Entrepreneur Zak Heald working to attract tourism dollars through film production

by Nancy Peevy ([email protected]) 1,097 views 

Entrepreneur Zak Heald is involved in three businesses he hopes will help attract more tourism dollars to Northwest Arkansas.

The 1989 film “Field of Dreams” includes one of the more memorable lines in movie history: “If you build it, he will come.”

Kevin Costner heard the mysterious voice while walking through his cornfield, which he interpreted as an instruction to plow the crop under to build a baseball field. Shoeless Joe Jackson and other dead ballplayers are eventually attracted to the diamond to play baseball when the project is completed.

The real-life property in Dyersville, Iowa, had a similar effect: It attracted tourists. Thousands of them visit the “Field of Dreams” movie site each year to tour the baseball field.

A movie site in Iowa is not the only evidence of film-induced tourism. Studies show a film or television show can have a powerful impact on where people choose to travel. One example is the rise in tourism in Albuquerque, N.M., brought on by the television show “Breaking Bad.” After being seen in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” Wyoming’s Devil’s Tower had a 75% increase in visitors.

Zak Heald, 24, believes the same will hold true for Northwest Arkansas. He’s built three businesses — the television show “NWA Alive,” Intercut Productions and Farm Studios — with the belief that “if you film it, they will come.”

Arkansas Film Commissioner Christopher Crane agrees. He made a reference to the third season of HBO’s “True Detective,” which was filmed in and around Fayetteville in 2018.

“We haven’t hit a home run yet with tourism, but I don’t think it’s far off,” he said. “We’re starting to see some of it with ‘True Detective.’ I think the inquiries coming in from ‘True Detective’ will pay dividends.”

Crane noted that Arkansas continues to be the site of movie productions, such as “American Cherry,” a feature film currently being filmed in Fayetteville. Rockhill Studios, a Fayetteville-based production company, is providing production services for the NYLA Media Group on the film.

Heald and business partner Chris Erwin produce “NWA Alive,” a regional lifestyle/tourism television show. Heald said the show’s focus is to highlight the best people, places and events that make Northwest Arkansas a desirable location for both visitors and residents.

“Whether you’re coming from Fayetteville to Bentonville for the weekend, and you’re going to try a new restaurant you saw on the show, or whether you’re from Kansas City or Chicago and somebody on Facebook shared our video and you try the restaurant the next time you’re in town — that’s a win in our book,” Heald said.

Filmed mostly on location throughout Northwest Arkansas and patterned after CNN’s “Great Big Story,” the show airs online at www.nwaalive.com and on ABC affiliate KHBS/KHOG, Channels 40/29. In its sixth season, the show averages 200,000 viewers a week and produces 36 episodes each year.

The production is funded by advertisers, with Nunnally Chevrolet, Sam M. Walton College of Business, New Creature and Midtown Associates Realty as presenting sponsors.

Heald started Intercut Productions, a video production company, during his junior year of high school in 2012. The same day he got his driver’s license, he drove himself to the courthouse to file the paperwork for the new business.

“I’d always been the kid that had 15,000 lemonade stands,” he said. “I had a lawn clipping service and a snow blowing service growing up in Kansas City, Mo. The family moved to Gravette, where Heald graduated from high school.

A rule follower as a child, Heald said he was always looking for ways to create a small little business. “As a kid, my mom joked that while my brother was playing ‘World of Warcraft’ online, I’m playing ‘Mall Tycoon,’” Heald recalled.

Always looking for work, Heald got his first job at age 13 at an event center. “From then, I’ve never not been working,” he said.

Using a video camera began as a hobby, which turned into Intercut Productions. Heald dropped out of John Brown University the summer after his freshman year when the business took off.

“I have no regrets whatsoever [about dropping out of college],” he said. While there is an excellent value in education, “I’ve been fortunate to be able to create my own job.”

The business grew, mostly by word of mouth, and today Intercut Productions has six full-time employees. Clients include Walmart, Tyson Foods, Mattel, Kingsford, Movista and the Walton College of Business.

“I have two speeds: sleep or go, go, go,” Heald said. “My work is my hobby, and so it never really feels like work. It feels like I’m playing all the time, especially with the new studio. That is the playground of my dreams. I get very involved with what I’m doing.”

Intercut Productions was hired to do some work for one of the early Bentonville Film Festivals (BFF), which led to the idea for a film production studio called Farm Studios. It opened in February in Hiwasse, west of Bentonville, and the company touts the facility as having the largest soundstage in Arkansas.

Farm Studios in Hiwasse includes a 10,000-square-foot soundstage with an area large enough to accommodate a tractor-trailer.

Jason Netter, the founder and CEO of Kickstart Entertainment, which produces BFF, worked with Heald, and during their discussions they realized Northwest Arkansas needed a film production studio.

“One of the goals of the festival is actually to help provide opportunities to make content,” Netter said. “It made perfect sense to try and make films and television shows in Northwest Arkansas, but the region lacked resources, one of which was a proper soundstage.”

Heald said Farm Studios offers the most significant rentable soundstage within 500 miles. The facility includes a 10,000-square-foot soundstage with an area large enough to accommodate a tractor-trailer. Farm Studios also consists of a 3,000-square-foot workshop, hair and makeup area, VIP lounge, office space and a kitchen.

“We wanted to be the first studio here and make this a hub for film in Northwest Arkansas,” Heald said.

Netter believes there are several reasons why Northwest Arkansas will prove to be an excellent place to shoot movies and television shows. He cited community support of the arts, the state tax incentive program, direct flights to most major cities, high-end hotels for cast with plenty of other options for crew, strong support from local and state officials and a reasonably strong crew base.

In the short term, Netter and Heald hope the studio will produce local projects and help grow the regional crew base and infrastructure. Their long-term plan is to help bring films and television series to the region that might have gone in the past to other places like New Orleans, Atlanta or Dallas. The goal is to create a “self-sustaining production ecosystem in Arkansas,” Netter said.

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