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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Dark Horse preps for strikes’ end, invests at least $20M on 2 new state-of-the art film stages

L. to r.: New Hanover representative Deb Butler, Rodney Long, Gov. Roy Cooper, Kirk Englebright and Macey Englebright at the groundbreaking for two new sound stages at Dark Horse Studios in Wilmington. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

WILMINGTON — It may be a slow year for North Carolina’s film industry, due to the strike that shut down productions nationwide, but in Wilmington resources are ramping up for when the cameras are rolling again.

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

Dark Horse Studios, owned by Kirk Englebright and Rodney Long, will be adding two new sound stages at its Harley Road facility. The founders hosted a groundbreaking ceremony Thursday, with Gov. Roy Cooper, area legislators, Wilmington City Council, New Hanover County Board of Commissioners and film industry veterans in attendance.

The second studio in Wilmington, Dark Horse officially opened in 2020. Englebright purchased the former Coastal Beverage Co. facility for $4.8 million in November 2019. The business deal included 11.5 acres and a 90,000-square-foot warehouse and office structure, as well as a 5,000-square-foot office on Green Meadows Drive.

He and Long are investing a little more than $20 million to double the size of the facility.

The two new stages, roughly 20,000-square-feet each, will stand 45 feet with tilt-up concrete, walls almost a foot thick, and a soundproof fortress, “with enough power to light up Wilmington,” Englebright said. Dark Horse will also incorporate stage technology that Englebright, though mum on details, said would be the first of its kind in the state.

“The stages are built to last and so is Dark Horse,” he said. “We intend to build Dark Horse into a studio powerhouse for North Carolina.”

To date, the studio’s two current sound stages — 17,000- and 25,000-square-feet respectively — have been used for seven productions, including the Golden Globe- and Emmy Award-nominated “George and Tammy,” starring Jessica Chastain and Michael Shannon. Showtime’s six-series run about the relationship between country icons George Jones and Tammy Wynette filmed in Wilmington in 2021 and 2022.

The studio was also used for Netflix’s “Florida Man,” Fox’s series “Welcome to Flatch,” and Hallmark’s “USS Christmas.”

“We began by leasing out space to productions trying to learn all we could from each one, asking what we could do to make ourselves better, what we needed to make our facilities more user friendly,” Englebright told a crowd of roughly 100 or so people Thursday.

He also visited studios in Georgia to engage industry professionals on research and design and various vendors needed — from rigging to lighting to virtual set technology. So far Dark Horse has partnerships with Cinelease, Herc Rentals and Atlanta North Studios. 

Though it has been a slow 2023 without productions on site yet, Englebright said Dark Horse is in negotiations with a few projects but couldn’t speak further on them.

Two sound stages have been open at the local studio, with two more slated to come by 2024. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

Plans to expand were first submitted to the New Hanover County technical review committee last December, before the strikes took effect. The entrepreneur wouldn’t confirm the total amount invested so far to convert the Dark Horse campus but told PCD last summer “it was sizable.” 

“We’ve heard from our state legislators and people in Raleigh it’d be nice to see more private investment put into the film industry here in our communities,” Mayor Bill Saffo said during opening remarks at the groundbreaking. “And that is now happening in Wilmington, which I believe is the epicenter of film for the state of North Carolina.”

Currently, statewide there are five studios, with another, Ascent, slated to be built 35 miles east of Raleigh. The last studio to open in Wilmington was EUE/Screen Gems — the largest in the state with 10 sound stages.

“In the early ‘80s, Dino DeLauretiis built the studio here — and we’ve been waiting a long time for another,” Saffo added. 

Englebright said the opportunity to grow Dark Horse even more isn’t off the table, but first things first: getting the current expansion going. The two new stages are slated for completion by 2024.

“When you think of the increases that we’ve had in production over the last couple of years, it’s really exciting,” Gov. Cooper told media, not accounting for the current strike. “And this private investment today is going to make a real difference in our productions in this area.”

Wilmington had a banner year in 2021, contributing more than $300 million to the state’s overall $400-plus million economic impact from film. Cooper attributed it to the strong crew that live in the state, not to mention incentives offered by North Carolina.

Film incentives sunset in 2014, which halted the industry, compiled by another hit: the passing of House Bill 2 in 2016 — which affected transgender people, as it mandated bathrooms to be accessed by people according to the gender on their birth certificates. In essence, it sent Netflix packing — scheduled to film its hit show “Outer Banks” in Wilmington — and deterred other productions from coming in. It also sent many local film workers out of state for jobs.

Gov. Roy Cooper answers media questions at the Dark Horse Studios’ groundbreaking Thursday. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

“We had a lot of working families in the film industry living right here in Wilmington that were driving down to Georgia to get work,” Cooper said. “I remember when I got elected governor that the film business had pretty much dried up. We passed the dumb House Bill 2 and we had messed with the incentives program to really hurt it.”

HB2 has since been repealed and the incentives have been strengthened, now paying out a 25% rebate on qualifying expenses and purchases or rentals made by productions while in-state.

Another bill was posed this year to compel the industry to seek out distressed counties; 70 of North Carolina’s counties have benefited from economic stimulus. Cooper said he would like to see it spread out to the other 30 as well, many located in rural areas.

House Bill 301 would bump the incentive to 35% for projects that roll cameras in counties with lower ratings of economic well-being and that film 75% of the project in those locations.

“But I don’t know if that’s something that can be done this year because they’re close to a finalized budget,” Cooper said.

Saffo homed in on the benefits of the industry going beyond film workers but essentially being a positive “product placement” for Wilmington, as seen in “Iron Man 3,” filmed in 2013. It continues to draw in tourism for people to visit their favorite places that appeared in movies and series. 

For instance, “One Tree Hill” continuously hosts conventions in town, bringing in fans to meet their favorite actors from the show.

L. to r.: Neil Anderson and Luke Waddell, both Wilmington City Council members, with Mayor Bill Saffo and Wilmington Film Commission director Johnny Griffin at Dark Horse Studios. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

ALSO: Looking for favorite film locations? Local launches WisTL to help

Yet, it also provides a boon to small businesses that benefit from 400-crew production teams staying in town for months at a time and needing places to lodge, eat, drink, buy items for the films and more.

“And small business is the backbone of our state,” Cooper added.

New Hanover County commissioner chair Bill Rivenbark agreed. He pointed to a pencil and referenced Pulitzer Prize-winning author Thomas Friedman who once divulged all the financial benefits that derive from making pencils: the trees are planted by a company, then cared for by another, cut down by yet another, so one more company can make the pencils, while another packages them to ship — not to mention all the equipment needed for the process, also sold by additional separate businesses.

“It’s absolutely incredible what it takes to make one pencil,” Rivenbark said. “It’s the same activity we’re gonna have here with Dark Horse.”

Departments are vast on a film set, from locations to art, wardrobe to hair, talent to catering to sound, special effects, camera and more. Englebright worked with the Film Partnership of North Carolina program ahead of the groundbreaking to show the audience how a scene is filmed first-hand.

Around 30 people — 12 department heads that work in the industry and 18 interns — came together to house the demonstration. Englebright was the main star.

After putting on a helmet and fire pack, he hopped on a motorcycle to be a part of a live-action scene, jumping through glass and flames, as the crew filmed. The goal was to show the audience the amount of work — and people — it takes to film even a 45-second shot (see the video at the end of the article).

“I’m definitely not Tom Cruise,” Englebright quipped afterward.

Everyone who worked the scene came together over six days and were paid cumulatively at least $55,000, according to Susi Hamilton, one of the Film Partnership of North Carolina’s founders.

The organization launched in 2021 with $400,000 in grant funding from Wilmington but since has gained financial and professional support from the City of Winston Salem, New Hanover County, City of Wilmington, Wilmington Regional Film Commission, Cape Fear Community College, N.C. Film Office, Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina, and the North Carolina School of the Arts.

It has worked with 90 interns to date. Forty percent of its interns have come from historically under-served communities in the industry; 94% graduated from IATSE’s RIDE program (Recognizing Individual Differences Exist) and Cape Fear Community College.

“Our primary goal is to create a pipeline of diverse, well-trained and an inclusive workforce through collaboration with community and industry partners,” Hamilton said. 

Since March 2022 its 90 interns have worked on nine productions for Paramount, Lionsgate, and Searchlight. They are paid $15 an hour to gain real-life experience on set.  

The strike halted their jobs.

“How would we train and grow our future workforce with no work coming in the near future?” she asked rhetorically. “We’re finding our way. For the first time since the program began, we’ve engaged with local film professionals who are home, and they have been more than willing to help educate a new workforce by sharing their craft.”

Englebright said Dark Horse Studios will provide more ways to grow a crew base in Wilmington, which according to the N.C. Film Office website contains more than 500 workers locally.

“The game plan is just to have a presence in Hollywood,” Englebright added, “put a spotlight on us and show we have a workforce to be reckoned with.”


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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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