The rising star of Wilmington

Story and photo by Lois Carol Wheatley

Filmington. Wilmywood. Some snappy nicknames have been attached to Wilmington's thriving film industry, with the sleek and simple favorite being Hollywood East. In this sandy soil a solid filmmaking infrastructure has taken root and sprouted to significant proportions, including a network of sound stages, a significant inventory of state-of-the-art equipment and a local population of highly trained and specialized crew personnel.

This is all due to — as they say in the business — a lot of back story.

In the early 1980s Frank Capra, Jr. came to town looking for a house to burn. Well, not just any house. He wanted to burn a grand old plantation-style mansion with a wide porch and massive white columns, in collaboration with Dino De Laurentiis on the making of "Firestarter," a film based on a Stephen King novel and starring a very young Drew Barrymore.

On the cover of a glossy magazine he spotted Orton Plantation in Winnabow, a few miles outside Wilmington, the quintessential Southern antebellum house and a dead ringer for Tara in "Gone With the Wind." It was exactly what he had in mind. Of course, the fact that it was in close proximity to a picturesque river town and a lot of wide, sandy beaches may have also factored into his thinking.

The house he wound up burning was a replica that some of his crew members—flown in from Hollywood—built of the Orton Plantation house. Rather than destroy a popular tourist attraction on the banks of the Cape Fear River, that successful film venture started a completely different kind of fire. It was the catalyst for a frenzy of new construction that, when you think about it, in some ways must have looked something like a sort of mini-reenactment of the post-Civil War years.

Fast forward, if you will, to a present-day 50-acre complex on Wilmington's 23rd Street consisting of ten hulking, warehouse-type structures. It is owned by EUE/Screen Gems Studios and Capra served as president of that facility until his death in 2007.

Studio tours are offered to the public Saturdays and Sundays, 12 p.m. and 2 p.m. from Memorial Day to Labor Day. From September to May, public tours are on Saturdays only at 12 p.m. and 2 p.m. Group tours of 20 or more people are available most days with an advance reservation. Ticket prices are $12 for adults, $10 for students and military with a valid ID, $8 for seniors, $5 for children ages 5-12, and free for children under 4. For information and reservations: EUE Screen Gems Studio Tours, 1223 North 23rd Street, Wilmington, NC 28405, (910) 343-3433.

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