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Where is Charlotte's independent film community?



Recently, I had the opportunity to watch Don't Blame the Lettuce, an independent film written, produced and directed by David Jones. Jones is a South Carolina native who honed his skills at the University of South Carolina before moving to Charlotte to pursue his dream of filmmaking. When choosing Charlotte, Jones believed that moving to an emerging metropolis like ours would allow him to get what he needed -- such as equipment and a talented cast and crew. Well, he was able to get all of those things, but the process, he said, was like pulling teeth.

Jones stated: "It's very difficult to get people in Charlotte to work on films. They don't have the commitment like you find in other cities. Many people seem to be all about the money, and not about filmmaking as a craft."

Jones' statement made me think about when I first moved to Charlotte to teach production at Johnson C. Smith University, which at the time had the only comprehensive production program that included radio, television and digital video production. JCSU had the foundation for a great program and eventually we developed a state-of-the-art facility for students. There were definitely students who were willing and able, but they also complained of the lack of opportunities outside of the university -- which is why many bolted for other cities after graduation.

I feel what Jones is saying; I'd worked in film my entire adult life in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles ... but came to a screeching halt here in Charlotte. I met lots of people who talked about making films, but very few who were actually doing it. Initially, I thought it was just in the African-American community, but upon branching out, I learned that there were a lot of pretenders in general in Charlotte. I found that many folks didn't have knowledge of the nuts and bolts of filmmaking (white balancing for instance) and really weren't that interested in the actual production process. In other cities, and not just traditional film cities, that wasn't the case.

Think of the work coming out of locales like Austin, Texas, Philadelphia, Boston and Savannah -- one has to wonder why Charlotte's film community isn't thriving in the same way. We've got a great cost-of-living, nice weather (which is perfect for outside shooting) and I, would argue, some talented people here. Why is there no real community?

Now, let me clarify before you start writing letters: Watching independent films is one thing, but making them is another. Groups like The Charlotte Film Society and Reel Soul Cinema (among others) do an excellent job of screening independent films and making people aware of what's out there. Dennis Darrell, CEO of Reel Soul Cinema, sees the filmmaking community as something real and concrete.

"A community as I see it -- as an active network that comes together to view and make independent films -- we have that," said Darrell. "To demonstrate how much the community is changing, we now have [a number of] groups screening films as opposed to one or two, which is good. The more people, the better."

The Queen City is home to the Charlotte Film Festival, Charlotte Film Society, the Charlotte African-American Film Festival, The Light Factory, and many other celluloid-centric organizations. Each year Delta Sigma Theta Sorority hosts a film festival that features films by black women. Charlotte's got critics, like Creative Loafing's own Matt Brunson, Lawrence Toppman at The Charlotte Observer and more. There's a Charlotte film office that tries to make sure that major motion pictures are shot here. You have folks dedicated to films and film culture like John Schwert, Steve Rutherford, Stephen Lamont, Steve Crump, Jon Strayhorn, Terance Murray, David Jones, Christine Swanson and more. But why are independent filmmakers moving here and then leaving or choosing to shoot their films elsewhere?

Christine Swanson of Faith Filmworks is one of those who opted to leave town. An award-winning filmmaker with the feature films All About You and All About Us under her belt, Swanson moved here from Los Angeles five years ago. She heard that Charlotte was a great town that was family- and faith-oriented, which is what Christine and her husband Michael were seeking for their children. They found those things to be true, but didn't find a thriving film community. The Swansons have decided to pull up stakes and move back to L.A. for various reasons, one of which is the lack of a filmmaking community here.

Don't get me wrong -- I think that Charlotte is the perfect place to build an independent film community. But the fact is that there isn't one.

People are working alone on their projects, making it happen the best way they know how, but they aren't sharing information or resources or collaborative filmmaking processes. And there is a lack of creative energy in Charlotte, which is necessary to create great work. A bunch of little islands are afloat that could come together and be a strong force ... if indeed the desire for a real film community matched the number of folks traipsing around Charlotte calling themselves filmmakers.

David Jones says it best: "With all that Charlotte has to offer, if more people actually took filmmaking seriously, this place would be unstoppable." I agree.

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