South Carolina’s commercial film industry is almost as old as filmmaking itself. The first documented filmed images of South Carolina were in newsreels taken at the 1902 Charleston Exposition.
South Carolina’s commercial film industry is almost as old as filmmaking itself. The first documented filmed images of South Carolina were in newsreels taken at the 1902 Charleston Exposition. Motion pictures as novelty and entertainment became popular in the first decade of the twentieth century. The early motion picture industry developed on the East Coast, primarily in New York City. However, lower production costs and a better climate prompted the industry to relocate many productions southward. The first fictional production made in South Carolina was The Southerners in 1914. A Civil War film, it highlighted the scenery of the lowcountry and used Citadel cadets in the re-created battle scenes. Working in the South was enticing enough for film companies to create South Carolina’s first commercial film studio in Charleston’s Princess Theater.
The leadership of Charleston realized that having motion picture productions in town was good for the economy. In 1916 the Chamber of Commerce established a Department of Publicity to actively recruit production companies. Their efforts were successful, and at least ten productions were filmed as a direct result of their promotion. Activity continued at a rapid pace until World War I, when local interest in film production was diverted elsewhere. Nevertheless, numerous other films were made throughout the 1920s, including Pied Piper Malone (1924), which was filmed in Georgetown. After the 1920s the Hollywood studio system reigned and production outside of California was severely limited. However, three pictures of note were filmed in South Carolina because of the need for special on-location shots: Carolina (1933) was filmed at the Rankin Plantation (The Columns) near Florence; A Guy Named Joe (1944) used the airfields at Sumter and Columbia; and Reap the Wild Wind (1942), an Academy Award winner, was the first South Carolina picture filmed in Technicolor. Although Hollywood found it desirable to film in the Palmetto State on an intermittent basis, the state abandoned actively petitioning for their business. One reason was because Hollywood films throughout this period frequently perpetuated the stereotypes of southerners as plantation owners, eccentrics, hicks, or buffoons.
The stagnant economy of the 1970s prompted the state government to revisit the idea of luring productions to South Carolina. The studio system of old had been dying a slow death, stereotypes had softened, and filmmakers routinely filmed on location. Other southern states competed vigorously for their share in millions of production dollars. Not to be left out, Governor John West, through the Arts Commission, launched a campaign to promote film production in South Carolina. Although there was sporadic success throughout the 1970s, by 1980 the efforts reached fruition when the South Carolina Film Office was established. This office worked closely with arts, tourism, and development groups to foster a local support industry and to facilitate motion picture production. Within three years the office was credited with generating a statewide economic impact of almost $30 million. Since the establishment of the Film Office, South Carolina can boast that hundreds of movies, television episodes, and commercials have been made by major and independent producers throughout the state, including such critical and commercial successes as The Big Chill (1983), Daughters of the Dust (1991), The Prince of Tides (1991), Forrest Gump (1994), The Patriot (2000), The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000), Radio (2002), and Cold Mountain (2003).
Campbell, Edward. The Celluloid South. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1981.
French, Warren, ed. The South and Film. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1981.
Kirby, Jack Temple. Media-Made Dixie. Rev. ed. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986.
Miller, Whitney. “The History of South Carolina’s Film Industry 1902–1990.” Master’s thesis, University of South Carolina, 1996.
Thompson, Frank. Lost Films: Important Movies That Disappeared. Secaucus, N.J.: Carol, 1996.