Catawba Indians buy movie, television production company

The Catawba Indian Nation has gained instant credibility for a proposed $350 million film studio project, buying its own multi-media production company.

Red Heritage Media recently moved into a second-floor suite of offices behind Lowe’s Home Improvement on S.C. 160 in Fort Mill. The Catawbas purchased the company from Chris Cates of Charlotte and then hired Cates to run it, rebranded as Red Heritage Media. Terms of the sale were not disclosed.

Collectively, Cates and his small staff have more than 80 years of experience in the production and post-production aspects of the film and television industry.

The production company purchase comes at a strategic time for the tribe. The Catawbas and Studio South are evaluating a partnership to build the Catawba Studios project on 124 acres of tribal land in York County.

The project would be built in phases over a 10-year period. Phase I, which Bert sHesse of Studio South says could start by summer, calls for three sound stages and a tour-event center with an IMAX movie theater. Other phases call for a hotel, retail shops and offices, and more sound stages.

“Yes, Red Heritage Media gives us credibility,” said Catawba Indian Chief Bill Harris with a hearty laugh. “But is also gives us, with Chris Cates, a point of view that we didn’t have. It gives us credibility and insight.”

Cates said the credibility is crucial in a business where “trust is a big factor. People look at your credibility, background, what you have done in the past.”

The perspective Cates brings will be essential as the tribe continues to evaluate the movie studio project, Harris said. “You can ask questions, but are you asking the right questions, are you asking the vital questions?” he said.

The Catawbas hope some of the vital questions are answered by an economic impact study that should be finished in April.

The economic impact study comes as Hesse is looking for financial backers for the project. Hesse and the Catawbas have approached York County for $1 million in hospitality tax revenue as “bridge funding” to cover early construction costs. The county has not made a decision, but its Hospitality Tax Committee has asked Hesse and the tribe for more detailed financial information.

The Charlotte City Council cited a lack of detailed financial information when it declined to pursue a movie studio project with Hesse at the former Eastland Mall site in 2013. Hesse has said he had given Charlotte “enough information” and that his partners advised him not to disclose more.

The economic impact study comes as the Catawbas continue to pursue a $600 million casino-hotel complex in Kings Mountain, N.C. The site is part of the tribe’s ancestral land. The tribe has been discussing the project with the U.S. Department of Interior and the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs for several years without success.

The tribe proposed the N.C. casino project after its efforts to build casino-hotel complex on its York County reservation were thwarted by the S.C. Supreme Court, which ruled that tribe cannot offer video poker on its reservation.

Harris said the studio and casino are independent projects.

The discussions also come at a critical time in the film industry regionally and nationally. Digital technology continues to affect the way movies are made and where they are seen. An example is a production intended for YouTube only, which is being filmed in Charleston, according to the state’s Film Commission office.

Georgia now rivals California as a production center. The state was recently named the No.1 spot in the country for film industry growth. The state offers a 30 percent tax credit for big budget production which has cost the state well over a quarter of a billion dollars since tax credits were increased in 2008, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

State officials say the credits are a reason the film and television industry has created more than 79,000 jobs in Georgia and about $4 billion in wages.

The film industry also has brought 120 firms to Georgia in the last seven years and more on on the way as the race is on to build more sound stages and production facilities in the Atlanta area.

North Carolina is trying to renew what was once a strong incentive program that saw film companies spend an estimated $316 million in the state in 2014. The state’s film tax credits lapsed in 2014. A new program, passed this year, sets aside $30 million in tax incentives.

The budget for South Carolina’s incentive program is $15 million.

“We are a boutique film program,” said Tom Clark, one of two members of the state’s Film Commission.

The office has been very busy for the past two years as film and television producers continue to find that the state has plenty of attractive locations and an incentive program that rebates taxes paid, not awarding a tax credit.

It has been has high as $181 million, according to data from commission.

Since 1983, 15 productions have been filmed in either York, Chester and Lancaster counties. The biggest was the $75 million film the Patriot starring Mel Gibson, which filmed locally including Brattonsville. Chester residents still talk about the “Chiefs” television series like it was completed yesterday, but, in fact, was filmed in 1983. Portions of the racing car movie “Days of Thunder” starring Tom Cruise were filmed in Rock Hill.

The television series Outcast for Cinemax has filmed in Chester, Rock Hill and York, pumping millions of dollars into the regional economy for housing, filming locations, fuel, building supplies and housing for crew. Typically between 35 to 50 percent of a film’s production budget is spent locally, according to the S.C. Film Commission.

Over the last 10 years, 23 productions have filmed in York County, according to the film commission, resulting in $22 million in spending including more than 14,300 room nights at local hotels and the hiring of 1,428 people.

What do Georgia and North Carolina’s film industry plans mean for South Carolina and the possible Studio South project?

“That’s what the feasibility study should answer, what are the competitors offering and how important is the film industry to South Carolina,” Harris said. “Are we in a sustainable market?”

Red Heritage Media challenges

Red Heritage Media faces the unique challenge of being a “start up” as well as an existing firm.

As Red Heritage Media attracts more business, one of the goals will be to train Catawbas in the film industry, Cates said.

Increasing a cadre of local workers could be key for Red Heritage Media and even the Catawba Studios porject. Cates said the quality of talented crew members regionally has been depleted when North Carolina suspended its incentive program.

Regardless of a decision on the studio project, the Catawbas want Red Heritage Media to be viable by itself.

Nonetheless, the idea of a South Carolina film studio intrigues Clark and others in the state.

“We are supportive of the Catawba studio idea,” Clark said. “It is an exciting possibility,” Clark said, noting that some of studio proposals are an almost perfect situation. Having a hotel adjacent to the sound studios would give film and television producers a place to house actors and crew, potentially cutting costs. A row of functioning retail shops could also be a ideal film backdrop.

Tommy Melton, editor and publisher of the Southeast Coast Film Guide in Charleston, said he has seen “many non-realistic plans from credible people with good contacts,” over the years consider South Carolina.

The Catawba-Studio South partnership, however, “has the most credibility by far,” Melton said.

Don Worthington: 803-329-4066, @rhherald_donw

Movies and television shows filmed in the region

▪ Outcasts, 2015

▪ Gospel Hill, 2007, $1.5 million filmAngela Basset, Danny Glover

▪ Asylum, 2006, $6.1 million film,

▪ Taking Chances, 2006 $1.5 million film.

▪ Walker Payne, 2005, $3.6 million film starring Bruce Dern, Sam Shepard

▪ IMAX-Nascar, 2003

▪ Ghost Club 2002

▪ The Last Brick Maker in America, 2000

▪ The Patriot, 1999 Nominated for three Academy Awards, $75 million film, Mel Gibson

▪ Tommy and the Ghost, 1993

▪ The Rage Carrie 2, 1998

▪ Tommy and the Ghost, 1993

▪ Body Count, 1996 David Caruso, Forest Whitaker

▪ Days of Thunder, 1990 Nicole Kidman, Randy Quaid, Tom Cruise

▪ Black Rainbow, 1988

▪ Chiefs, 1983

Source: SC Film Commission

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