story by Michael Tilley
Fort Smith-based 5 Star Productions has been betting big that the right mix of technology and talent will help the small company compete with the larger production houses in Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York.
The bet appears to be paying off, and, in the process, providing desperately needed employment for the “creative class” in the Fort Smith region. The company employs eight full-time employees and about seven part-time (freelance) workers.
One of the most recent big bets was an about $100,000 investment in the “Red Epic” camera. Epic is apparently not an overstatement. The camera system has been used for some of the more amazing visuals in “The Hobbit,” “The Amazing Spiderman” and “Pirates of the Caribbean 4.”
“And reportedly James Cameron just picked up 50 of them for his next film!” said 5 Star Marketing Director Jeremy Dean. “So this will allow 5 Star to create high-end spots not only for national companies but to bring the level of production to a new standard for local Fort Smith and Northwest Arkansas businesses that would have never before had access to this type of gear. This helps take 5 Star to a whole new level as a company.”
The new level includes production work for “Last Shot with Judge Gunn,” a reality show that first aired Sept. 26. The show, based around the alternative sentencing practices of former Arkansas Circuit Court Judge Mary Ann Gunn, is shot in the Fayetteville area and in 5 Star’s Fort Smith studio. Travis Joiner and Zac Melton, both from the Fort Smith area, have worked the cameras for 5 Star on a show that is estimated to be seen in more than 70 million homes, Dean said.
5 Star owner Mike Hart and Joiner flew to Los Angeles in mid-October to work on a reality show based on the cast members of the HBO hit “The Sopranos.” That job resulted from working with some of the same producers on the Judge Gunn show.
Recently, the 5 Star crew shot video for several GM commercials for use in the Fort Smith area and other regions. Other clients include Rheem and Sparks Health System. New clients come on board each month, and recently 5 Star was contacted about doing more work for GM. Dean said after more than 15 years, the growing awareness of 5 Star is not a surprise.
“The guys have really been stepping it up over the past few years. … There is no reason they shouldn’t be doing this more on a national level,” Dean said.
More national exposure could be right around the corner. “Resurrection County,” a feature film shot by 5 Star at Fort Chaffee, is set for a U.S. release. The film already has been distributed in more than 25 countries.
A few years ago, Fort Smith might be the last place large ad agencies would come to capture video. That’s beginning to change, Dean says.
Not only are Los Angeles producers using the 5 Star studios and staff, but recently Atlanta-based Denmark (the agency) sent an entire crew to shoot video in Fort Smith.
“We are seeing, right here in our backyard, we are seeing this talent being flown in from Atlanta, Los Angeles and the other cities,” Dean said.
Dean admitted that some come to Fort Smith with doubts.
“They do have misconceptions about what Arkansas is, or with Fort Smith,” Dean said. “But when they get down here, you know our people are very warm and courteous, and they are taken back by that, first of all. … When they see what we produce and how we do it, they see that they can get above-and-beyond what they can get in Los Angeles or wherever.”
Dean, ever the promoter, says 5 Star has always had the talent. It’s been the change in technology and 5 Star’s willingness to risk early — and expensive — adoption of new technology that has allowed the small production to grow its national business.
He said the biggest hurdle for production companies in Arkansas and other middle America states is that people don’t expect quality production.
“They think that (quality and talent) must come from the major cities. But we’ve seen budgets change quite drastically in the past few years,” Dean explained. “We’ve seen the business change and a lot of major production work has moved to companies like 5 Star because you don’t have that (expensive travel and production).”
Continuing, Dean noted: “You’d be surprised that a lot of work you are seeing, the national advertising spots you see … is being done by smaller companies in smaller cities.”
Although the financial barriers to entry are lower, production companies must possess “the brainpower that knows how to use it,” Dean said.
HOME IN THE FORT
One of the beauties of the business is that the talent behind the cameras and software can operate from any location. For example, 5 Star has the technical capability to share and manipulate video files from anywhere.
“The technology really allows us to operate anywhere and everywhere. We could be in South America on a shoot and work on our computers that are here (Fort Smith),” Dean explained.
But Dean said 5 Star is committed to “remaining a Fort Smith company.” They are expanding into Northwest Arkansas with a studio and send production crews all over the U.S., but Fort Smith is the base of operations.
Dean also said the Red Epic camera and the talent located in Fort Smith and Northwest Arkansas has the added benefit of providing “businesses and Northwest Arkansas and here in Fort Smith and even in Oklahoma” more options with respect to video work and costs.
Why? Because the investments in the camera and technology are somewhat subsidized by the Hollywood and larger corporate clients.
“Yes, I think it’s true to say that it (bigger accounts) helps keep the prices lower for local businesses and organizations who would not have access to this technology and what we can do,” Dean said.