Monday, July 15, 2024

Could Wilmington benefit from another film studio? It already is.

It’s the latest addition to the Wilmington film industry, owned and operated by Kirk Englebright. Dark Horse is fully functional and has booked seven productions in 18 months, even though the studio has yet to be officially unveiled. (Courtesy Rebel)

WILMINGTON — A chandelier, rigged with 10 sparking devices, is hung on a ⅜-inch cable in front of a green screen. Upon its release, it will fall onto a Christmas tree, also rigged to flare. 

It’s not everyday permits show approval for pyrotechnics unless it’s for public fireworks displays outdoors, most notably near July 4.

READ MORE: Catch up on film news from Port City Daily

But in March a unique request was put in for the Paramount production of “George and Tammy” — a mini-series about ‘70s country crooners George Jones and Tammy Wynette. Starring Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain, it’s one of the few productions that wrapped in Wilmington in 2022 and utilized multiple locations during its five-month stint.

A 2nd Street alleyway became Nashville’s music row. Popular Ruth’s Kitchen was a backdrop for diner scenes. The Carolinian Inn worked for interior and exterior motel scenes. Sparks were flying for Christmas at Dark Horse Studios on Harley Road.

It’s the latest addition to the Wilmington film industry, owned and operated by Kirk Englebright. Dark Horse is fully functional and has booked seven productions in 18 months, even though the studio has yet to be officially unveiled.

In November 2019, Englebright purchased the former Coastal Beverage Co. facility on Harley Road for $4.8 million, according to the Wilmington Business Journal, under Englebright and Long Holdings, for which he is a managing partner. The business deal included 11.5 acres and a 90,000-plus-square-foot warehouse and office structure, as well as a 5,000-square-foot office on Green Meadows Drive.

Englebright was going to rent out the property to tenants and utilize some of it for his other retail businesses — A Goodnight Sleepstore, Wilmington Furniture and Mattress Co. and The Mattress Capital in the area.

“But then the world shut down,” he said.

Covid-19 hit by March 2020. Englebright had been sitting on the property for six months.

“And the first call that came was Hollywood,” he said. “We didn’t think too much of it. The space was empty, so of course we said, ‘Gladly, come on in.’”

Two months later another production called.

EUE/Screen Gems Studios has been the local industry’s heartbeat since the first production, “Firestarter,” set up in 1984. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

Growing Hollywood East

By mid-2020, Wilmington was gaining speed again in the film business. It was coming off a busy year in 2019 ($131 million), but when Covid shuttered productions, there was a fear it would stall momentum.

It did not.

Features like ​​”Scream,” “The Black Phone,” and “ISS,” as well as series “This Country,” “USS Christmas,” and “Hightown” set up across town. 

North Carolina benefited from the industry’s early return to filming amid a pandemic. Covid-19 infection rates remained lower in Wilmington than larger cities and ably kept spread minimal as productions put safety and health protocols in place. Crew members were required to remain masked, sometimes doubly, as well as undergo Covid-19 tests multiple times a week — a convention that continues today. 

Many productions operated off the EUE/Screen Gems lot — the largest studio in North Carolina. Founded by Dino DeLaurentiis and built in 1985, Screen Gems takes up 43 acres off 23rd Street and has housed over 400 productions on its 10 stages in 40 years. 

READ MORE: After Covid-19 hiatus, Wilmington film industry comes alive again with multiple productions underway

It has been the local industry’s heartbeat since the first production, “Firestarter,” set up in 1984.

By fall 2020 the film commission had received 50 requests for information on shooting in the area. 

Screen Gems vice president Bill Vassar told Port City Daily last year all 10 sound stages were booked in January. By spring, most productions had wrapped and space opened again.

READ MORE: ‘If we had 6 to 8 more stages, we likely would fill them’: Streaming demand takes over Screen Gems

Englebright said Dark Horse picked up some of the runover.

By the end of the year, over $300 million funneled into Wilmington (over $400 million statewide). At its height, more than 1,300 people gained employment. It was the most money the southeastern N.C. region ever benefited from the film industry in one year. 

Griffin said, despite the uptick in business, he did not turn away productions.

“There have been very, very few projects we have lost through the years due to lack of space,” he said. 

The film industry’s health really comes down to the incentive that drives productions, he explained. North Carolina offers a 25% rebate, which is paid through the North Carolina Film and Entertainment Grant. TV productions have to spend a minimal $500,000 per episode, while features must have a minimum $1.5-million spend. 

The grant is capped at $31 million every July 1 through June 30, with unused funds carrying over year to year.

States with multiple studios seemingly have fewer restrictions with the incentive.

“Georgia is what I call ‘wide open,’” Griffin said. “Ours has some guardrails in it, so to speak.”

Georgia was the front-runner nationwide in issuing tax credits to productions last year at $1.2 billion. Its credit — not a rebate — does not have a cap and refunds up to 30%, with a minimum spend of $500,000 per production. 

Likewise, the Peach State has grown its studio base over the last decade to include Tyler Perry, Turner, Trilluth (formerly Pinewood), and Blackhall studios — all multi-soundstage facilities.

As to whether another studio in Wilmington would catapult projects locally, Griffin said it’s the age-old question: Which comes first — the chicken or the egg?

In his two-plus decades at the Wilmington Film Commission, he said he has fielded calls intermittently about bringing in more studios. Independent investors often ask for information and data on local trends to assess possibilities.

“But it’s not like Warner Brothers calls or Netflix calls and says, ‘Hey, we want to put a studio in your town,’” he said.

At least not yet. 

In 2020 Griffin said he received four or five calls from interested parties  — “the most I’ve had in one year.” 

Years ago, he remembered a group in Brunswick County tried to launch a studio.

“It always seemed a bit speculative, not quite buttoned up, so to speak,” he said. “But no one has ever come to the table and said, ‘OK, we have the money, we have the backing, and we’re gonna pull the trigger on this and do it.’”

Last fall, Port City Daily obtained a public records request from UNCW showing talks were underway of a studio possibly heading to campus. The university started its film department in 2003 and launched its graduate program over a decade later. Last year, it opened its new University Film Center.

An email carbon copied to John Monteith of Monteith Construction, Chip Mahan of Live Oak Bank, Bruce Cameron of Cameron Management, Brittany Cosgrove of fintech company Canapi Ventures, and Judy Girard, founder of GLOW Academy, stated: “a smaller group of us are thinking about Movie Studios here in ILM. Ready to open up to larger Group.”

“Outer Banks” director Jonas Pate reached out to Live Oak Bank’s Neil Underwood shortly thereafter: “Feels like we have a great opportunity to build a state-of-the-art studio, grow the industry in NC, and train the next generation of crew.”

Meetings were set up with then-Chancellor Jose Sartarelli last July. Talks fizzled out months later and nothing came into fruition. 

An official unveiling is planned soon for a new studio in Wilmington, Dark Horse, located on Harley Road. (Courtesy Rebel)

‘We’re going to make it feel like Hollywood’

Englebright remains mum for now on how many soundstages he envisions on the property and the scope of Dark Horse’s end-result. An official unveiling is planned soon, he assured. 

“Once we build out the studio, we’re going to make it feel like Hollywood — it’s going to have curb appeal,” Englebright said.

According to his LinkedIn profile, Dark Horse offers “a unique mix of space, lighting, sound and scenery advantages” and “one stop for all production needs.” It’s multifaceted for the use of films, series, commercials, gamers, and YouTubers.

“My vision is to deliver a space where filmmakers can tell his or her story,” Englebright said. 

Last year on the property, permits show a water tank was constructed for Netflix’s “Florida Man” — yet to be released.

Englebright plans to include state-of-the-art technology in tilt-up concrete stages, which essentially means they’re soundproofed. Dark Horse will have a noise coefficient rate of 25 — the industry standard, he confirmed.

“To achieve this, the interiors of the massive concrete walls are covered in blankets of glass-wool faced with fiberglass cloth,” Englebright said. “A layer of flameproof foil encases the insulation, called ‘insulquilt.’ This is superior to metal sound stages.”

There will be additional offices and support spaces.

NC Film Office lists three studios across the state currently, including Wilmington’s Screen Gems (which also operates facilities in Miami and Atlanta), Trailblazers in Raleigh and Creative Network Studios in Charlotte. The latter are smaller operations without more than two stages each.

“Charlotte does a lot of commercial work,” Griffin said, “especially built around the NASCAR industry.”

Driver Joey Logano built Clutch Studios in Huntersville with one soundstage. It offers services in marketing, branding and creative content specifically for athletes, entertainers and businesses.

However, a film or series normally has larger needs than one soundstage can offer, Griffin explained. For instance, on the backlot of Screen Gems during the filming of “Scream” in 2020, a hospital was being built on a soundstage before being torn down to construct Stu’s house (the famous murder house of the franchise), while Dewey’s trailer was being erected toward the back of the lot. Simultaneously, other productions filled adjacent stages and offices.

In L.A., Griffin said the breadth of the industry allows for multiple studios to offer prefabbed specialized sets to rent to productions: courtrooms, hospitals, airplanes.

“But Wilmington, being a smaller town with less production,” he said, “you have to say, ‘OK, if we spend X amount of dollars to build a soundstage and just put this one type of set inside of there, are there enough projects shooting in Wilmington that need the interior of an airplane?”

Yet, specialty features and functions are good for optics when courting potential clients. Griffin explained it’s true especially with new technology.

“If we had an LED stage, would that potentially bring some projects here?” he questioned. “Possibly, but it is a gamble. Certainly, that becomes another asset we can market.”

As an example, he pointed to Trilluth in Georgia, which locks in Marvel projects because of its vast capabilities.

“Maybe there’s not the need right now,” Griffin said, “but if somebody builds it now, then they’re on the front edge of that — and, as the business grows, we’re in a position to grow with it.”

2022 has been less fruitful than the previous three years in Wilmington film, with only a handful of productions in town currently. But Griffin is quick to note the industry deals in big numbers, meaning that can change quickly. 

“We don’t add up productions $5 million at a time. We get a TV series, there’s $50 million,” he said. “But we’re still having a very good year historically.”

Englebright has booked two productions this year, with a third coming up. The entrepreneur remains confident on his investment, which — without revealing numbers — he calls “capital intensive.” 

“We saw film revenue spike $100 million over record last year,” he said assuredly.

Griffin continues fielding production calls, as North Carolina is receiving positive attention from recent productions and from large players like Amazon and Netflix, both of which wrapped shows in town last year. Not to mention, the Port City housed movies like “Halloween Kills” and “Scream,” both reaching record numbers at the box office ($131 million and $100 million respectively).  

“I think if another studio came now,” Griffin said, “that certainly just adds to the good news coming out of the state, and would make people look at North Carolina even more seriously, by saying, ‘Wow, another studio came online, things really must be happening there.’”

With an upswing in content being produced by streaming services, he said soundstages are in more demand nowadays, too, especially in a Covid climate. 

Englebright is confident Dark Horse will be a “game-changer.”

“‘If you build it, they will come’ — that has stood true thus far,” he said. “Take a look at Atlanta; investments were made and Hollywood followed. This will hold true to Wilmington as well.”

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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