One of the most successful indie filmmakers in the United States (from $ figures anyway) is Earl Owensby from Shelby, NC. He made his first film in 1973 for $500,000 and went on to bring in $5 million by selling the international distribution rights for that film Challenge. The film went on to earn $20 million globally.
Earl Owensby Studios went on to make over 35 films, and Owensby produced, starred, co-wrote and co-directed many of these films (with most of them turning major profits).
In 1975, Owensby took on the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) when they wanted to give his film Dark Sunday an X-rating (would be an NC-17 today) for violence. The MPAA board of directors is made up of members from the “Big Six” studios and there had been a history of the MPAA mistreating and disrespecting indie filmmakers. Owensby fought for independent filmmaker rights and took the MPAA to court while also speaking in front of congress on the unfair treatment for the indies. Owensby argued for a G-rating as a matter of principle and made the point that independent filmmakers should be treated with the same respect and fairness as the major studios. He case was made, and the MPAA agreed to offer a PG rating for the film, Owensby refused and released the film with the NR (No Rating) rating. He gained nationwide exposure for this case and brought independent filmmaking into the spotlight.
In 1982 the film Reuben, Reuben starring Academy Award nominated actor Tom Conti was shot in conjunction with Owensby’s studios and 20th Century Fox in Shelby, N.C.. The film was also the acting debut for a young actress, Kelly McGillis who would go on to star opposite Tom Cruise in the blockbuster Top Gun.
In 1984, the Hollywood-crowd realized that Owensby had the magic touch and hoped to get on the movie-bandwagon in North Carolina and opened a movie studio in Wilmington, NC after discussions with Owensby. The Wilmington Studios have gone through numerous owners throughout the years and have produced hundreds of films and TV shows including: Ironman 3, The Conjuring, A Walk to Remember, Sleepy Hollow, Dawson’s Creek, Enchanted, Under the Dome, The Conjuring, Sleeping with the Enemy, Muppets from Space, Weekend at Bernie’s, and One Tree Hill.
Due to his success as an independent filmmaker, the award-winning CBS series, “60 Minutes” spent a week with Owensby and produced a 15-minute segment on the Owensby-phenomenon. This feature was broadcast to one of the largest audiences ever for a “60-Minutes” telecasts at the time (it followed the Superbowl). Owensby also achieved national attention from magazines like GQ, Newsweek, Esquire, and Time Magazine.
In 1987-88, 20th Century Fox co-produced the Academy-Award winning film, The Abyss at
Owensby’s South Carolina Studios. In Gaffney, SC, a never-finished nuclear power plant was transformed into the world’s largest underwater tank (and movie set) and became a groundbreaking film for CGI (computer generated imagery) technology. The underwater filming sequences here, paved the way for The Abyss director James Cameron to go on and produce and direct the multi-Academy Award winning film The Titanic and eventually Avatar.
Today, Owensby continues to make royalties off his films, and works each week at his Shelby, NC studios.
The following is a feature-length documentary on the life of Earl Owensby released in 1997. If you want to get a closer look at the man behind the myth, check it out (below).
Manning, N. T. (Director). (1997). Earl Owensby: The man, the myth [Motion picture]. USA: Christmas Twin Pictures.
Manning, N. T. (2015, October 5). Earl Owensby interview. Christmas twin productions [Boiling springs, NC].