By David Conrads
BENTON COUNTY — Nobody has ever mistaken Hiwasee for Hollywood, but there’s no doubt that more and more moviemaking has been going on of late in Northwest Arkansas. Spectacular scenery, financial incentives, two full-service film studios, a growing crew base and a most hospitable populace have all worked to make NWA – and the state as a whole – an increasingly desirable place to make movies.
In recent years, film production here has increased exponentially. HBO shot the third season of its popular True Detective anthology series in Fayetteville a few years ago. Numerous other features – some locally produced, some from out of state – have been shot in NWA. One Hollywood producer, after shooting two features in NWA, liked it so much he moved to the area and plans to make more movies here.
What’s causing this wave of film activity in NWA? Kalene Griffith, president and CEO of Visit Bentonville, thinks she knows.
“The Bentonville Film Festival [BFF] introduced our area to producers and directors who would not have known about Arkansas and the beauty and the attractiveness here when they are looking for locations,” she said. “That spawned the leaders in our community to look at the film industry in a different way. It introduces our area as a destination through film.”
The NWA Film & Entertainment Commission, known as FILMNWA, was started in 2015 to pool the resources of the various cities in the area. Each invests in the program, and the region is marketed as a whole in different publications. Representatives from each city also cooperate on things like permitting and local regulations, thereby minimizing potential red tape connected with shooting in various communities.
FILMNWA also helps producers with things like location scouting, casting, staffing the crew and tending to just about any detail with which a producer might need help.
“If someone needs a black dog, we find them a black dog,” Griffith said. “We make it as easy as possible for people to film in this area. They have limited challenges here because all of our cities understand that the film industry is an economic benefit to the community.”
A check in the mail
One of the biggest factors attracting film productions to NWA and to Arkansas as a whole is the financial incentives offered by the state, which gives film producers a rebate of 20 percent on goods and services purchased from Arkansas vendors and 30 percent on wages paid to Arkansas residents.
Unlike a tax credit, which would offer no benefit to an out-of-state producer without a tax liability in the state, a rebate is a check in the mail. A producer spending $500,000 on salaries paid to Arkansas residents will get back $150,000. That same amount spent on catering, lodging and transportation results in a $100,000 rebate from the state.
It was the BFF that introduced Johnny Remo, CEO of SkipStone Pictures, to NWA. But it was primarily the state film incentives and the welcoming community that motivated him to move his base of operation this year from Los Angeles. Remo had never been to Arkansas until he attended the BFF in 2015. His entry, Saved by Grace, had been shot in Mississippi the year before.
“Having never been to Arkansas, I assumed it would be similar to Mississippi,” he said. “To my surprise, I found out it was way more diverse and progressive. I had the script of F.R.E.D.I. at that point, and when I came to Bentonville and saw the square and the incredibly warm and fuzzy town, I knew I had to shoot F.R.E.D.I. there.”
Remo did indeed shoot the film F.R.E.D.I. in Benton ville in 2017. The film won the “Best of the Fest” audience award at the 2018 BFF.
“It’s like a back lot,” Remo said of the town. “We had amazing local sponsors and incredible support from lots of people…They did everything they could do to make us really welcome here.”
Remo shot his next feature, Max Winslow and the House of Secrets, in NWA. At its premiere in Bentonville in July 2019, Remo announced that, after more than 20 years in Los Angeles, he planned to move himself, his family and his production company and set up shop in NWA. He also announced an ambitious plan of making three feature films a year in Arkansas, starting in late 2020.
Remo’s decision was precipitated partly by the convenience and economy of living in the area and support from local communities, but the rebates clinched the deal.
Selling the virtues of Arkansas to the rest of the country is not a new thing. In the late 1970s, the state established a film commission department within the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, mainly in an effort to recruit the CBS miniseries The Blue and the Gray, efforts that proved to be successful. The state legislature passed the “Nickel Rebate” that year, purported to be the first financial incentive in the nation offered by a state to attract film production.
The incentives have increased over the years. One passed in 2009 enabled Arkansas to get Mud, with Matthew McConaughey in the lead role, shot in Dumas, Stuttgart, Crocketts Bluff and other locations in southeast Arkansas.
Growing the crew base
Christopher Crane, who has a background in both the performing arts and politics, was named Arkansas Film Commissioner in 2007. His ultimate goal is making Arkansas a place that is not only attractive for producers to come and shoot, but a place where there is sufficient, consistent work that film professionals at all levels can live and work in the state.
“Historically, people thought you had to move elsewhere to be successful,” he said. “That’s part of what we’re trying to combat. We have a long history of exporting the content makers instead of the actual content. That’s truly backwards. Our ultimate goal is for people to be able to work in the place where they also want to live, raise a family, and play.”
In 2009, the commission conducted an economic impact study of the film industry in the state. One of the conclusions the study reached was that Arkansas was lacking in basic bricks-and-mortar infrastructure — namely, film studios. Without these, producers from elsewhere could take advantage of the Arkansas landscape for exterior scenes but would generally need to go elsewhere to shoot extended-term interiors.
That started to change a few years ago. In 2017, filmmaker Blake Elder and his mother, Kerri Elder, a businesswoman with experience in real estate and finance, opened Rockhill Studios in Fayetteville. Rockhill is a full-service film and video studio that includes a 4,500-square-foot soundstage, editing facilities, a dressing room, hair and makeup room – pretty much everything a film production needs. Rockhill can also provide film producers with a wide range of services, like location scouting, hiring of cast and crew, accounting and assistance with applying for financial incentives.
Kerri Elder said, “We can turnkey any project, whether it’s TV or film.”
Rockhill has also served as executive producer for a number of feature films, the majority of which were shot in Arkansas, including 44 Pages (2017), F.R.E.D.I., Sweet Inspirations (2019), The Quarry (2020), To the Stars (2020), as well as Freedom’s Path and American Cherry, both of which will be released later this year or in early 2021.
“Our goal is to shoot 90 percent of our movies in Arkansas,” Elder said. “We also want to support and grow the crew base and the talent base in the state, so that when a film or TV show comes here, we can support that through personnel and infrastructure and gear rental and things like that.”
Rockhill is not the only facility of its kind in NWA. In early 2019, Zak Heald, a local filmmaker, and Jason Netter, a Los Angeles-based producer, opened Farm Studio in the Benton County community of Hiwasee. With a 10,000-square-foot soundstage, production facilities and plans for expansion, Farm Studio claims to be the largest of its kind in the state. Heald described it as “a big, empty white canvas that you can make into whatever you want.”
Heald and Netter met in 2015 at the BFF and collaborated on several projects after that. The following year, they sat down and dreamed up what a studio in NWA would look like.
“We both saw the potential for our region for film to be successful here and for a really booming film industry,” Heald said. “The state incentives are great. We have real diverse geography across the state. One thing we knew we were lacking was basic infrastructure.”
What Arkansas needs
What does Arkansas and NWA need to grow the film industry here?
“What we really need is to have a three- to five-person depth at each position,” said Kerri Elder, referring to the production people available in Arkansas. “We have the ability to staff every position on a feature film. What we don’t have is depth to support growth in the industry.”
Film Commissioner Crane agrees that the state needs to be growing its crew base at the same time that it’s growing the industry. They go hand in hand.
“It’s a balancing act,” Crane said. “If we recruited 10 films that are filming simultaneously, we would not have the crew base to support them effectively. Therefore, we would have substantial economic leakage because the crew would have to come for other markets.”
He said Arkansas needs to do at least six or seven smaller features a year to keep the crew base that’s here busy on a consistent basis, then try to grow that base through film professionals moving here from out of state and young people coming out of Arkansas colleges and universities, many of which have excellent film programs.
When Remo hires a crew for one of his productions, he finds that he is able to hire local people for some departments, but not all of them. There is no shortage of good production assistants, many of them students or graduates of John Brown University in Siloam Springs, but he has needed to bring in sound recorders, assistant directors, production designers and other department heads from elsewhere.
He noted, for instance, that the duties of an assistant director are very specific and require, among other things, a deep knowledge with the rules and procedures of the Screen Actors Guild. There’s no substitute for working on a lot of films in a more junior position, which is much easier to do in places like Los Angeles, New York and Atlanta.
“It’s easier to get certain types of experience in Los Angeles than it is here in Arkansas,” Remo said. “As we make more movies here, hopefully we can bridge that gap and help these hard working men and women stay in Arkansas and gain that experience.”
Mitchell Crisp, a Little Rock-based production designer who learned her craft during 13 years in New York before returning to her hometown in 2003, says it’s still necessary for young people wanting to pursue a film career to go elsewhere to get their start.
“There isn’t enough infrastructure yet to keep people here,” she said. “You still have to move away and get some training somewhere else and come back. But it’s getting better.”
Heald loves the film incentives but wishes it were possible for producers to have a slate of films — two or more films under a single budget — approved by the film commission. Heald also wishes the money for the rebates was part of the state budget and did not come out of the governor’s discretionary fund. This would make the availability of the rebates more predictable and encourage producers to make longer-term commitments to filming in Arkansas.
“We’re a project-by-project state,” Crane said, addressing the question of approving slates of film. He noted that once a film is approved and the incentive agreement is signed, principle photography must start within six months. “A slate of films isn’t going to meet that obligation.”
As to the money coming out of the governor’s discretionary funds, Crane points out that Arkansas is a small state with limited resources. Where some states might tie their incentives to things like mineral rights or the like, that isn’t possible here. The present system also gives the governor some flexibility with funds, which made it possible for Arkansas to get True Detective.
“It’s not a perfect system,” Crane acknowledged. “Some people are happy with it, and some people aren’t. Obviously it works, because we’ve got people consistently making films here. And I think the long-term prospects of the film industry in Arkansas are better than they have ever been.”