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Southeastern exposure for Net films

Industry Standard

(IDG) -- Pretty much anyone can get a permit to shoot a film in Wilmington, N.C. Which is why on a windy Saturday, Parker Webb is getting paid nothing to lie on the pavement at the corner of Market and Fifth, dressed like a homeless person and holding a lit cigar. It's why sound engineer Al Yelton, whose credits include some 35 feature films, is standing patiently beside the film's 27-year-old director, Buckley Hubbard. And why four production assistants in orange vests are stopping traffic long enough for Webb to get up, run across the street and bump into an old man. Webb is playing "The Dude," one of the main characters in an interactive film being shot by Cinema Next, a tiny Wilmington company hoping to make it big in Internet film.

While Net film limps along behind the recent flameouts of L.A.-based film sites Digital Entertainment Network and, a small community of filmmakers in this picturesque Southern town soldiers on, seemingly oblivious to the travails of their counterparts on the West Coast. Budding director Robert Leddy, a New Jersey boy who chose film-friendly Wilmington as the spot to launch his career, is making a series of shorts for AtomFilms. Local brothers Cable and David Hardin are producing an animated series for film site And then there's John Paul Flick, Cinema Next's aptly named founder and the man responsible for the guy with the cigar running loose downtown.

Flick is one of Wilmington's most ardent Internet film boosters. He considers his company's first film, Dual, his ticket to the big time. A spoof of Steven Spielberg's directorial debut, Flick's movie is about a jogger being chased by a mysterious, Sasquatch-looking guy, The Dude. "People in Hollywood will definitely snicker," the 26-year-old Flick says. "It will get their attention."

Flick, a native of Norman, Okla., moved to Wilmington with his wife 11 months ago after getting his communications degree at Middle Tennessee State. He'd heard the buzz about the film scene here and decided it would be a good place to launch an Internet film business.

Long before Flick discovered Wilmington, the sleepy town had caught Hollywood's eye. The historic downtown butts up against the slow-moving Cape Fear River. It's a ready-made set: old brick buildings with low-slung front porches, fountains in the streets, and on-location filming options from beaches to battleships to antebellum plantations. In addition to more than 80 feature films, including Blue Velvet and I Know What You Did Last Summer, Dawson's Creek and various movie-of-the week projects are shot in Wilmington.

Working in this idyllic setting, Flick easily ignores the high-profile flops that have proven how difficult it is to succeed in Net film. "The way I look at it," Flick says, "if we get the popular vote of the people, there will be a demand for what we're doing."

With all of 11 months' experience running his Internet company, Flick talks with the confidence of a veteran. It's more than just slapping up a film on a Web site, he explains. Cinema Next's productions will not only include features like those on DVDs -- such as actor bios, clickable credits and behind-the-scenes documentaries -- but viewers will also be able to choose what happens next at various points to the main characters.

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While his ideas may be big, Flick's methods are small. With a budget of less than $6,000 for Dual, expenses are forcibly kept low. Most of his production staff works for free. If Cinema Next needs to build its Web staff, it can draw from the pool of techies in the nearby Research Triangle Park area. Add the low cost of living and the collegial network of filmies willing to bend over backward to help each other and, as Flick says, "It's just more doable here."

After graduating from Ithaca College with a film degree, Dual's director Hubbard moved to Wilmington at the urging of relatives in North Carolina who assured him that it would be a better place than cutthroat Los Angeles to start his film career. Hubbard met Flick at Wilmington's annual Cucalorus independent film festival in May and they soon got cooking on Dual.

Like the town's other filmmakers, Flick and Hubbard are inspired by Screen Gems Studios. Screen Gems President Frank Capra Jr. -- son of legendary It's a Wonderful Life director Frank Capra -- plays benevolent godfather to the North Carolina film industry. Capra Jr. arrived in 1996 to take over the studio originally formed by Dino De Laurentiis, who was charmed by the city after shooting the 1984 movie Firestarter in Wilmington. With the production side of films like The Year of the Dragon and The Road to Wellville to its credit, Screen Gems brings in the work indie filmmakers need to fund their own projects and lends legitimacy to the town.

For all his Hollywood clout, locals say Capra is remarkably accessible. He remembers names and returns calls. And while he isn't a crusader for Internet film, he does muse about a future in which home screens converge with the Net and interactive entertainment is possible.

As for projects like Cinema Next that hope to use the Internet as a distribution medium, Capra remains a bemused observer. "I don't think anybody really watches movies on a computer screen," he says. "But I think everybody sees the potential."

Capra's measured view of film on the Internet doesn't dissuade Flick, who hopes to sell Dual to the highest bidder. While he hasn't exactly approached any film sites yet, he figures they're all still looking for content. And though Flick hasn't finished his business plan, he dreams of the day he'll screen Dual on a laptop for a roomful of potential buyers.

Flick isn't the first Net filmmaker to try to get noticed by spoofing a big name director. This spring indie short George Lucas in Love became a cult hit on the Internet. A satire of Shakespeare in Love with a young Lucas struggling in the early days of his career, the short film has been downloaded more than a million times since its April debut and sold 50,000 copies when it was released on DVD. But unlike the unfamiliar format of Flick's interactive Dual, George Lucas in Love was always just a film.

Like most filmies in Wilmington, Dual producer Les Franck ultimately wants to direct traditional movies. Until then Franck is working days at a local film-equipment rental shop. He's unabashed in his opinion of the state of Net film. "Every clown that buys a camcorder now thinks they can make movies," he says.

Cold and tired after a 14-hour day of filming, Hubbard and Flick hang out at a downtown Wilmington brewpub. Two doors up the street are the Cinema Next offices with hardwood floors, a sound studio under construction and film-editing Macs. Windows from one room look into a second-story apartment that Dennis Hopper owns. (Flick is fond of telling the story of how he spotted Hopper walking by the window one day.)

Flick has other things in common with the Hollywood elite. He mentions Matt Damon and Ben Affleck's Internet entertainment project, LivePlanet, while nudging an elbow toward Hubbard.

"We're kind of like them, but they're doing it part time," he says. "We figure full time but not famous kind of equals part time and famous."

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