Arkansas making its name in the movies
In the past, says Kerri Elder, owner and executive producer at Fayetteville's production and media company Rockhill Studios, Arkansas lost a lot of talent in the television and film production arena.
"They were leaving the state to seek more jobs," she notes. "They were going to states like Louisiana and Georgia, because those states were the most competitive as far as production facilities and state incentives were concerned."
One of those young talents was Kerri's son, Blake Elder, now president of Rockhill Studios, who left Arkansas for New York City in 2008 in order pursue a career in television and film production.
"I was doing entry-level production assistant work in New York to get my feet wet," he says. "I picked up a lot of experience and worked with other professionals, and when I started working with other locals here, I realized their professionalism and skill level was top notch. Everything just kind of started making sense and pointing in an upward direction for the industry here."
The duo were so confident that the area was ready to compete for more projects in movies and television that they started their own production and media company. The grand opening for Rockhill Studios and Rockhill Media was last April, and they've stayed consistently busy since. Rockhill worked on the feature film "F.R.E.D.I." -- shot almost entirely in Bentonville, the film won Best of the Fest at the Bentonville Film Festival -- and "To The Stars," starring Malin Akerman, which was just accepted for a screening at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. They're currently working on post-production on "Sweet Inspiration," a film shot mostly in Fayetteville in July and August. That film will screen in Fayetteville at the end of January.
"I would say that the main reason that we wanted to put a studio in Northwest Arkansas was not just from a business standpoint -- that wasn't it at all," says Kerri Elder. "Really, it was that the state needed a facility in order to compete with other states in the country. It's very competitive, getting a production into a state. We wanted to be able to provide a facility where we could hire some in-house people and bring more and more productions in to facilitate that, so the jobs can stay here, in state."
There's little doubt that things are on an uphill swing in that arena: In addition to the films that Rockhill has worked on, an entire season of HBO's "True Detective" was shot in Fayetteville over the summer, and HGTV shot the home renovation reality television show "Almost Home," starring Bentonville's Jenny and Dave Marrs, during the same time period. Those shows are soon to hit the airwaves, giving the scenic views and verdant mountains of Northwest Arkansas a nationwide audience.
"We found Bentonville to be full of wonderful people who greeted our production with open arms, anxious to help us in any way possible," says HGTV's John Feld, senior vice president of original programming. "As in many communities like this, much love and attention to detail was put in the building of these homes. Our attempt is to approach each renovation with the same reverence. The final renovations are all stunning."
The fact that companies are attracted to Northwest Arkansas means a definite economic boost to the area, Kerri Elder says.
"I've spent a lot of time researching the impact, and I know the film commission has, as well," she says. "The best data I found is that when a production comes to an area, it brings with it 1.6 times what the budget is in the form of revenue generated into the local economy.
"And from an art standpoint, we have a tremendous amount of local talent for commercial productions, a lot of which has been outsourced through the years -- but that can change. And it is changing, because of the talent and the facilities. We have a great corporate environment here, and, hopefully, they won't have to outsource so much -- and that's good for the corporate sector, as well as the arts."
"The film commission seeks productions of all scales -- from regional and national commercials to series and feature films," says Arkansas Film Commissioner Christopher Crane. "Each production has something to offer Arkansas in the way of economic benefit because of raw expenditures, jobs and exposure. Sometimes we pursue a project that doesn't come to fruition in the state or at all, and it can take years to close a deal. But each time we have a production crew in the state, it provides another opportunity to impress upon the industry what Arkansas can do for them to make their production successful."
Films in NWA
“The ‘True Detective’ Season 3 production hired over 1,000 Arkansans over the course of eight to 12 months. It brought local jobs for those you’d consider traditionally to be in the film industry – cast and crew – but many other opportunities wouldn’t have happened otherwise such as housing, caterers and other goods. Being set – and filmed – in the state provides a stage for Arkansas to play to people who aren’t familiar with the landscape and culture. What we provide to the film industry is what we offer to any other new business – professionalism, hard workers, hospitality and a good business proposition. This season is getting a tremendous amount of positive buzz, for the storyline and its actors. That can only lead to more productions seeking to film in Arkansas, bringing new money and more jobs into our economy.” – Mike Preston, AEDC executive director