Independent film producer Johnny Remo first visited Northwest Arkansas last year, for a screening of his movie “Saved by Grace” at the Bentonville Film Festival (BFF). He decided then it would be the setting of his next feature film, F.R.E.D.I.
F.R.E.D.I. is a family-friendly, action-adventure film about a robot that becomes friends with a teenage boy. The name F.R.E.D.I. (pronounced “Freddy”) stands for Future Robotics Engineering Design Innovation.
It’s produced by SkipStone Pictures, the production arm of Inspired Family Entertainment in Irvine, Calif. The company produces material meant to be suitable for all viewing ages, because it contains no nudity, expletives or alcohol use.
In F.R.E.D.I., the city of Bentonville is not disguised and instead will serve as the backdrop, Remo said. The film crew, in town through mid-July, is shooting at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville High School and several recognizable spots in downtown Bentonville.
“I had the script for a couple of years and figured I would shoot it the same place I shot Saved by Grace, in Mississippi, but when I saw this place, I thought, ‘This has to be it. It looks like a movie set,’” Remo said.
There are other definite pros to filming in Northwest Arkansas, in addition to its visual appeal, Remo said. In California, permit fees can cost between $800 and $1,500 per day, whereas in Arkansas no permit is necessary in most locations. A road closure in downtown Bentonville and other requests were granted fairly easily, and area businesses have enthusiastically embraced the production, he said. McLarty Daniel Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram, for example, lent $200,000 worth of vehicles to the film.
“Everybody has been great,” Remo said.
At the same time, there is groundwork to be laid in terms of setting up fundamentals for the industry, including availability of equipment rentals and movie crew staff.
“It’s an incredible place, and there are a lot of benefits to shooting here,” he said. However, the Northwest Arkansas film production industry is “still in the beta stage.”
SkipStone Pictures is producing F.R.E.D.I. in association with RockHill Media, part of RockHill Studios in Fayetteville. If all goes to plan, they might make two sequels, said Kerri Elder, half of the mother-son production team, along with Blake Elder.
They have been making films in Arkansas since about 2010, but recently ramped up their efforts with a multimillion-dollar investment in RockHill Studios, which opened at 240 E. Township St. on June 1. It is a full-service studio offering everything from video editing to hair and makeup and featuring a 4,000-square-foot soundstage, equipped with a cyclorama wall to enable green screen and other shooting methods.
The Elders want to help build the film industry infrastructure in Northwest Arkansas, so it can meet the requirements filmmakers now visiting the area because of BFF and looking at the region as a place with potential. Kerri Elder, who has 30 years’ experience in the construction, real estate and property management industries, said the soundstage is the first of its kind in the region, and the studio offers “state-of-the-art equipment” for rent.
“One of the best things the Bentonville Film Festival is doing for our state is this huge influx of producers and filmmakers visiting because of the festival. If they find we have the facilities and the personnel, that (influx of filmmakers) should continue to grow the industry, as long as we can provide the services as a state,” Elder said.
The availability of staff is one area where there’s room for improvement. The state pays 10% of wages if a production company uses local employees, but Remo had a hard time finding a crew in Arkansas and wound up flying in about half of the film’s 20-person crew, he said. A lot of the local help came from students at John Brown University in Siloam Springs.
In terms of tax incentives for film productions, there is a 20% tax rebate on goods and services purchased in Arkansas, according to the Arkansas Film Commission website. In Georgia, filmmakers can claim 30% tax credits on expenditures, and film and television productions generated an estimated economic impact of $6 billion in 2015, according to the state’s film, music and entertainment office.
Mississippi offers 25% cash rebate on in-state spending and 30% on payroll (35% for U.S. military veterans), according to the Film Mississippi website. In 2016 the state had 16 feature films and for television projects along with a few independent documentaries and commercials, and the combined estimated budgets was about $27,000,000, said Nina Parikh, deputy director of Film Mississippi.
WORK TO BE DONE
Kalene Griffith, president of Visit Bentonville and a member of the Arkansas Parks & Tourism Commission, said the film industry is moving forward in the state and particularly in Northwest Arkansas, but there is work to be done.
“We’re still learning how to bring (movie productions) in and hosting the community,” Griffith said. “We want to gain traction in the film world and earn a reputation in Arkansas as being film-friendly.”
The advertising and promotion commissions in Eureka Springs, Bentonville, Rogers, Springdale and Fayetteville formed the Northwest Arkansas Film and Entertainment Commission in 2015. It launched the site, FilmNWA, which houses an inventory of potential filming locations, services, incentives and permit information for each city.
“We see the value of the economic impact of filming in our region,” Griffith said. “Our goal is to continue to attract films.”
The SkipStone Pictures film, F.R.E.D.I., stars Kelly Hu (X Men 2, The Scorpion King), Christina Cox (iZombie, Stargate), Tyler Christopher (General Hospital), Texas Battle (Coach Carter, The Bold and the Beautiful), Chloe Lukaziak (Dance Moms) and Angus Macfadyen (Braveheart, We Bought a Zoo).
Other stars include Lucius Hoyos (What If, Little Charmers, PAW Control), Reid Miller (Play by Play, The Fourth Door) and Casimere Jollette (East Los High, Guidance).
It is directed by Remo’s longtime friend and colleague, Sean Olson, according to a SkipStone Pictures press release. Olson has won four Emmy Awards in editing. In addition to directing the film, Olson is co-writer, along with Remo, Kat Olson and Emmy Award-winner Lee Schneller.
F.R.E.D.I.’s creative team includes visual effects artists Christian Beckman, owner of Quantum Creation FX (The Hunger Games, Night at the Museum 3), and Remington Scott (Beowulf, Spider Man 2). Virtual reality innovator Pearry Teo (Cloud Atlas) and 3D animator Eric Provan (Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, Zootopia) also are working on the movie, according to the press release.
F.R.E.D.I. is scheduled for a limited theatrical national release summer 2018.