," he says.
Some, like DiMaria, will leave for greener markets.
"I've only been in Atlanta for a few months and I've been pleasantly surprised with the amount of work," says Melissa Correa, a camera operator who left Charleston last year. "I'm not sure why Charleston doesn't focus more on making sure local crews get hired."
Some will commute across state lines.
"In a two-month span I will have traveled to Atlanta half a dozen times for acting jobs. That's over 3,000 miles," says actor Jay Johnson, a regular on Army Wives. "Atlanta's proximity to Charleston certainly makes the TV and film industry a viable career ... provided you don't mind taking road trips."
Others will stay in South Carolina out of loyalty to Charleston or the roots they've set down here. The Keyes work on local catalogues so they can stay close to their school-age children; Arthur Howe scouts locations for Dodge commercials because he says he's too old to chase Hollywood dreams; Bubba tends bar at Trio; Howey takes odd jobs like painting Classic Coffee in Avondale.
"Nobody comes to Charleston with a dollar and a dream to become a filmmaker," says filmmaker Justin Nathanson, who runs The Southern art gallery with his wife when not shooting commercials.
"Location, not money, is the only real reason to come to Charleston," says DiMaria. "The question is, can we build an industry around that? And I think the answer so far is no."
What Hollywood scouts might call "location," film industry workers like Karen and Howey call home.
"I would leave the business before I moved," says Howey. "That's just because I love Charleston."
So Howey will finish painting Mr. Mercedes' sets, take a much-needed vacation, and hope for work in Charleston when she returns. This is a lifestyle she's been living for over a decade. It doesn't make her Hollywood rich, but she can buy beers from Wally at The Mill.
"You give up your life, but you can make money doing what you love," she says. "You can make a living ... you just might not get to sleep in your own bed."