CEA Film Winner: Meeting Demand For Film Space

By Jenny Callison, posted May 5, 2023
FILM | DARK HORSE STUDIOS | Kirk Englebright, President & CEO | Year Founded: 2020 | Employees: 8 (Photo c/o Dark Horse Studios)
Kirk Englebright is a big believer in “seize the day.” When the former beer distribution facility in Wilmington he purchased in 2019 failed to attract tenants as COVID hit, he marketed it more broadly and looked for opportunities.

“Our first call was from Hollywood,” he said. “Hallmark approached us; they wanted to do a made-for-TV film.”

Englebright realized a beer distribution plant incorporates many attributes needed for a film studio.

“It has lots of office space and flex warehouse space. It’s extremely air-conditioned and insulated to protect beer. Sound stages need to be tall: The ceilings here are high so beer [containers] can be stacked. It has loading docks and a large footprint – 11.5 acres in the heart of Wilmington, near the airport: The perfect recipe for a studio. The stars were aligned.”

There’s plenty of space inside and around what became Dark Horse Studios for all the crew members, cast members and office workers that a project entails – sometimes as many as 250. Englebright said a beer distributorship can employ hundreds of people, so the capacity was there. 

Hallmark moved in with its USS Christmas project in late-summer 2020. When the project wrapped several weeks later, another production moved in the next day. Dark Horse saw a steady stream of projects during 2021 and 2022, so Englebright and his partner – who is also his father-in-law – decided the demand was there for more studios in Wilmington, and they should go all-in with a bigger investment.

“Right now, we have two soundstages, and we are about six weeks from breaking ground on an additional two,” he said in mid-April. “Our general contractor tells us construction will take 12 to 14 months to finish once we break ground. The purpose of building additional stages is to handle more projects simultaneously. We’ve lost productions because of lack of capacity. Early on, when we decided to put some major money towards [Dark Horse], we looked at some of the most state-of-the-art studios in the country to determine how we wanted to build ours out. What we are trying to do here is have curb appeal and attention to detail.”

Despite a potential current industry slowdown caused by a possible screenwriters’ strike (as of press time), Englebright said he has commitments for at least two projects in the near future and believes that today’s demand for streamed content means heightened need for studio space. He also believes that North Carolina is a good bet, and a good bargain, for those projects.

Englebright is used to taking chances. In 2006, he founded Mattress Capital and 11 years later purchased A Goodnight Sleepstore, his primary competition. He has opened, sold and closed stores as opportunities or conditions arose. He expects to be equally agile as he develops Dark Horse Studios further.

“Probably the most important part of any endeavor is having a good team,” he said. “Growing aggressively works only if you have an A team.”

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