Hallmark Movies Are A Staple Of A Nc City’s Film Industry

WILMINGTON, N.C. (AP) — If you saw multiple Santas walking the snow-spattered streets of downtown Wilmington on Aug. 25, there’s no need for alarm.

Time has lost all meaning, of course, in the pandemic’s wake. But in this case the snow at Front and Market streets was fake and the men in Santa Claus suits were extras working in the August heat for a TV movie called “Christmas in Harmony” set to air later this year on the Hallmark Channel.

In what has been a record-setting year for the film industry in both Wilmington and North Carolina as a whole — with $409 million expected to be spent in the state this year, and nearly $300 million spent in the Wilmington area so far — these so-called “Hallmark movies” have been a staple of local activity.

In addition to “Christmas in Harmony,” which is currently filming, the Hallmark Movies & Mysteries film “One Summer,” set to air Sept. 26, wrapped earlier this month. Another Hallmark movie, “USS Christmas,” shot in Wilmington a year ago, and “Line Sisters,” a Lifetime TV movie, also wrapped production this summer.

“We’ll take these, along with the features and the (TV) series,” said Johnny Griffin, director of the Wilmington Regional Film Commission. “Like a lot of companies, once they come and experience (filming in Wilmington), they want to come back.”

(Currently filming in Wilmington are the Netflix TV series “Florida Man,” the FOX TV series “Our Kind of People” premiering Sept. 21, and the Amazon TV series “The Summer I Turned Pretty.” Two major motion pictures shot here are set for release in the coming months: “Halloween Kills” on Oct. 15 and the latest “Scream” film on Jan. 14.)

Griffin pointed out that TV movies have historically played a prominent role in Wilmington’s film industry.

“We used to do 20 or 25 of these a year back in the ’90s,” Griffin said, noting that many of those were “Hallmark Hall of Fame” movies, like 1997’s “What the Deaf Man Heard.” (“Christmas in Conway,” shot here in 2013, was a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie as well.) “They’re pretty quick, easy and simple.”

In general, TV movies like these, which shoot over the course of just about three weeks, spend less than big-budget features or long-running TV series.

But Bill Vassar, executive vice president of Wilmington’s EUE/Screen Gems Studios, said the movies are good to have because “it helps to keep the crews working. We’re happy they’re here.”

John “Fergy” Ferguson, a Wilmington resident who owns Cine Partners out of Atlanta, has rented his grip and lighting equipment to production crews on “Christmas in Harmony,” “One Summer” and “Line Sisters” in Wilmington this year.

These “small-budget shows,” he said, are valuable in a number of ways, partly as a training ground for young crew members plucked from Cape Fear Community College and the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

Ferguson said he likes working for Hallmark because they’re “a moral company,” committed to reasonably short (in film industry terms) 11- and 12-hour days that tend to keep the crew members happy. He also likes that the company is beginning to diversify, noting that “Christmas in Harmony” is a majority Black cast.

Another bonus with the Hallmark films is that, since the shoots tend to be location-heavy, the Wilmington area gets a lot of screen time.

Both “USS Christmas,” which also shot at the Battleship North Carolina, and “Christmas in Harmony” feature scenes in New York City, but with downtown Wilmington standing in for the Big Apple.

On July 30, the Hallmark Movies & Mysteries film “One Summer” shot on location overnight at Southeastern North Carolina’s iconic Old Baldy Lighthouse on Bald Head Island, which is only accessible by boat.

“We’re pretty jazzed about it,” said Abby Overton, communications and development coordinator for The Old Baldy Foundation, which preserves and manages the lighthouse. “Any exposure we get on a national scale is great for our foundation.”

Plus, the production donated $10,000 to the foundation in exchange for being allowed to film both inside and outside of the lighthouse. “One Summer,” based on the book by David Baldacci, stars Sam Page and Sarah Drew in the story a man who travels to his late wife’s hometown with their kids to seek closure after her death and to honor her memory.

Of course, the tony Bald Head Island has roots in Wilmington’s film industry dating all the way back to the late 1980s, when the goofy comedy “Weekend at Bernie’s” shot there. Still, it’s relatively rare for Bald Head to be featured so prominently, in part because getting equipment on and off set is more difficult than on your average shoot.

Hallmark movies, with a wrap-to-air time that’s measured in weeks rather than months, aren’t always what you’d call prestige pictures. But if they’re not critically acclaimed, exactly, the movies are popular.

According to a news release from the company, in the fourth quarter of 2020 The Hallmark Channel was the most-watched entertainment cable network among women 18 and over for the seventh consecutive year. The company attributes that viewership to its Christmas-heavy programming in the fourth quarter of those years.

“When you do Hallmark, it’s all about love. About happiness,” Ferguson said. “I’d rather do that than something that reminds me of the news.”