Production of film to create plenty of work

KAHULUI – By early next year, Maui Film Studios will be home to the next “Lord of the Rings”-style movie, with hundreds of positions from extras to makeup artists open to Maui County residents, studio officials said.

Socrates Buenger, owner and chief executive of the studio, presented the news Wednesday afternoon to members of the state House of Representatives Finance Committee, who were on a site visit of Maui projects and facilities.

“I just got off the phone with the executive producer today, and they’re officially locked in through the end of next year,” said Buenger, at his studio in Maui Lani.

The film, “Ethyrea: Code of the Brethren,” is the first of five sci-fi adventure movies written and produced by Danica Fontaine. According to, the movie’s storyline is based on Fontaine’s novel “The Order of Ethyrea: Code of the Brethren” and follows a “race of elemental warriors” seeking to overthrow an evil queen.

“This will be by far the biggest film project to come to Maui,” Buenger said. “It’s upwards of $160 million budget, and they plan on spending 60 percent of it here.”

Buenger said that Fontaine and other crew members will be flying to the island by the end of the year and have already scouted filming locations on Molokai and the Valley Isle. He said multiple movies in the series will be shot simultaneously, but shooting for the first movie is planned to start in May and finish near the end of next year.

The 22,000-square-foot studio, with soundproofing of its walls nearly completed, will be used solely for interior shots, said Buenger.

“They’re going to be building very, very large sets here on Maui and when they go through a door on the exterior sets, they’re going to come in here,” he said. “I’m going guess from what I know about the project that it’ll be 70 percent out on location and 30 percent in studio.”

The deal for the movie could not have come at a more opportune time for the studio, which opened in March. Buenger said that he has had difficulties advertising the studio and recently lost “Tarzan,” a Warner Bros. remake reportedly worth $175 million.

” ‘Tarzan’ was never a lock, but it was looking very, very good with them,” he said. “But . . . like often with very big productions and small productions they changed their plans at the very last minute. I’m not sure of the exact reasons, but it’s not unusual that productions change at the last minute and go elsewhere.”

Donne Dawson, state film commissioner, was in attendance Wednesday and worked closely with “Tarzan” Executive Producer Jerry Weintraub.

“They were very interested, (but) they did decided to go to the (United Kingdom) because they needed to have multiple stages to shoot on simultaneously, and there are healthy tax credits (there),” she said.

Although there is only one sound stage on Maui, tax credits on July 1 were raised 5 percent to 25 percent for Neighbor Island productions and 20 percent for Oahu ones. While presenting the news of the newly acquired movie, Buenger expressed his gratitude to members of the Finance Committee for the tax-credit increase.

“They made a lot of hard choices, and I want them to see they were good ones,” he said.

Dawson, who is based on Oahu and serves as the first point of contact for all film productions in the Hawaiian Islands, flew to Maui to meet the state lawmakers to “make sure they understand the value and potential” of the tax credit.

“We fought really hard to get that 5 percent differential for Neighbor Islands,” she said of the law that allows movie productions to claim tax credits of up to $15 million. “It was important for us to give the other islands a leg up. . . . It’s significant in that it’s able to attract bigger projects and bigger pieces.”

While House members asked general questions about operations and current projects, they also asked about potential productions hiring crew members from the Mainland. Buenger assured the lawmakers that it would cost more to bring in people from the Mainland, and that productions are looking to spend as much money “in front of the lens” as possible.

“If they have to import crews from (Los Angeles), for example, they have to pay to fly them here, they have to pay to fly them home, and they have to put them up into a hotel,” he said. “It’s a lot of expenses and more than doubles the cost per crew member so they’re absolutely looking to hire as many locals as possible. In fact, that was one of the topics today (with Fontaine) – figuring out their crew needs – and it’s going to be extensive.”

Buenger said that the sci-fi film will need more than 500 extras for at least five months of shooting.

“I’d love to have as many Maui people hired, but the impact we’re doing here is for the entire state,” he said.

Rep. Sylvia Luke, chairwoman of the committee, said that she was excited about Maui potentially becoming a “big player in the film industry” and viewed the studio as a “terrific economic boost for the state.”

Rep. Justin Woodson, who represents Kahului and helped organize Wednesday’s meeting, found the tax credit to be an asset in diversifying Maui County’s portfolio.

“Right now, the film industry is approximately $400 million as it relates to the whole state,” he said. “With this facility being on a Neighbor Island it could be an additional $200 million for the industry. That’s new money coming into the system.”

Despite an upcoming movie and hefty projected revenue, Maui County still is looking for a film commissioner, following the departure of Harry Donenfeld. Buenger, who is on the committee to select the successor, said that the committee had interviewed all candidates Tuesday and a “short list” has been given to Mayor Alan Arakawa.

With the commissioner position vacant, Dawson said Maui County is at a “crossroads right now.”

“It’s critically important that we communicate to the film industry that Maui is open for business,” she said.

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at