Silver Screen Gem

BY Marimar McNaughton

Wilmington’s love affair with moving pictures stars Frank Capra Jr. as the leading man a role for which he was typecast by the hands of fate.

The president of EUE Screen Gems and the son and namesake of the Oscar-winning director of Lost Horizon You Can’t Take It With You Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life never intended to have a film career yet through a few ironic plot twists and flashbacks his lifetime achievements have cemented North Carolina’s star on the Walk of Fame east of Tinseltown.

“I started out in geophysics; I was interested in science ” Capra says. Rolling back his life’s tape he recaps his early career years which began after graduation from college when Capra took a short-term job with Hughes Tool Company the parent company of Howard Hughes’ Aircraft.

“They were doing not only geophysics but also doing military stuff ” he says.

“They had a little film unit. I said ‘I’d love to work for you there ’” Capra says. Eventually he was writing and producing documentaries for Hughes until he joined the Army and served in the Signal Corps.

“I did films for the Army for several years ” Capra says.

Once out of the service married with a little boy Capra realized that the jobs open to geophysicists would take him far from home on exploratory expeditions to Venezuela and Saudi Arabia looking for oil.

“I didn’t really want to do that because I would be away from the family for two years so when I went back to Los Angeles I started thinking I’d better find a business in entertainment ” Capra says.

Starting over at the bottom rung as a production assistant Capra became a second assistant director and worked his way up the ladder becoming an associate producer then producer.

“So I’ve been in the film business for a long time now ” he says.

Two dozen years ago while scouting for a remotely private secluded waterfront antebellum mansion to use as a film location Capra was lured to the North Carolina coast. Working from a glossy magazine cover he found in a studio research library he tracked down the quintessential setting for film producer Dino De Laurentiis for the movie Firestarter based on Stephen King’s 1980 novel.

“A lot of the production had to be centered around a beautiful home that had been converted into a headquarters for a secretive CIA-style operative ” Capra says. “We knew going in that we needed at least this one major location.”

Capra and the film’s director Mark Lester flew in Gov. Jim Hunt’s helicopter to Orton Plantation on the Cape Fear River. The rest of the story is motion picture history.

“We had a really good experience filming there. It turned out really well and worked perfectly for the movie ” Capra says.

Emmy Award-winning casting director Craig Fincannon (of Fincannon & Associates) remembers the day Capra flew into Wilmington.

“I drove down from Charlotte to the old airport and I remember the Piedmont prop plane pulling in and … this dapper guy stepping off a plane wearing parachute pants and an open shirt and chains and dark sunglasses and I said ‘Wow that’s Hollywood.’ To me that was it. He came walking off the plane looking like a million bucks and I met him the instant he got to Wilmington. It’s all true. It’s a sweet memory for me and for Frank too.”

Fincannon’s younger brother Mark Fincannon moved to Wilmington to cast the film’s extras.

“Mark came and fell in love with Wilmington. He decided he was going to stay here and that was great ” Fincannon says.

Meanwhile De Laurentiis who had moved his studios in Rome to offices in New York visited the set frequently during production.

“Dino is the most experienced producer probably that ever lived ” Capra says. “He had in his mind always been thinking about an American studio. New York would be too expensive. He didn’t want to do it in California because of the time issues and distance. As he came here more and more he began to think and we began to talk about the opportunity in Wilmington ” Capra says.

De Laurentiis fell in love with Wilmington and with a young film accountant Martha Schumacher.

“We watched that romance sort of blossom ” Fincannon says. “Those of us that were here in the early days believe that the growth of the studio had to do with the fact that Dino and Martha were falling in love and walking on the beach and building a house here.”

Though De Laurentiis’ studio was courted by other states Capra says “Gov. Jim Hunt saw the future of filmmaking here what it could become and what it could grow into.”

In 1984 De Laurentiis and Capra pulled some office trailers around a brick warehouse on 23rd Street where they built a few small sets. De Laurentiis who was producing as many as six movies a year built the first three stages. “He built stage four to do his King Kong movie (King Kong Lives 1986). It was busy here ” Capra says. “The studio was a hopping place.”

To say the least. While Capra jumped from coast to coast producing first Firestarter and then Marie: A True Story starring Sissy Spacek Fincannon remembers that “We did something like 28 movies in four years for DEG (De Laurentiis Entertainment Group). It was really remarkable. You would do a big movie in the morning and have lunch and then go do another one in the afternoon and go and have dinner and have meetings on another one at night. It was an amazing way to learn the ropes.”

De Laurentiis and his (now) wife Martha established their own personal hub in Wrightsville Beach an oceanfront home designed by internationally acclaimed architect and designer Adam Tihany in the mid 1980s.

“What we were planning because we lived in New York at the time was satelliting North Carolina and New York. We really loved living in Wilmington ” Martha De Laurentiis says. “Unfortunately what happened in ’85 due to business that we were involved in we had to move to Los Angeles. Basically with the film business the legal the creative starts and finishes with the Hollywood system. That’s why we ultimately moved there ” she says.

When De Laurentiis moved to Los Angeles to expand into distribution he sold the studio (in 1990) to Carolco which built stages seven and eight end to end to be converted into one long stage hoping for a train movie or a subway scene to roll its way.

Known for its big-budget big-star movies Terminator 2 Judgment Day and Rambo Capra says Carolco turned the studio into more of a rental facility and turned it over to other producers.

Facing serious bankruptcy issues several years later Carolco auctioned the studio in 1996. Capra was living in Santa Barbara at the time and went to the auction in a Los Angeles County Courthouse to represent a Wilmington family who sent him to purchase the studio with the intention of having him run it for them.

“I said I would be very interested in coming back here; my wife is from here my wife’s family lives here one of my sons lives here; Jonathan who came on Firestarter and never left. It seemed to me like a good idea ” Capra says.

George Cooney owner of EUE Screen Gems however was the high bidder; and the plot thickened … Cooney and Capra met at the auction. Within a week or two Cooney asked Capra to come to Wilmington and run the studio something he had hoped to do anyway and Capra moved back onto the lot in November 1996.

“Things happened ” Capra recalls. “Network ‘Movies of the Week ’ which were a mainstay for us as a studio had been made here sometimes as many as 25 ‘Movies of the Week’ here per year. There were a lot of them; CBS did them NBC did them ABC did them. There were many many more ‘Movies of the Week’ on at that time. Suddenly the ‘Movie of the Week’ business dried up and went to Canada and also the network started making less of them. So I concentrated on features and television.”

Matlock Dawson’s Creek and One Tree Hill now in its fifth season put the Wilmington film industry back on the map.

In between were new projects: Universal’s Virus which Capra says was not a tremendously successful movie at the box office had a lot of special effects — robotics and water elements — that showcased the studio’s capabilities.

“We built one more stage stage nine for a Muppets movie we ended up getting from Sony ” he says.

The power of his own network and name recognition notwithstanding Capra’s strength lay in his efforts with the governor’s office the North Carolina Legislature and the state’s film commission.

Both Capra and Craig Fincannon serve on North Carolina’s Film Council and Fincannon has been the chairman of the incentives program committee for the last three years.

“We’re really happy that things are in the state that they’re in today ” Fincannon says.

“We worked a long long time. It’s starting to pay off. We’re in a very competitive position with the rest of the country and I think it’s only up from here ” Fincannon says.

“We have had a long program of about four or five years of trying to get the legislature to come to the idea that incentives were useful. Right off the bat you ran into the fact that those are generally used for new business ” Capra says.

“I had to argue and finally successfully that we’re a very mobile business and people will follow the work; and so although we have built a studio sets are temporary the crew base actors will go where the work is. If the work is in other areas — especially because other states in the South were starting to put in their own incentives — and work was going there we’re going to lose our work. It’s not like you have to start a new business. This is like holding onto a business that’s very good that you’re going to lose. Finally that sunk in and they passed and tweaked and finished [legislation] this last January. It’s led to a whole resurgence in work again here. We’re very busy right now and the studio is full and there’s work elsewhere in North Carolina too ” Capra says.

Fincannon agrees. “George Clooney just did a film in the western part of the state ” he says. “South Carolina did six films. The whole southeast is becoming a production center for Los Angeles as it gets more and more difficult for them to shoot out there. We’ve been approached in this office by half a dozen other features asking our availability in the fall ” he adds.

With five production hubs with 10 to 12 offices each break rooms editing rooms art direction and production design rooms EUE Screen Gems caters to the smallest and to the very largest film productions.

“These 20 years of filmmaking in North Carolina have built an infrastructure that the other states don’t have: crew actors studios equipment scenic artists vendors — food costumers props wardrobe wigmakers — we’re making wigs for 200 to 300 extras on Bolden!. Outside of L.A. and New York it is one of the largest studios if not the largest studio ” he says. “Our business here is more of a service industry. It’s growing and the number of young people coming into the industry is growing. UNCW and Cape Fear Community College both have film programs now ” Capra says.

With Bolden! Nights in Rodanthe The Marc Pease Experience and an HBO pilot East Bound and Down all shot on location in Wilmington this year Capra says “We’re still very competitive we’re still very strong. The more productions that are done here the more times people say they’re definitely going to come back. In terms of Wilmington I don’t see that stopping. This is one of the best years we’ve ever had.”