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S.C. film czars, legislators, ready for battle
Cover Story with photo

By Wayne Caparas

In a dramatic series of maneuvers, S.C. lawmakers, state officials, and film industry professionals are jousting for high ground in what has become a high stakes battle over the future of South Carolina filmmaking.

Renowned producer, Hollywood screen actor and native South Carolinian O’Neal Compton is a central character among a chorus of film professionals and pro-film legislators calling for sweeping change in leadership, funding, and film production goals.

The S.C. Film Office with its half-million dollar budget is currently controlled by the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism (PRT).  Though the Film Office has its committed advocates¾most notably filmmaker Peter Wentworth—the office’s productivity falls well below the expectations of many South Carolina Film professionals and even further below the success enjoyed by their counterparts in North Carolina.

“Even though North Carolina has no inherent advantage over our state, they out-produce South Carolina [in film revenues] tenfold--year in, year out,” explains Compton.  “Change is long overdue.  Film is big business…and we deserve aggressive, productive leadership that is capable of driving our state to the top.”

New plan stirs the pot

In his proposed plan Compton is asking that a new South Carolina Film Development Board be formed as a cabinet level agency or at the very least as a major component of the Department of Commerce.  He also is asking for a two-year budget commitment of a record $3 million for this new agency.  If successful, Compton’s plan would, in effect, dissolve the current film office, which has been under the same leadership for more than a decade.

PRT Spokesperson Lou Fontana welcomes any increase in appropriations for the Film Office.  As for Compton’s proposal to switch film industry leadership, Fontana says, “it makes sense for the film office to stay at PRT…We think there’s a certain synergy that takes place over here with business development and tourism.  I think the return on investment [in the Film Office] has been phenomenal.”

South Carolina film historian Howard Armstrong, a vocal opponent of the Film Office and its current leadership, believes that the PRT is erroneously taking credit for the hard work of private film professionals and South Carolina’s natural appeal to filmmakers.

“The [S.C. Film Office] stood idle while North Carolina zoomed to third in the nation (behind California and New York) by employing an aggressive, well formulated plan that actively involved all segments of their citizenship,” Armstrong maintains.  “In all that time, never once did [our film commissioner] try to compete with or emulate North Carolina’s successful approaches.”

Although dissension among film professionals continues, one fact is undeniable: some powerful state legislators are pushing for a bigger, better state industry. The House Ways and Means Committee has already responded favorably to the budgetary elements of Compton’s proposal.

In a congruent plan, several of the state’s leading pro-film senators are taking an even firmer stance.  Just this month Senators Ernie Passailaigue, Glenn McConnell, John Land, and Thomas Moore, all of whom have worked over the past two years to develop the film industry in S.C., pronounced their united position in a letter to Sen. Phil Leventis, chairman of the Economic Development Subcommittee.

“We feel very strongly that the appropriate agency to oversee the film office is the Department of Commerce, because of the direct implications to economic development and industrial recruitment. Further, we feel an increased appropriation commensurate with the office’s new identity is a most responsible approach to undertake.  It is our understanding that the House had agreed to an additional appropriation of $1.5 million in their preliminary budget deliberations.  Please accept this letter as a statement of our desire to incorporate this in a Senate Appropriations bill for this year.”

According to McConnell, the PRT “should have no role in the further development of South Carolina’s film industry and infrastructure.  PRT has its hands full with significant challenges in improving our parks, recreation, and tourist attractions and they should focus on these issues.  Film is a matter of commerce, not recreation or tourism.  It’s a matter of common sense that the Film Office should be directed by the Department of Commerce.”

Meanwhile Peter Wentworth, who is well respected for his industry clout, strongly disagrees with any plans to move or dissolve the current film office.  “I feel great frustration over the divisiveness that has been created in the film community at a time when great things could happen if people work together.”

Public forum imminent

Steve Rhea, an 18-year S.C. film veteran and founding member of the Carolina Film Alliance (CFA) who is respected by all parties as a fair and neutral player, has recommended a town hall meeting to discuss these issues.  “By not taking an official position on any of these issues, the Carolina Film Alliance is offering an open forum for the free exchange of ideas.” 

CFA Vice President Ken French echoes Rhea’s sentiment, and feels the scheduled CFA board nominations meeting scheduled for April 8 can serve a dual purpose.  “To maintain the business side of [CFA] development, we must honor our commitment to accept board of director nominations at the meeting,” said French.  However he is in full agreement that the open forum is of utmost importance, and that it will commence immediately after the abbreviated nominations process that evening.

Anyone interested in attending the town meeting, which is open to the public, can call the CFA Hotline at 965-8775 or check the Web site at

Wayne Caparas is a member of the Screen Actors Guild and the originating founder of the Carolina Film Alliance.  Today he serves as a single voice on the nine-member executive committee headed by casting director and CFA President Richard Futch.