Saturday, October 17, 2009

Earl Owensby: The “Dixie DeMille” Who Turned Shelby, NC, into Hollywood

I was cleaning out old files today and came across some press materials I’d gotten for a newspaper article back into the 1980s. The subject was Earl Owensby, an independent filmmaker who built a movie studio in Shelby, NC (pop. 19,400) in the 1970s. Owensby is a legend in the Carolinas, has been interviewed on 60 Minutes, and profiled in periodicals like The New York Times, Esquire, and GQ (which dubbed him the “Dixie DeMille”). His movies may not be widely-known beyond the South, but they certainly turned tidy profits for Owensby’s EO Studios.
Owensby grew up an orphan in Cliffside, NC, and worked at a local movie theater before joining the Marines (inspired by Sands of Iwo Jima). When he returned to civilian life, Owensby began selling pneumatic tools from the trunk of an old Cadillac…and eventually became a millionaire. After seeing 1973’s Walking Tall (a huge hit in the South), Owensby decided to take the plunge into the film business. He produced and starred in Challenge, the story of a politician who takes vengeance on the mob after his family is murdered. Owensby financed Challenge out-of-pocket for $400,000 and sold it to a distributor for an immediate profit.

Other films quickly followed: action films like Death Driver and Dark Sunday; the horror film Wolfman; and Living Legend, an Elvis-inspired story of a rock’n’roll singer co-starring Ginger Alden, Presley’s fiancée at the time of his death. Owensby’s biggest hit in the 1970s was Buckstone County Prison (aka Seabo), which cast him as a half-breed bounty hunter who takes a murder rap for a nice guy and ends up in the title prison…which is run by a psycho warden that hates him. The film co-starred country singer David Allen Coe and Western film veteran Don “Red” Barry. If memory serves, Buckstone County Prison was successful enough to warrant discussion of a "Seabo" television series, but that never happened.

In the 1980s, Owensby capitalized on the 3D fad with efforts like Tales of the Third Dimension and Dogs of Hell. He also bought an abandoned nuclear power plant that was converted into an underwater sound stage, which James Cameron used for The Abyss.

Owensby made his last movie in 1991, though the Earl Owensby Studios web site ( lists three projects currently in development, including sequels to Wolfman and Buckstone County Prison.

My favorite Owensby quote is from a 1983 press release: “When I put my feet on the table, the board has met. My studios are paid for and there are no bankers chasing me to collect the 22% interest most filmmakers are paying these days.” Spoken like a true independent filmmaker!

(Note: All photos are courtesy of Earl Owensby Studios)


  1. What a fascinating man! I have never heard of him before, and his story itself would make a good movie. I loved his quote at the end. What a life! I wonder if it is difficult to find a movie of his somewhere, or if distribution is limited to his stomping grounds. Great article, Rick.

  2. Rick, this was a very interesting article about a man of whom I suspect most people have never heard. We owe a great deal to the independent filmmakers. Well done!

  3. Rick, I have never heard of Earl Owensby. He sure was talented. I wonder if I have seen any of his work.

  4. Earl lives a couple of miles from me. I watched him film a few movies back in the 70's and 80's. He is in bad health from what I hear.

  5. Trying to find information on a documentary film he made about the Johnstown flood of 1889. My wife was in that documentary filmed 1989, Gaffney, SC.