“Clear Lake,” a new movie about the late rock icon Buddy Holly, has two of its major players in Raleigh, including its writer/director and executive producer.
But the $12 million indie film will be shot and based elsewhere when production begins next year.
The reasons come down to dollars and subsidies. North Carolina used to have one of the most generous film-incentives programs in the country, which drew an array of projects to the state — high-profile blockbusters “Iron Man 3” and “The Hunger Games,” as well as some TV series.
In recent years, however, North Carolina’s program has shrunk to a fraction of its former size. Other states like Georgia and Louisiana have lured the film industry away with incentives of their own.
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“Things have been tough,” said Patrick Shanahan, 30, the film’s writer/director who is developing the film with executive producer Rick French. Both live in Raleigh.
“I’m interested in opening a film studio in North Carolina, but the incentives here are an uphill battle,” Shanahan said. “The politics behind it have turned ugly and negative, and film is a positive industry.”
Shanahan said he expects “Clear Lake” to be based out of Atlanta, Louisiana or Texas. Plans call for it to be shot at locations including New York City, Holly’s hometown of Lubbock, Texas, and the town of Clear Lake, Iowa.
Clear Lake is where Holly died in a 1959 plane crash, which also killed musicians Ritchie Valens and J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson. Shooting is set to begin on Feb. 3, the 60th anniversary of the crash, frequently referred to as the “Day The Music Died.”
Holly’s widow, Maria Elena Holly, is involved with the production. So is BMG Music, which controls Holly’s catalog, and the Buddy Holly Educational Foundation.
Film incentives have been a political football for years in North Carolina. At one time, the state offered a 25-percent tax credit, to attract movie productions and jobs. That’s what drew “Iron Man 3” and “The Hunger Games.”
Thanks to that tax credit, productions spent a record $377 million in North Carolina in 2012. But the Republican-led General Assembly replaced the tax credit with a smaller grant program in 2014. Productions have been going elsewhere since then, with business shrinking to a fraction of what it used to be — just $50 million in 2017.
The most recent big movie made in North Carolina was last year’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” lured to the town of Sylva with a $3.1 million state grant. The $15 million film has been a worldwide hit, grossing more than $157 million. It also won two Academy Awards and drew tourists to Western North Carolina filming locations.
But North Carolina’s movie-making scene is quiet now. The latest project to receive state money is “Words on Bathroom Walls,” a film being made in the Wilmington area. It received $2.3 million in support from the state.
That was announced in April. There has been nothing further, although the North Carolina Film Office says negotiations are in progress for several projects.
‘The Day The Music Died’
“Clear Lake” is the first work from French and Shanahan’s new company Prix Productions. Shanahan, president of Denim Buffalo Films, is also a painter, and his other films include the 2016 documentary “The No Hand King,” about Raleigh trick-rider Rodney Hines.
Shanahan previously worked with French on “The Fox Hunter,” which stars Raleigh institution Ira David Wood III and is currently in post-production. Things went well enough for French, who is chairman/CEO of the PR firm French/West/Vaughan, to bring Shanahan (co-owner of the downtown Raleigh bar Watts & Ward) into one of his long-time passion projects, a film about Holly and the early rock era.
Much of “Clear Lake” will be set during a 1958 “Biggest Show of Stars” tour that Holly did with Clarence Collins, founder of the seminal 1950s-vintage soul group Little Anthony and the Imperials. Racial issues are a major plot point, which should set “Clear Lake” apart from “The Buddy Holly Story” — the 1978 biopic that launched Gary Busey to stardom.
“Buddy Holly and Clarence Collins are vessels for the film,” said Shanahan. “It’s more about the culture of a time period than a biopic. It’s about how rock and roll was the beginning of the end of segregation.”
Shanahan has finished the screenplay, and casting will begin this fall ahead of shooting next spring. Meanwhile, he’ll also be opening a West Coast office for Prix Productions in Los Angeles. Upcoming projects include a documentary about world hunger.
The film industry in North Carolina needs repairing, Shanahan said.
“I want to bring filmmaking back to North Carolina someday,” Shanahan said. “But at this time in my career, it’s either fight politicians or inspire audiences. I chose the latter.”