How Socrates Buenger Built His Studio Business in Maui

Courtesy of the Maui Film Festival
Maui festgoers attend an outdoor screening as part of the event's Celestial Cinema program.

Buenger, the owner and CEO of the 21,000-square-foot facility, got his project up and running ahead of Ryan Kavanaugh's $200 million dream studio.

This story first appeared in the June 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Socrates Buenger is the first to admit he's not a Hollywood mogul. A production assistant on E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial in his youth, he has only a handful of producing credits to his name. But what he does have, as of mid-May, is ownership of the largest film studio on the Hawaiian Islands.

Buenger is owner and CEO of the new 21,000-square-foot Maui Film Studios, the only soundstage in Maui located in the Kahului industrial region. With the facility ready for full productions by September, Buenger hopes to increase shooting in a region that has hosted everything from Ang Lee's The Hulk to ABC's Modern Family.

Maui Film Studios' emergence as a regional player took nearly everyone by surprise. "I suspect Buenger kept things under the radar to prevent competing projects from interfering," says Hawaii Film Office manager Donne Dawson.

She's referring to Relativity Media's billionaire CEO Ryan Kavanaugh, who for years has been lobbying to build a $200 million studio on Maui.

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Since 2011, Kavanaugh has been negotiating with state legislators to grant generous tax breaks for construction of his facility and to more than double Hawaii's production incentives. His plans encountered opposition, though, and in the interim Buenger built his studio without public support.

"It was met with a lot of resistance," says Buenger. "I was told [by local politicians] in no uncertain terms that I was going to single-handedly kill the film industry in Maui" by pushing away Kavanaugh.

The idea originated three years ago, when Buenger tried to find a soundstage to produce a traditional broadcast pilot for his political web series Mad Libs. When he called state-owned Diamond Head Studios on Oahu, "They basically said: 'Sorry, call back in two years.' And that was just for my Podunk production."

Sensing an opportunity, Buenger, with the backing of a single local silent partner, did two years of "under-the-radar planning" so as not to arouse the political heft of Kavanaugh and his local allies. This past year, with Kavanaugh's plans stalled and his in line, he went public. His timing couldn't have been better: Aside from beating Kavanaugh to the punch, Buenger likely will be able to tout enhanced tax incentives to prospective productions.

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Hawaii's legislature recently approved a 5 percent bump for the state's film incentive program (Maui now offers a 25 percent tax credit on production dollars spent). The measure also would raise the per-project incentive cap from $8 million to $15 million. "The new incentives, if approved, stand to make Maui Film Studios very competitive," says Dawson.

While negotiations are still under way, Buenger says Hollywood's response to his facility has been overwhelming. "We have four major features and one network pilot vying for space in the next 12 months," he says. "Scheduling is getting tricky."

Relativity declined comment, but a source close to the company says, "Buenger has approached Relativity several times about a partnership and the studio declined." The source added: “Buenger’s studio is in fact a repurposed warehouse that is unsuitable for feature film production. Mayor Arakawa of Maui has consistently been supportive of Relativity, and we look forward to moving forward with our plans."

Indeed, Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa told THR, "We support all efforts to try and expand our film industry here in Maui County, because we have always felt that this could be a new economic engine for us. Ryan Kavanaugh in particular has always supported this community, and we appreciate his efforts to help push towards getting better tax incentives for film and television production in our islands."

Dawson says a more modest soundstage and digital studio are planned for the Big Island. He says: "Maui Film Studios is something real. It's something on the ground, and it's something the community can see. I think that's what people are looking for at this point -- something tangible."