NC Film Industry Alive and … Well

By Katelynn Watkins – kwatkins@unca.edu – Staff Writer | Jan. 21, 2015 |

We hear it all the time, from parents, teachers, everyone we know.

“Don’t try to make it as an actor – the odds are small.”

Since 2009, UNC Asheville has had an average of 42 drama department majors every year, according to the university’s records. Considering North Carolina’s history in the film industry, it may not be such an outrageous bet. In the past, the state has played host to a number of films including Dirty Dancing, The Hunger Games, and The Hunt for Red October. But according to Guy Gastor, the director of the North Carolina Film Office, the streak may be in danger.

“We’ve gotten fewer projects reaching out to us than in the past,” Gastor said, “but with the new policy coming up we’re kind of taking a wait-and-see approach for the future.”

The new policy he referred to is the Film and Entertainment Grant Program, coming to the state later this month. This means film projects will no longer have the option for a refundable tax credit. The new program creates a $10 million cap for projects, whereas the refundable tax credit awarded projects with percentages based on the budget, regardless of the amount.

So what about actors looking for work?

As far as the market goes, actors need agents. Stepping in to help is Jon Menick, founder and owner of the Screen Artists Co-op (SAC). The organization exists to serve actors, working as their liaison within the industry and coaching them to be better in their profession.

“Our actors are able to benefit from an influx of opportunities in Atlanta, New Orleans, Richmond, Nashville,” Menick said, “and, for a while, Wilmington.”

Menick said the new policy seems to be constricting local actors’ abilities to find projects to work on in western North Carolina. Productions moving to other areas still need the actors, but other states have more open financial standards for projects.

“I personally know that our competition is fierce,” Menick says. “We not only must compete with actors in a wide region, but also actors from Los Angeles for parts in projects. “

The news is not all bad, though. By having membership in SAC, actors are given an edge in the competition. Organized representation looks great on an actor’s resume, Menick says. Part of SAC’s specific appeal is its dedication to teaching techniques and assisting actors in perfecting the craft.

Mary McGahren knows firsthand the abilities of SAC and how it affects an actor’s chance in the industry. Now focusing more on her acting career, McGahren says she used to help the organization with its press and marketing at its conception.

“It’s a super tough career path,” McGahren says, “but I’ve tried so many things and this has always been my passion. Life is short.”

McGahren says she has worked with a mentor at the Co-op to hone in on her skills as a television and film actor. She took part in theater projects and McGahren had an idea of the climate of western North Carolina’s acting scene. She was in for a bit of a surprise moving from theater to film and TV, though.

“I was in the Too Many Cooks video from Adult Swim that went viral,” she says. “That was pretty cool, seeing my face all over the Internet and in People Magazine. Weird, but cool.”

Viral videos may be fun, but most actors working with the co-op aren’t necessarily looking to be the stars of the Internet, which poses the question again. What do they do?

For Menick, the policy changes for projects in North Carolina mean some trouble for the actors of SAC. Every month, the actors are able to book major projects, just not much in the general area that can be called a major production. SAC films auditions and small-scale projects in-house, so actors only travel when they’ve definitely been booked.

For actors who have less support in their representation, Menick said traveling isn’t always practical. If an actor is based in Asheville, he or she cannot always fly out to the next audition. There may be a part-time job to consider or even a child to make arrangements for.

But actors should not despair, he said. The Southeast is a growing region for film and entertainment, with Georgia seemingly leading the charge at the moment. Actors with SAC have been booked all over the WNC area recently, and Menick said he doesn’t expect them to slow down any time soon. Members like McGahren can look forward to plenty of help from the organization even when projects don’t come knocking on North Carolina’s door.

For actors who may not belong to SAC, the road can be rough, as McGahren said. She suggested looking for an agency that has the same ideals as the actor, not necessarily giving up one’s location.

“Asheville is centrally located, the perfect spot to hit all of these markets,” Menick says. “We get to live here in a beautiful place, go to a drum circle, drink the best beer in the county, then be in a Robert DeNiro movie the next day. Go figure.”

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