Slammed by back-to-back Category 5 hurricanes in September, the film industry in the U.S. Virgin Islands slowly is struggling to get back on its feet. “We got hit by Hurricane Irma and then two weeks later by Maria,” said Luana Wheatley, director of the islands’ film office. “That set us back, but we’re open for business. The goal of this office is to put people to work and have an economic impact.”
The islands’ stunning locations have long been a draw to Hollywood filmmakers – The Proud and the Profane, starring William Holden and Deborah Kerr, filmed there in the 1950s, as did Open Water, the 2003 movie about two divers abandoned in shark-infested waters. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button shot there, and so did Twilight: Breaking Dawn – Part I. Late last year, The Bachelor filmed an episode on St. Thomas and St. John.
But there hasn’t been any filming activity there since the hurricanes struck, leaving five dead and the islands’ infrastructure in tatters. “Two Category 5 storms in two weeks – that’s the really unprecedented part of it,” Wheatley told Deadline. “Prior to the hurricanes, I was having discussions with a couple of folks, but there’s not been much discussion since the hurricanes.”
In March, the islands’ first film incentives were approved, offering up to $2.5 million a year in tax credits and rebates, but so far not a single production has applied. “Nobody’s applied,” she said. “All $2.5 million is available. I just need somebody to take advantage of it.”
Wheatley remains optimistic, however. “Assistance from FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers really helped us ramp up our recovery,” she said, “and 700 linemen from all over the country came to help us rebuild our electrical grid.”
Power has returned to 80%-90% of the islands’ population, she said, but cell phone and Internet reception is still “spotty” more than three months after the storms. “I have no phone or Internet service at my house. Those services are spotty right now still.”
Many schools were damaged – some so badly that they’ll never reopen – and many roads were washed out, but that’s no longer a major problem, she said. And tourism, the islands economic engine, “is coming back,” she said. “Cruise ships are back up to their pre-hurricane schedules, and although 70% of the hotel rooms are down, some hotels, villas and Airbnb are back. Housing is not a problem, and units for visiting crews are available.”
English-speaking local crews also are available, she said. “We’ve got assistant director, camera operators, art and marine departments and production assistants. The dollar is our currency, and we have custom waivers for importing and exporting equipment, which is a significant savings. There’s not a lot of equipment on the islands, so you will have to bring in some kind of equipment package. But we’re open for business, and that’s the bottom line.”