Don Worthington

Catawba Studio backer forms South Carolina Film Advisory Board

When people dream big, they usually have more than their share of doubters.

So when the Catawba Indian Nation and Bert Hesse joined forces, each brought legions of doubters.

The Catawbas’ intent to use gambling to generate revenue for the tribe has been controversial. They wanted to have a casino on the reservation, and the state said no. They tried to find other places in South Carolina for gaming, and the state said no. They are waiting to see if they get federal approval to open a casino in North Carolina.

Hesse, a film entrepreneur with a company called Studio South, sought to bring a studio to Charlotte in 2012. He asked the Charlotte City Council for help. Whether it was a misunderstanding, a lack of vision on the part of the council or a lack of specifics, the project to turn Eastland Mall into a filming studio went nowhere.

That’s why the announcement that the tribe wants to build a $350 million movie studio project on reservation land brought out the skeptics.

As with the Charlotte project, the critics’ volume got louder when it came to discussing financing for the Catawba Studio project.

An important difference from the Charlotte plan is this project can qualify for federal funds available only to American Indian tribes. Other tribes reportedly also are interested in the project.

Hesse says they have some private investors lined up as well.

But the project still needs seed money to get it over the initial funding hump. Hesse and the Catawbas have asked York County for $1 million in hospitality tax revenue to help them. The county’s hospitality tax committee wants more detailed information before making a decision. Tribal officials said feasibility and economic impact studies should be done soon and will contain the information the county wants.

A plan for incentives

Hesse and the tribes’ efforts have not been solely financial, however.

Hesse recently announced efforts to create the South Carolina Advisory Board to assist the South Carolina Film Commission and help state business leaders and legislators understand what the film industry is all about and what it could mean to South Carolina.

While the group has a rather official title, it’s not a Legislature-mandated committee. It’s an organic effort from film representatives, the Catawbas and, hopefully, business leaders across the state.

As proposed, the board would have 12 to 15 members. Hesse would serve as the initial chairman. Dan Rogers and Tom Clark of the South Carolina Film Commission have agreed to serve, Hesse said. So, too, has Chief Bill Harris, representing the Catawba Indian Nation and the studio project.

Hesse also hopes to get leaders from South Carolina’s largest companies to serve on the board.

The S.C. Film Commission falls under the auspices of the S.C. Parks, Recreation and Tourism Department, led by Duane Parrish.

The state has had some successes with the filming of the Lifetime Channel show “Army Wives” in Charleston, movies such as “The Patriot” in the region, and the television series “Outcasts” in York and Chester counties.

While the state has a good story to tell, it needs an even better story to realize its film potential, Parrish said.

Hesse said one way to develop that story is to increase the state incentives for filming. The state’s incentive budget is $15 million, half of what North Carolina offers, Parrish said.

Georgia offers tax credits to film companies, which can be financially significant. The trouble with tax credits, Parrish said, is you have to find someone in Georgia who can use them. That means selling the tax credits for less than face value, getting between 80 and 85 cents on the tax-credit dollar.

“We need to be selective with our incentives and have success with our incentives,” Parrish said. If that combination can be found, it will be easier to lobby the Legislature for more incentive dollars, Parrish said.

Parrish said Catawba Studio and the South Carolina Film Advisory Board can be important parts of the puzzle to expand the state’s film industry.

Critical for the advisory board’s success will be convincing leaders of South Carolina companies the board has value and is worthy of their time.

Having business executives from a few recognizable companies won’t silence all the critics, but it could give more credibility to Hesse’s vision and the Catawbas’ dream of a local movie studio.