Bentonville gets the ball rolling on film pro­duc­tion

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - OUR TOWN - SIERRA MUR­PHY

A cloud­less Sun­day sky of­fered no re­lief to the pro­duc­tion crew shuf­fling two cam­eras and three ac­tors through traf­fic and around the Bentonville square ear­lier this month. Af­ter their hour-long lunch break, ev­ery­one was back to work cre­at­ing FREDI, a fam­ily-friendly ac­tion­ad­ven­ture slated to hit the­aters in the sum­mer of 2018.

Warm, but wet, hand tow­els were re­placed with ice-cold tow­els to de­fend against heat ex­haus­tion. Clips were run, re­run, and the pro­duc­tion crew con­tin­ued to mi­grate equip­ment down the square as the as­sis­tant di­rec­tor and di­rec­tor jogged ahead to scope out the next scene.

Bentonville is in what some have dubbed its “beta stage” of film pro­duc­tion, and Visit Bentonville

di­rec­tor Ka­lene Grif­fith has worked with lo­cal busi­nesses, tal­ent and crews like FREDI’s to en­sure that it doesn’t stay that way.

Grif­fith cred­its Bentonville’s tran­si­tion from busi­ness to tourism to the open­ing of Crys­tal Bridges Mu­seum of Amer­i­can Art in 2011; as a des­ti­na­tion, it brings in about half a mil­lion

dol­lars an­nu­ally. Apart from that, Northwest Arkansas ho­tels and restau­rants have seen an 8 to 15 per­cent in­crease in tax col­lec­tion in the last six years, and Grif­fith said the num­bers don’t show signs of re­ced­ing.

“We con­tinue to have new and ex­cit­ing things hap­pen­ing, which will con­tinue to in­crease that op­por­tu­nity of peo­ple choos­ing us as a tourism des­ti­na­tion.”

Culi­nary, cy­cling and arts are ever-de­vel­op­ing in­ter­ests all of Northwest Arkansas is nur­tur­ing, and Grif­fith doesn’t hes­i­tate to throw in a fourth — film.

“We’re con­tin­u­ing to grow our re­sources,” Grif­fith said. “We’re get­ting di­rec­tors and pro­duc­ers to film in our re­gion.”

The lat­est pro­duc­tion, Fu­ture Ro­bot­ics En­gi­neer­ing De­sign In­no­va­tion or FREDI for short, is about a re­la­tion­ship be­tween a boy grow­ing up in a di­vorced home and the ro­bot he finds and even­tu­ally be­friends. Pro­duc­ers and di­rec­tors pride them­selves on FREDI be­ing a “good, clean” film.

“It harkens back to ev­ery­thing that I love about movies,” di­rec­tor Sean Ol­son said. “It’s kind of an ’80s style movie. It’s rem­i­nis­cent of Zo­di­acs of the Fu­ture, The Goonies — a time when kids rode bikes and went on ad­ven­tures.”

For FREDI specif­i­cally, Grif­fith got con­nected with Johnny Remo, FREDI’s pro­ducer, and Ol­son at the Bentonville Film Fes­ti­val, hosted by Geena Davis and Trevor Drinkwa­ter. It was through the fes­ti­val that Remo got in­tro­duced to Bentonville and even­tu­ally “fell in love.”

“I di­rected a film here two years ago called ‘Saved by Grace’ which stars Joey Lawrence,” Remo be­gan. “And we were in com­pe­ti­tion in the Bentonville Film Fes­ti­val, which is great. They were great here.

“I had the [FREDI] script for about three years now. As soon as I came here and saw the place, I went, ‘This is the per­fect, per­fect spot to do this.’”

Born and raised in Mi­ami, Fla., Remo had never heard of Bentonville. But through the Bentonville Film Fes­ti­val, he got con­nected with peo­ple like Grif­fith and is back to film again. On par with Grif­fith’s goal of unit­ing Northwest Arkansas in film pro­duc­tion so out-of-town­ers can “eas­ily tran­si­tion from com­mu­nity to com­mu­nity,” Remo is also shoot­ing FREDI in Fayetteville and at Crys­tal Bridges Mu­seum.

Even though pro­duc­tion wrapped up July 15, Grif­fith said the last­ing ef­fects of film­ing a pro­duc­tion in Northwest Arkansas are ev­i­dent.

“Just in the two weeks that we’ve had FREDI, we’ve al­ready seen a to­tal in­ter­net reach of half a mil­lion [peo­ple],” Grif­fith said.

In pub­lic­ity value — or the amount of money Visit Bentonville did not have to pay to ad­ver­tise in a par­tic­u­lar pub­li­ca­tion — Grif­fith re­ported or­ga­ni­za­tions like Skip­stone Pic­tures and

US Daily are con­tribut­ing $10,000 to $12,000 worth of pub­lic­ity for the city of Bentonville.

The Bentonville Film Fes­ti­val did some­thing sim­i­lar. The Northwest Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette pre­vi­ously re­ported the first year of the fes­ti­val drew “an es­ti­mated 50 film­mak­ers and 37,000 at­ten­dees.” Re­ports an­nounc­ing the 2016 fes­ti­val dates re­ported the fes­ti­val gen­er­ated “more than $1 mil­lion in busi­ness for the lo­cal econ­omy” in its in­au­gu­ral year.

It’s those kinds of tan­gi­ble fig­ures that en­cour­aged peo­ple like Kerri Elder of Rock­Hill Stu­dios to in­vest in Northwest Arkansas’ film in­dus­try and make it some­thing at­trac­tive to out­siders, while si­mul­ta­ne­ously en­cour­ag­ing lo­cal growth.

Rock­Hill Stu­dios, lo­cated in Fayetteville, houses “a 4,000-square-foot sound-proof sound­stage, tal­ent-prep fa­cil­i­ties, a sta­teof-the-art edit­ing suite and equip­ment and stu­dio rental,” the web­site reads.

A daugh­ter-son duo, Elder part­nered with her son, Blake, when he re­turned from study­ing film pro­duc­tion and cre­at­ing films in New York and else­where eight or nine years ago. Blake and his aunt be­gan pour­ing their pas­sion into cre­at­ing the sound­stage at their Fayetteville lo­ca­tion, and Elder brought her fi­nance ex­pe­ri­ence to the ta­ble to round out their team.

“One of our goals was to fa­cil­i­tate and bring more films to the area,” Elder said. “Now that we would have the in­fras­truc­ture with the stu­dio, we could do so much more.”

Through Bentonville Film Fes­ti­val con­nec­tions, Elder and her son were pitched the FREDI script and de­cided to in­vest in the film, both fi­nan­cially and as ex­ec­u­tive pro­duc­ers. Rock­Hill Stu­dios is also work­ing in as­so­ci­a­tion with Skip­stone Pic­tures on the project.

Elder, too, echoed the need to grow the film in­dus­try Northwest Arkansas has.

“We have to have more projects come here — that’s the only way we’re go­ing to have peo­ple work­ing here, stay­ing here.”

For the film­ing of FREDI, some re­sources were sourced lo­cally, but a good por­tion of the project was brought in from out of state. All of the ac­tors, for ex­am­ple, are from out of town.

The main char­ac­ter, Lu­cius Hoyos, is ac­com­pa­nied by Chloe Lukaziak and Reid Miller. Other cast mem­bers in­clude Texas Bat­tle, Tyler Christo­pher, Christina Cox, Kelly Hu, Casimere Jol­lette and An­gus Mac­fadyen.

Remo also said he flew in about half of the 20-per­son crew. Sev­eral stu­dents from John Brown Univer­sity in Siloam Springs also helped.

While grow­ing the in­dus­try it­self is im­por­tant, Elder said be­ing able to nur­ture the next gen­er­a­tion of lo­cal film­mak­ers is just as im­por­tant as bring­ing films to Northwest Arkansas in the first place.

“What you’ve got now is a qual­i­fied, pro­fes­sional, skilled la­bor pool grad­u­at­ing from four state uni­ver­si­ties, and we have won­der­ful lo­ca­tions and won­der­ful peo­ple want­ing in this in­dus­try,” Elder said. “We are set to move very quickly to a des­ti­na­tion of pro­duc­ers and film­mak­ers.”

Much this work couldn’t be done with­out or­ga­ni­za­tions like Visit Bentonville, the Northwest Arkansas Film Com­mis­sion, the Bentonville Film Fes­ti­val and pro­duc­tions like FREDI, Grif­fith said.

“It’s also an ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­nity for us to know where we’re lack­ing in some things and what we need to work on as a film-friendly des­ti­na­tion.”

NWA DEMO­CRAT-GAZETTE/SIERRA MUR­PHY

An­drew Williams slates a shot in the pro­duc­tion of Fu­ture Ro­bot­ics En­gi­neer­ing De­sign In­no­va­tion or FREDI, for short, on the Bentonville Square. Thanks to the growth of the area, as well as ameni­ties and events, Bentonville in­creas­ingly at­tracts in­ter­est of film­mak­ers

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