Starring: Rockhill Studios
Story by: Matthew Milton
Photos by: Jamison Mosley
There are sound stages with key grips and boom operators working in this progressive community. Towering curtains pull back to reveal green screens that seem to go on for miles. Studio lights beam down a hard glow on a well-prepped set. Here, you’ll find producers and directors. There are aspiring filmmakers getting ready for video editing classes and late-night television hosts wheeling their desks center-stage. You may even catch a glimpse of an Academy Award-winning actor.
It’s not Los Angeles. It’s not New York or Atlanta, either. We’re talking about Fayetteville — and it may just be the Hollywood of the Ozarks.
There’s something happening here. This quiet college town has found itself on the radar of a number of budding filmmakers, producers, writers and directors as an ideal location for their next feature film. And it’s not by accident.
The natural beauty has always been there. Anyone who’s driven up I-49 in autumn, made their way over that last hill as the city of Fayetteville lays out before them, knows that for a fact. It’s the infrastructure that’s new to this mushrooming metropolis. And for that infrastructure, you can thank your Elders — Kerri and her son Blake.
The Elders, both filmmakers, shot a feature film in Northwest Arkansas in 2013 — “Valley Inn.” Blake was living in New York at the time but was born and raised in the Natural State. He’d worked for HBO and A&E as a producer, director of photography and editor. After spending time in Arkansas working on the film, he quickly realized that Fayetteville was where he wanted to be.
“We worked on ‘Valley Inn,’ and we said, ‘Why can’t we keep doing this?’” says Blake. “We wanted to keep making movies here. We went to Chris Crane, film commissioner for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, to see what we could do, what our next steps were. What were some things we, as a state, are missing?”
The answer: Infrastructure and crew depth — and that’s where the Elders would start. One predicated the other, but it would take both to create the type of ecosystem necessary to sustain the culture needed to keep filmmakers like Blake and others in Fayetteville.
And with that, and help from cinematographer Brian Vilim, actress Joey Lauren Adams and business developer Demara Titzer, Rockhill Studios was born in 2017. The facility, in what was once a facility for jumpy-things for kids, features a 4,000 square foot soundstage, a 44’x40’x20’ Cyclorama Wall, a 12’x11’ sound-proof sliding load-in door, lighting grid and a hair/make-up/wardrobe station, reservable for film, television, music video and commercial projects.
“That was a key element for beginning to attract companies to come make their movies here, which was kind of the goal,” says Dan Robinson of the opening of Rockhill Studios. Robinson is now the vice president of production at the studio.
“That’s been a common goal with lots of organizations, including the Fayetteville Film Fest that was a key element for beginning to attract companies to come make their movies here. The vision that started the Fayetteville Film Fest, which Rockhill has been a huge supporter of, was to bring filmmakers here, show them why they should shoot here,” he adds. Robinson is also the technical director for the annual fall festival.
If inspiring filmmakers to shoot in Fayetteville was the goal, they succeeded.
“What Rockhill is uniquely doing is bringing production companies from around the country who are looking for production destinations,” says Robinson. “‘American Cherry,’ that was shot last summer, was a production company from the west coast. ‘Freedom’s Path,’ which they just finished up, was a production company out of Oregon.”
Those are just two of many movies recently wrapped up, in production or in the pipeline for Fayetteville, creating a tremendous cinematic buzz across the region.
“If we didn’t have a viable company doing it here, then there would not be the buzz,” he says. “Rockhill blazed the trail … When we were able to offer a professional studio space, that was a game changer.”
It’s not just the studio space that’s changing the game. Of course, Robinson says, it is a major factor. But it’s the foundation upon which a thriving ecosystem can build. To make Fayetteville a viable location for a number of feature films, there would need to be a culture to sustain it. And that culture needs a crew.
“The studio space is wonderful, especially for our commercial use,” says Robinson. “But by and large, movies are produced on location. So, what Rockhill really offers is a unique support staff and infrastructure for feature film production. That’s what was lacking. What you’re building is a 20- to 30-person team that can pull off a feature film effectively. That’s what Rockhill accomplished. And they’re still really the only company in Northwest Arkansas that offers comprehensive services like that.”
To keep the talent in the area, there’s got to be work.
“The key is keeping the crew base busy,” says Blake. “You have to be consistent with work, because not everyone wants to have to move to California or New York. I didn’t want to live in New York; I wanted to come back home to Arkansas, and we want to make sure that others in this industry have the same opportunity.”
So, in addition to building that ecosystem in Fayetteville, Rockhill Studios is working tirelessly to advocate on behalf of Arkansas filmmakers to the state. According to Robinson, there are great incentives provided by the state of Arkansas for filming here. But they’re not always easy for which to qualify. That’s where Rockhill comes in.
“The incentive process is incredibly tricky,” he says. “You have to have a whole bunch of boxes checked before you start production, or you disqualify yourself. I know of several local filmmakers who essentially disqualified themselves by not reading the instructions. But even if you read the instructions, it’s a little obtuse.
“Kerri Elder has been relentless — and I know that sounds like an aggressive word, but it’s true — when it comes to advocating for and blazing the trail for Arkansas-based companies getting Arkansas incentives.”
But those incentives are not set in stone. In fact, the funds used to provide filmmaking incentives to production companies, which were a part of the governor’s discretionary fund, were set to sunset a while back.
That was until HBO came to town with “True Detective,” bringing with it millions of dollars and Academy Award winning actors.
“The economic impact was obvious,” says Robinson. “And it’s something that Rockhill had been advocating for years … Sometimes it takes a major example like that to really put it together.”
But it’s what happens between visits from major production companies that makes all the difference for a community like Fayetteville.
“It’s great to get an HBO production to fly in, but then the moment they fly out, there’s a gaping hole,” Robinson explains. “That hole has to be filled by local production companies who are doing small- to mid-size budget projects in order to sustain this culture. You can’t be sitting around waiting for the next agent.
“So, a lot of the crew that worked on ‘True Detective’ came to Rockhill and were like, ‘What do we do now?’ So Rockhill produced three feature films last year and is looking to produce a few more feature films in the area this year.”
According to Robinson, the work that goes into building that ballot of work is critical to sustaining what the Elders and Co. have fought so hard to establish. A lot of that work in the interim comes from commercial projects.
“There’s a lot of work that goes into building a slate that makes it so that the people who are working in the gig economy (temporary jobs) will have work when they’re finished with a production,” Robinson says. “We’re producing commercial content for local and regional businesses. That, too, gives the opportunity to the crew to be able to stay employed, to stay in the area and pursue their occupation here rather than to have to move.
“We’ve seen, historically, people come here and work on a film and then they’re off to Louisiana or Austin or California. And then we have wonderful students coming that feel like they have to leave the state for opportunities. We’re trying to counter that. If they want to go somewhere and feel it out, they can. But if they want to come home and have a sustainable occupation, we want to be able to offer them the opportunities.”
And there are opportunities.
“We’re in the process of figuring out what’s next,” Blake says. “We have three feature films in the pipeline for this year, the earliest of which we could begin working on in March.”
To Rockhill and Beyond
When it comes to building a sustainable filmmaking ecosystem in Fayetteville, Rockhill Studios is the summit. But there are other entities, including nonprofits and municipalities, that are helping to develop this culture, too.
One such nonprofit is Your Media, and Robinson serves as its executive director.
Your Media has been around for years, and Robinson has led it for the last seven. And it serves, by way of a contract with the city of Fayetteville, as the official resource of Fayetteville Public Television (FPTV).
Outside of that formal relationship with Fayetteville, Your Media is a nonprofit that’s dedicated to providing video production services to other nonprofits. When a nonprofit needs help telling its story, Robinson and Your Media step in to help, producing professional quality videos at no cost.
But as part of its relationship with the city, Your Media ensures that FPTV runs efficiently, providing unfettered access to Fayetteville citizens to high quality television production equipment and airtime. FPTV also offers regular classes to teach aspiring videographers, filmmakers, editors and the like the skills necessary to successfully produce their own video product.
“The wonderful thing for me here at FPTV is that it’s essentially like a watchtower,” says Robinson. “I get to see what everybody’s doing, and then I can get them connected with the correct resource. If someone wants a full scale, awesome production, I can route them to Rockhill. If it’s a nonprofit that can’t afford video production services, I can take care of them with Your Media. If they want to learn about it themselves and have that skill set, then FPTV can teach them and gear them up.
“It’s really given me a wonderful, kind of three-pronged opportunity to get people the resources they need to make the media that they need. This is the hub of filming in Fayetteville, and that’s how it should be.”
In an age when public television is dying across the country, FPTV is growing in both viewership and participation. “It’s incredible,” says Robinson. “We deal with students all the way to retirees that come in and just want to learn without the obstacles of cost and censorship.”
FPTV offers classes and training in video production, shooting, editing and TV studio production. The public resource also provides equipment that can be checked out by the public, including HD cameras, lights, editing workstations, microphones, vocal booths and access to an HD TV studio. FPTV content can be viewed in the Fayetteville area and surrounding cities on Cox (channel 218) and AT&T U-verse (99) or from anywhere at faypublic.tv/watch and YouTube.
It’s a public resource unmatched across the state or even the region.
“That’s why I’m passionate about FPTV,” says Robinson. “And Your Media is happy to do what we can to serve nonprofits, but our primary focus is making sure that FPTV is operating effectively. And Rockhill studios represents a bright future for digital media production here in Northwest Arkansas, specifically. They are the tip of the spear when it comes to the whole next-level of professional, national, quality content. That’s what they’re producing.”
“When you see all that’s going on here, as this culture develops,” Robinson adds, “It’s hard not to get excited. The future is bright.”
Hollywood of the Ozarks has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?
Some of the most famous movies and television shows of the past, present and future that were filmed in Arkansas:
• Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1926)
• Hallelujah (1929)
• Gone with the Wind (1939)
• A Face in the Crowd (1956)
• Stark Fear (1962)
• It’s Alive (1969)
• Bloody Mama (1970)
• Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)
• The Sporting Club (1971)
• Boxcar Bertha (1972)
• The Legend of Boggy Creek (1973)
• White Lightning (1973)
• Encounter with the Unknown (1973)
• Bootleggers (1974)
• The Great Lester Boggs (1975)
• So Sad About Gloria (1975)
• Fighting Mad (1976)
• The Town that Dreaded Sundown (1977)
• The Shadow of Chikara (1978)
• September 30, 1955 (1978)
• The Day It Came to Earth (1979)
• Crisis at Central High (1981)
• The Blue and the Gray (1982)
• A Soldier’s Story (1983)
• North and South (1985)
• The Barbaric Beast of Boggy Creek, Part 2 (1985)
• Under Siege (1986)
•Designing Women (1986 – 1993)
• Three for the Road (1987)
• Stay Tuned for Murder (1987)
• End of the Line (1987)
• Pass the Ammo (1988)
• Biloxi Blues (1988)
• Too Scared to Laugh (1989)
• Rosalie Goes Shopping (1989)
• Heart of Dixie (1989)
• Stone Cold (1991)
• Evening Shade (1990 – 1994)
• One False Move (1992)
• The War Room (1993)
• The Firm (1993)
• Frank & Jesse (1995)
• Sling Blade (1996)
• Shelter (1998)
• The White River Kid (1999)
• Daddy and Them (2001)
• A Painted House (2003)
• Chrystal (2004)
• Walk the Line (2005)
• Elizabethtown (2005)
• Come Early Morning (2006)
• Towncraft (2007)
• War Eagle Arkansas (2007)
• Sugar Creek (2007)
• Shotgun Stories (2007)
• Little Rock Central High: 50 Years Later (2007)
• The River Within (2009)
• Bruno (2009)
• Tuckerman (2012)
• The Last Ride (2012)
• Then Night Comes (2012)
• 45RPM (2013)
• Mud (2013)
• Valley Inn (2014)
• All the Birds Have Flown South (2016)
• God’s Not Dead 2 (2016)
• Greater (2016)
• Antiquities (2017)
• Then There Was Joe (2018)
• F.R.E.D.I. (2018)
• God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness (2018)
• Sweet Inspirations (2019)
• True Detective: Season 3 (2019)
• Max Winslow and the House of Secrets (2019)
• Freedom’s Path (2020)
• American Cherry (2020)
Source: Arkansas Film Industry Report, 2019, AEDC; Christopher Crane, Film Commissioner, AEDC.