As the film industry navigates the actor and writer strikes that have shut down most productions, one Wilmington studio marked an expansion milestone this week. Officials hope the project will position the area for more production work once deals are reached in the national labor dispute.
Busy shovels and flying dirt as well as dramatic film stunts regaled a large crowd Thursday afternoon at Dark Horse Studios’ groundbreaking event. The studio complex, opened in 2020, was taking the first step toward the addition of two soundstages at its 11.5-acre Harley Road campus.
The event also provided an illustration of the economic impact of film activity, not just in the Wilmington area, but in the state as a whole. And a raft of dignitaries was eager to talk about what more film-making capacity could achieve.
“Dark Horse Studios is helping to lead the film industry into the future, and this expansion will help our state attract even more exciting productions and good-paying jobs,” Gov. Roy Cooper said at the event. “Film is a bipartisan issue because it means revenue, jobs and the spinoff into more small businesses.”
Susi Hamilton, who heads the Film Partnership of North Carolina, spoke about the success over the past year of the group's film workforce training initiative, which has now trained 90 individuals, 40% of whom are from underserved communities. Of the entire group, 94% have graduated from the program and all of those have found jobs.
“Our interns have worked on nine productions since March 2022,” Hamilton said, noting that, during the current writers guild and actors’ strikes, 12 idled film professionals are helping train a group of 18 new interns.
Hamilton was not alone in speaking about the effect the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes have had on film activity, with only a few small independent projects ongoing.
“While today is a day for celebration, the ongoing writers and actors strike is highlighting critical issues that need to be resolved in a way that respects and values the hardworking people in the entertainment industry,” Cooper said in his remarks. “North Carolina stands ready to provide a beautiful stage for film projects of all sizes once a fair agreement has been reached, and Dark Horse Studios will help us continue to stand out as the film destination of the South.”
Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo noted that the N.C. General Assembly’s embrace of a film incentive has spread the wealth of film activity into many areas of the state.
“Film is here to stay,” he said, adding that the Wilmington area continues to be an industry hub and home to many film crew members. “Our grant incentive program is working; 70 counties in North Carolina have hosted film activity.”
Dark Horse, with its current two soundstages and space for offices, set construction and storage, has already hosted several projects, from Hallmark movies to big-budget productions. Perhaps most notable has been the Golden Globe Award-nominated Showtime original limited series George & Tammy, starring Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain.
The expansion, doubling the studio's size with an additional 40,000 square feet of space, will enable it to accommodate twice as many productions annually and surpass the quality standards set by prominent production companies, co-owner Kirk Englebright said.
“This location fills a void we have in local offerings,” he added. “There are small-scale productions that don’t need a full-size soundstage and may feel like they’re being overshadowed by larger-scale productions. But at our annex, these shoots can have privacy and access to the space and tools they need to reach their vision.”
Englebright expects the new facilities to open in the fall of 2024 and said he’s already getting interest from studios for projects that will move ahead once the strikes are resolved.