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Thinking movies at ThinkTEC Summit

Wanted: A Rising Tide

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2009 ThinkTEC Innovation Summit
Wed. Feb. 11, 7:30 a.m.-7 p.m.
$125-$225
Trident Technical College
7000 Rivers Ave., North Charleston
(843) 805-3015
www.thinktec.org

There's something of a left-brain/right-brain grind that occurs when the word "creativity" rubs up against the word "commerce" or vice versa. Suffice it to say that commerce desires creativity, but wishes it would shut up and sit down, and creativity wants commerce's money, but thinks the whole process is a serious buzzkill.

Yet there they are, creativity and commerce cheek-to-jowl at the Charleston Chamber of Commerce's 2009 ThinkTEC Innovation Summit — this year's theme: "Creativity: The Root of Innovation." If you wonder how creativity got such top billing in the midst of a recession (last year's topic was medical technology), here's why: A study commissioned by the chamber in 2005 called the Lowcountry one of the area's top targets for future growth.

Marty Bluford, who runs the local branch of High Output, a national outfit that provides lighting to the film industry, is one of four panelists anchoring the summit's film and media component, one of the sexier breakout sessions on tap. While publishing, design, and architecture all contribute to the creative sector, big-budget films generate a splashy, viral buzz that's hard to replicate.

While much of the conference will focus on integrating innovation into existing businesses, the film panel will be talking about something that draws instant attention in the midst of a recession.

"The bottom line is, it's new money," says panelist Jeff Monks, head of the South Carolina Film Commission. That's "new money" as in "outside money," the kind of cash Hollywood studios spread around when the film commission lands a significant production deal. Big-budget pictures can drop a few million dollars into a local economy in a matter of weeks.

But that new money isn't exactly "found money," as tumultuous 2008 illustrated. Buffeted by competing economic studies that determined film-industry incentives to be either boons or boondoggles, political infighting pushed the state to the brink of losing Army Wives and other productions last summer. Things have since settled down, and Monks rates the state's incentives (a combination of tax breaks and wage rebates) as competitive with those of our Southeastern brethren.

Those incentives remain the primary tools for leveraging a more prosperous film industry in the state, but they're not the whole picture. Geography matters, too, and outside productions need local crews and equipment. Charleston's resident talent pool gives it a boost, but even with the 2008 opening of a TV production facility down the road in Hollywood, S.C., the area's physical infrastructure remains a weakness.

"What we need is a place they can shoot when it rains and more camera rental," Bluford said. "But if you have money to invest and you decide to spend it on a building or equipment as opposed to the rebate money, I think you're going at it backwards."

In other words, the more productions you line up, the bigger a local talent base you build, the better you look to investors who might pony-up for an industry-standard sound-stage. And so on.

Overlooked in many of these discussions, though, is the organic local film scene. Local independent producer/director Brad Jaynes, of Daniel Island's Creative Forge Productions, likens the city to Austin, Texas, before Richard Linkletter and Robert Rodriguez broke through as indie stars in the early 1990s. His observation? Just one breakout success could elevate everyone. Not just gaffers and caterers — but filmmakers, screenwriters, and actors, too.

Local bootstrap-filmmaker Nick Smith recently estimated that roughly three independent features get produced in Charleston every year. Most of those get by on minimal funding and struggle to find distribution. (Smith writes for City Paper)

Jaynes' next thus-far untitled production takes a slightly different approach, with a planned $1 million budget and as much state support as he can win. But do you build up the local scene to get more attention from the big studios, or do you focus on recruiting big-budget features and count on the locals rising on that tide? Bluford figures it's pretty simple. Bring in whatever films you can get and watch what happens.

"When people aren't working big jobs, they'll pull out that script they were working on, find some financing, and make it," he says. "That's typically the way you build a healthy film production scene."

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