Then suddenly, movie-making ended in Beaufort

6 mins read


Two months ago I went to a wine-tasting celebrating the end of the house tours as presented by the Historic Beaufort Foundation.

And yes, let’s be honest, it’s fun to walk through these old, historic homes to see if the countertops are repurposed,18th-century slate or domestic grade granite; whether the novels (in the bookcase) are Herman Wouk or Hunter Thompson.

When Susan and I arrived in Beaufort (in 1971) The Point was still a mixed, eclectic bag with a dozen houses needing paint or structural attention.

I don’t remember when that changed but it might have started with “The Big Chill,” “The Great Santini,” “Forces of Nature” or some other movie signaling to the world that there was important architecture between Charleston and Savannah and, who knows, there just might be sentient, multi-celled life on the lower South Carolina coast.

When “The Big Chill” came to town, my law office was often called asking if we would notarize contracts. Notarizing documents was not a big money maker, so I sent my secretary and her heavy, cast-iron seal to the movie set on The Point. Then she said, “I’m not doing this anymore.”

“Why not?”

“Because they want me to stay for lunch.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“I’m a country girl. I’ve never had liver pate or foie gras and, as God is my judge, I’m never going to eat a snail.”

Several days later William Hurt, the actor, walked into my office with a young woman in tow. They had a document that defined their respective rights in relation to a child, then in utero, and Hurt wanted me to explain the document to his pregnant girlfriend. I declined.

I said no because it was a long, single-spaced document – not written by me – and consistent with laws of New York. I said I would notarize the signatures but I didn’t want to explain what was unfamiliar.

After a little more discussion they decided to sign the contract and I duly witnessed their signatures.

A year later there was a disagreement between this same couple over something called common-law marriage, and I was asked by the girlfriend’s lawyer to give testimony.

“You won’t be paid, of course, but we will fly you up to New York and give you a room at the Plaza.”

“I want to stay at the Parker Meridian,” I replied.

“Why?” the lawyer asked me.

“Because they have a swimming pool.”

“So does the Plaza,” he said.

“Not on the roof,” I said, “Not 50 floors above Midtown,”

A week later I went to New York and gave my testimony without making eye contract with William Hurt, wondering whether my motivation was “to do justice” or simply collecting an anecdote I could dust off at dinner parties. And for several years I retold this story as often as I could find context, however transparent.

Eventually I stopped telling the story because my friends would groan; then correct my narrative when I would stray from the facts.

Then, suddenly, Georgia came up with tax incentives that made making movies in that state very attractive. These same incentives virtually ended movie-making in Beaufort.

In Georgia, the state awards tax credits for up to 30 percent of what the movie company spends.

But the company, usually based in another state, doesn’t need those credits because it doesn’t pay an income tax. So, in most cases the company sells the credit to somebody who needs it.

For example, a film company shooting in Savannah might spend $3.3 million for actors, camera crews and French-focused catering. This earns a credit of $990,000 that they sell at a discount — say $750,000 — to some non-film company that does pay taxes in Georgia.

Recently there has been criticism of this practice and the allegation that many companies received credit they didn’t earn — payments to contractors for work done outside Georgia.

What is more interesting is that independent auditors say that the State Development Office has used an “inflated multiple” to calculate the economic impact of the movie business — they claim the movies employ less than 10,000 people.

This is not to say the credits will be ended — there are powerful interests in the Legislature that like the fact that Georgia is now No. 2 (behind the U.K.) in locations for movies. But now there is skepticism about the math; arguments about spending this money on teachers; and, who knows, maybe one day we’ll see another movie come to The Point.

Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. Email Scott at cscottgraber@gmail.com.

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