Online Exhibits: Silver Screen Memories: Introduction
Northwest Arkansas was likely first seen on the big screen in the 1939 movie Jesse James, starring Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda. While only a small portion of the film was made locally, it was the first of many productions to showcase the area's natural beauty and resources. Since then over two dozen motion picture and television productions have been filmed in the region, pumping money into the local economy, providing work for actors and crew, and offering a novel experience to star-struck residents.
Movie fever can grip a community. Hundreds of area residents made the trek to southwest Missouri to watch the filming of Jesse James and hope for an autograph from matinee idol Tyrone Power. During the 1981 filming of The Blue and the Gray, one report said that about 10,000 people applied for jobs as extras and crew. When a press conference with actor Gregory Peck was scheduled, the Northwest Arkansas Times sent one reporter to cover it; three showed up.
Members of the Northwest Arkansas Motion Picture Commission look over its promotional materials, with souvenir hats representing The Blue and the Gray. From left: Lee Zachary (chairman of the special projects committee), State Representative Bill Ramsey (commission chairman), and Phil Phillips Sr. (chairman of the locations committee), Springdale Chamber of Commerce, July 30, 1987. Charles Bickford, photographer. Springdale News Collection (SN 7-30-1987)
The economic impact of filmmaking spreads far into the community, beyond the folks directly involved with a movie's production. It was expected that restaurants and hotels would greatly benefit during the production of The Blue and the Gray, but an economic impact study showed that other businesses benefited as well, including lumber companies, dry cleaners, and car-rental agencies.
Films can cause property damage, despite the best intentions. While filming Fighting Mad in 1975, one man had his truck door accidently torn off. He was compensated with $400 and a new engine. The historic Borden House at Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park received minor damage from an explosion in a new wing built specifically to be blown up for The Blue and the Gray. By the next day, the house was repaired and a donation of $5,000 offered towards its further restoration. It's unclear if the money was received.
Sometimes storylines or cast and crew can rub folks the wrong way. Protests arose surrounding Pass the Ammo, a 1988 spoof about crooked televangelists filmed in Eureka Springs. Some pastors denounced it as full of "nudity, sex, obscenity, perversity, drugs, vulgarity, racism and violence." To keep it from being filmed, the Elna M. Smith Foundation, owners of the "Christ of the Ozarks" statue, had it draped in black plastic. When Frank and Jesse was filmed in 1993, one extra noted that everyone loved country singer and actor Randy Travis, but had less than kind words to say about star Rob Lowe.
Attempts to lure motion picture and television productions to Arkansas began officially in 1979, when a part-time employee of the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission was assigned to work with prospective film crews.
When Columbia Pictures Television was deciding whether to shoot The Blue and the Gray in Kentucky or Arkansas, various individuals and entities worked to woo the production team to the state's northwest corner. To transport executives to possible shooting locations, they arranged for airplanes from local poultry giant Hudson Farms and transportation companies Jones Truck Lines and Polar Express. Springdale funeral home director Charles Farmer lent limousines.
In 1982 the Northwest Arkansas Motion Picture Commission was formed by the chambers of commerce in Springdale, Rogers, Siloam Springs, Fayetteville, and Eureka Springs. It was created because of the economic impact of The Blue and the Gray and with the encouragement of CBS-TV and Columbia Pictures, which appreciated the area's beauty and cooperative residents, and the economic advantage of filming here.
As a marketing entity, the Commission worked to "keep [its] name in front of the people that make the decisions." To that end it produced a brochure, helped find prospective shooting locations, and served as lobbyists, traveling to Hollywood to meet with movie-industry representatives. The Commission was the first in the state; by 1987, about fifty similar organizations had sprung up. The Commission closed its doors sometime in the 2000s due to lack of interest and sponsors.
State legislators jumped on the movie bandwagon in 1983, passing the Motion Picture Incentive Act. Known as "The Nickel Rebate," filmmakers spending at a certain level received five cents back for every production dollar spent in the state. Arkansas was the first state to make such an offer; others soon followed.
Over the years laws were enacted and various state agencies created to promote film production, with varying degrees of success. Today, surrounding states offer better incentives, perhaps explaining why Arkansas' film production has dropped in recent years.
Small, independent films are being made in Northwest Arkansas such as Gordon Family Tree (2012) and Valley Inn (2014). To meet the demand for films and commercials, new businesses have sprung up, including talent and casting agencies and visual effects and post-production companies. In 2013 locals were recruited as extras and Razorback football fans for the movie Greater: The Brandon Burlsworth Story, set to debut in 2015. In 2014 Eureka Springs passed an ordinance providing economic incentives in the form of tax rebates to film, digital, and television productions. The ordinance makes Eureka the first town in Arkansas to offer such a rebate.