Earl Owensby – 5
The Greenville Piedmont, Friday, September 16, 1983
Hollywood? Earl Owensby won’t have it, but he’ll take Grand Strand
Shelby, N.C.— His studio and corporate headquarters are tucked away on the slopes of the rolling North Carolina foothills. The sign over his downtown movie theater here blazes his name.
Two billboards on U.S. 501 in Myrtle Beach proclaim the Grand Strand as the future home of Earl Owensby’s Studio City. And down in Surfside Beach, bulldozers and workmen are the clearing 426 acres that will be the site of his $200 million studio and theme park.
Right now, Earl Owensby seems more concerned with the production of two movies than with the hoopla surrounding the beach project. He still spends most of his time at home, only flying to the Grand Strand about once a week to check on progress at the construction site and the building of a prison camp for “Chain Gang,” a 3-D movie that will begin production this month.
He’s a man who, in the cliched words of a popular song, did things his way.
“I bucked and fought the system and beat them (Hollywood) at their own game,” said the head of the largest film studio in the nation outside of Hollywood.
In his 10 years as a movie maker, Owensby has become known as the “King of the B Movies.” He’s written, directed, produced and starred in his movies, sometimes all at once. He’s made 25 films since his studio opened on Nov. 10, 1973, starring in 14 of them. The 26th, “Tales of the Third Dimension,” will be released in April.
His “Buckstone County Prison,” which played 27 times on Home Box Office, starred Owensby as the half-breed Seabo. “Rottweiler in 3-D,” a film about a dozen attack dogs ravaging the countryside, was a smash hit in Denmark under the title “Dogs of Hell.” Owensby also has been profiled on CBS’ “60 Minutes.”
Owensby is reluctant to talk about money, but a stroll around the grounds of his empire here tells the story.
A high-standing sign emblazoned with “E.O. Corp.’ lets you know you’ve arrived. A mat at the door of his corporate headquarters tells visitors that Owensby’s is “The Most Efficient Studio in the World.”
Inside are the offices, the editing and sound rooms, conference and projection rooms. Along the long corridor hang huge posters from Owensby’s movies — his very first film “Challenge,” plus “Country Girl,” “Living Legend,” “Wolfman,” and “Buckstone County Prison” to name a few.
Adjoining the office complex is an 18-unit guest house. “We provide lodging and meals while the cast is working,” Debbie Putnam, director of public relations, said.
Down an incline and over the landing strip is Owensby’s spacious A-frame home. A large garage houses his cars (one of which is a Rolls Royce) and hides the swimming pool. A little farther down is the hangar for his two planes. The hangar adjoins the studio itself.
More than 2 1/2 acres of soundproof stage, or 100,000 square feet, make up the studio. The studio also houses a carpentry shop where sets are built.
Inside are a permanent, 60,000-gallon dry underwater filming tank, the proverbial Dew Drop’ Inn and the huge and grim ruins of a church from ‘Tales of the Third Dimension.”
The tank will re-create a sewer for the movie, and long, twisting tunnels draped with spider webs and littered with open coffins offer a grisly background. Beady eyes stare up from the semidarkness as 150 rats scurry around in their cages waiting for someone to yell, “Action!”
Back in his comfortable office, Owensby spends 90 percent of his time.on the phone.
“I work 12 months in advance of each movie,” Owensby said. “We already have deposits down on six out of 10 movies for next year.”
He said studios like Warner Bros. and Paramount average eight films each year with budgets of about $11.5 million. “We don’t spend that much,” he said with a smile.
“I fully intend to be the leader. They have committees. We can make decisions fast,” he said.
Making movies in North and South Carolina is less expensive than in Hollywood. Why? “No unions,” Owensby answered.
“North Carolina has right to work — the right to be gainfully employed without joining a union or a club,” he said.
Owensby also gets by without big-name stars. You may recognize the faces in an EO production, but not the names.
“We don’t use Paul Newman and Robert Redford. We base it on the story and the movie itself and not someone’s name,” he said.
Owensby’s success has been built on following trends in the movie business — going for the market that’s lucrative at the time.
“That doesn’t mean we’ll make a movie about a little creature just because E.T. was a hit,” he said.
“We look at the market to see what you can sell now. It’s hard to sell different pictures at different times. We follow in the same vein.”
“Tales of the Third Dimension” can be likened to this summer’s “Twilight Zone” and last year’s “Creepshow.”
“It stars a skeleton and three birds who are like the Three Stooges and Laurel and Hardy. The skeleton leads into the little stories (three segments),” he said.
“This is our best picture. This will stand head and shoulders above whatever we’ve done,” he said. “Everyone else will shoot 3-D to equal it.”
EO Productions also is moving into other areas. This summer the company was “subcontracted” to shoot scenes for an upcoming movie titled “A Breed Apart,” which stars Rutger Hauer, Powers Boothe and Kathleen Turner.
With the completion of the studio complex in Surfside Beach, Owensby will double his studio space. Until that time, about three years from now, the Grand Strand will be used for exterior shots. Interiors will be shot in North Carolina.
“Chain Gang” and his next feature, “Sleuth Slayer,” which stars Mickey Spillane and Hardee’s Roadrunner Philip MacHale, will follow that formula.
Owensby hopes to complete 20 films each year when Studio City is in operation. That’s about 10 percent of the entire domestic film market. Directors Dino De Laurentis and Frank Capra Jr. have expressed interest in working there.
“Studio City will require in-house producers, just like California studios,” Owensby said. “It can do nothing but benefit the area. It could become an international draw.”