The Legend of Earl Owensby goes something like this: It’s 1973, and a North Carolina industrial supplies salesman sees the revenge drama “Walking Tall,” notices it was filmed in Tennessee, and thinks, “If they can do something in Tennessee, I can see no reason I can’t do something in North Carolina.”
The result is “Challenge,” a low-budget action flick in which Owensby stars, distributes himself and turns a handsome profit.
Fast forward 10 years or so, and Owensby has made over a dozen features – including the cult 3D film “Rottweiler,” which he calls “Jaws With Paws” – none of them costing more than $1 million. All have turned a profit, thanks in part to his ability to sell them to foreign markets. He’s taken some of this money and built a motion picture studio in Shelby complete with soundstages, editing and screening rooms, a motel and airplane runway. And he’s purchased an abandoned nuclear power plant in South Carolina, which James Cameron will use to shoot the underwater scenes for his 1989 feature “The Abyss.”
All this years before Dino de Laurentiis discovered the state and built a studio in Wilmington.
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“I don’t feel there would be a film industry in North Carolina without Earl’s impact,” says Noel Manning, a Gardner-Webb University professor who has made a documentary about Owensby, and who will interview the actor/producer/director Friday night during a special program at the North Carolina Museum of History. “I don’t know if we would have a North Carolina Film Commission without Earl showing it could be done here. It’s the pioneering spirit of someone who went beyond the system that was in place.”
‘Sales is sales’
For Owensby, who will turn 80 in September, part of it has always been about selling a product.
“If I hadn’t made a lot of money (with ‘Challenge’), I wouldn’t be in the business,” says Owensby. “To me, sales is sales. You have to be convinced that what you’re selling, someone would buy.”
Owensby had a number of things going for him. He did his research, learned the business and surrounded himself with local film pros. He was also a shrewd negotiator, who, because of his good ol’ boy demeanor, was occasionally underestimated by the people he was dealing with.
“If (people) came in expecting this is a country bumpkin and I can rip him off, he would pull an ace out of his sleeve, and say ‘here you go,’ ” says Manning. “Those who went in and honestly wanted to have a partnership, those were the relationships that stuck around.”
No one ever accused Owensby of making art. And he’s the first to admit that even though he starred in a number of his films, he was never much of an actor, although he did have screen presence. And it wasn’t like the string of prison, horror, car chase and action films he churned out called for serious thespian chops.
But, says Owensby, “You improve. The first one we did wasn’t ‘Gone With the Wind,’ it was an action adventure independent film, like ‘Walking Tall.’ The last movie we did (‘The Rutherford County Line,’ 1987), Universal picked it up. That was a well-done picture, a true story. It had a good feel about it, and I got a lot of comments about my acting, which was unusual.”
“Earl did all this without incentives, without backing,” says Manning. “Even when the Film Commission was starting up, there was not a lot of support for Earl, for what he was doing and could continue to do. I hope people come out (to Friday’s event) and get to meet the character, because he is a character. He is a lot of fun. I hope people would come to know what he has meant to North Carolina film.”
What: “Earl Owensby: Tar Heel Film Legend,” a talk with Owensby and clips from his films.
When: 6 p.m. Friday
Where: North Carolina Museum of History, 5 E. Edenton St., Raleigh