For many film, television, and live performance projects, dedicated production space is essential. It is only through these spaces designed uniquely for audio and video that larger, more intricate productions can bring their entertainment to the masses.
Such spaces are a vital part of Nashville’s creative economy. The latest to join the ranks of these cutting-edge spaces is Worldwide Stages (WWS). Located in Spring Hill, WWS bills itself as “The premier production campus for the world’s entertainment industry.” The 38-acre, 320,000-square-foot facility provides studios, soundstages, production suites, and ample green room space for clients.
An Early Adopter of Innovation
Kelly Frey is the founder, president, and CEO of WWS. A longtime advocate of both arts and tech, Kelly is a past president and board member of the Nashville Japanese Film Festival, the Nashville Film Festival, and the Franklin Theatre. He also served as a past chair of the Arts & Business Council of Greater Nashville and is currently a board member of the Nashville Opera. He comes to WWS with 35 years of attorney experience, having worked with Fortune 500 companies that reshaped entire industries.
“In my work, I helped them figure out complex, business-critical transactions and create new capabilities,” he tells FilmNashville. “These included make-or-break transactions that determined the future of the company and new patents that launched entire industries.”
Kelly’s intrigue with forward-thinking entrepreneurism dates back to the 1970s. “I was part of Frederick W. Smith’s think tank when he was creating FedEx, pre-IPO. This was one of those times when there was no roadmap to success, as we were doing something entirely new. I got the chance to see firsthand the lengths entrepreneurs go to achieve success, like Fred flying out to Vegas to try and win money to make payroll, or a team of pilots so dedicated to a company’s success that they pawned their watches to pay for plane fuel. One of my favorite stories from that time involves half a dozen of those small jet pilots flying in formation—like they did in the Air Force—en route to NYC just because they got bored on those long weekday nights!”
After this exhilarating chapter of his life, Kelly became enamored with technology-first businesses. He started working with a series of players in that space, like one of the first “clone manufacturers” of IBM PCs. Kelly owned this company, serving as its president and CEO. He would wind up selling this company to IBM, as the company was interested in this manufacturer’s compatible intellectual property.
Kelly got involved in other ventures, including the Boston-based Copyright Clearance Center—creator of the first digital rights licensing system, which was eventually adopted by more than 90% of Fortune 100 companies—and Audible.
“Audible was unique for creating the first mobile download device two years before the debut of Apple’s iPod,” Kelly says. “They had to create everything, including a new type of battery to power the solid state memory required. One of those devices is now part of The Smithsonian Institution’s collection.”
Kelly’s passion for smarter businesses was publicly recognized in the mid-2000s when he was inducted as a Fellow into the World Technology Network (WTN). Now operating as another organization dedicated to solving systemic global issues, the WTN Fellowship put Kelly in a league with fellows such as Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Sir Richard Branson.
“I just love new technology, and trying to enable things that have never actually been created before,” Kelly says.
The Need for Bigger Space
Just as much as he loved technology, Kelly also loved entertainment. He was inspired by the digital revolution of filmmaking equipment in the early 2000s that made moviemaking more accessible to creatives.
“My interest in technology suddenly morphed by the capability of using these new digital tools to create all sorts of artistic projects,” Kelly says. “That’s how I migrated into film. I started learning about screenwriting, I started learning about making films using digital cameras and computer-based non-linear editing systems. But all of that was a result of having been a technology advocate and then seeing this huge shift in the industry. Suddenly, you didn’t have to go to Hollywood. You didn’t have to shoot something on film.”
Kelly had executive produced several local motion pictures, mentoring area talent in the process of helping them execute their story. Though rewarding, being a producer had its limitations. A producer was always attached to a project and had to put the needs of the current production over the needs of the community as a whole.
“I wanted to do more than help one production along. I wanted to be a resource for the entire industry,” Kelly says.
This opportunity to help everyone presented itself one day in 2019. Kelly was still working as an attorney for Nelson Mullins. Stopping by his office were Mark Long and Shane Ellis, two potential clients who had individually impacted Nashville’s entertainment production ecosystem. The two had become friends, and decided to join forces. They had arranged a meeting with Kelly to discuss their vision of a state-of-the-art entertainment production campus, and what that might mean for Nashville in terms of further elevating its prominence as a show business mecca.
Kelly recalls, “Mark and Shane had an innovative approach… In terms of these big stars, you tend to think of entertainers as being treated like royalty. You see them on stage, and you think ‘Wow! They’re so talented, how they can get up there and perform so spontaneously. And they must get treated like royalty’ Well, that’s actually not the case. It takes weeks and weeks of hard work to get to the point of being able to publicly perform and life on the road is anything but glamorous.”
In his chat with Mark and Shane, Kelly discussed how entertainers are often stuck in subpar venues. These locations may be old steel mills, warehouses, or third-rate civic auditoriums, sometimes lacking the most basic resources needed by talent. Because these spaces offer poor rehearsal conditions, entertainers regularly struggled with giving fans a great show and taking care of production logistics like heat and air conditioning, or safe parking.
“Many of these places are horrible, and the talent isn’t treated with the respect that they deserve,” Kelly says. “The facilities lack the basics of security, they have an inefficient layout, and they lack the extra space needed by the creative entertainment industry.”
Concluding that bad rehearsal spaces were a solvable problem, the three began going through the friction points one might encounter during a rehearsal for an arena-sized music act, what an ideal production space should look like, and the industry-wide effect it might have.
“And that’s how Worldwide Stages was created,” Kelly says. “Three guys sitting in a room convinced that there was a better way.”
Setting Up Shop
The WWS team researched available spaces for about a year. After one especially long day of location scouting, they stumbled across the company’s current location in Spring Hill. South of Nashville via a short drive, this location gave them proximity to the city and a generous amount of open space.
Kelly says, “It used to be the international headquarters for the Saturn brand of GM. Saturn had gone out of business in the 2000s. The property was owned by an industrial development board, and just sat practically vacant for a while.” Intending to use it to house a new police station and public library, the city of Spring Hill had acquired the property. But such plans never came to pass, as the cost of renovating the facility for those specific uses was prohibitive for the city.
“We showed up at exactly the right time,” Kelly says, laughing. “The day we contracted with the city of Spring Hill to buy the property was the day of the first reported COVID-19 case in Tennessee. Everybody was saying, ‘You guys are crazy! You’re going to have to spend millions of dollars, and everything’s closing down!’”
Kelly knew that he was taking a gamble. But fortune favored this move, and the pandemic gave him an entire year’s worth of lead time to raise all of the necessary funds—$20M in equity—to make WWS a reality. Visiting a local bank, Kelly was then able to procure a loan for the property.
“While everyone was in quarantine, Mark, Shane, and I were working as hard as we could to make this place a reality,” Kelly says.
The property for WWS was acquired in May 2021. After this transaction, Kelly prepared for what would be a year’s worth of work before WWS would be operational.
“We had to come in and do some heavy renovation. We had to come in and make all sorts of improvements to the facility, from the ceilings to the floors, and everything in between. But people heard that we had acquired the facility, and they just started calling us, asking about production space,” Kelly says.
Construction notwithstanding, the clients calling WWS were eager to try the space out. The first group to book the space was the iconic R&B and hip hop trio TLC, which did so in August 2021.
“Not bad to have one of the best-selling girl groups of all time as your first client!” Kelly jokes. “They loved the facility so much, they actually stayed an extra few days. They also fell in love with our in-house chef, and wound up taking our chef on tour with them.”
Solving Many Needs on Set
Kelly shares that Nashville is an ideal location for WWS. Being Music City, Nashville has over one-fifth of the top 200 touring music acts. It also has a vibrant production community for film and TV that has grown in recent years, and growing business and technology communities that would benefit from having WWS nearby.
Just having access to the amount of space needed for WWS puts Nashville ahead of other cities. Touching on this, Kelly says “If you look at the historical studio lots in LA or even Atlanta, they’ve had to design their physical facility—where they place their buildings, how they group them—based upon the real estate footprint that they could acquire… There’s a limited amount of space these studios have within which to put their production facilities and how they can be arranged.”
This greater amount of space is necessary for WWS to provide productions with the environment and amenities to do whatever they imagine. Each WWS studio and soundstage was planned with a considerate design to give production teams room, and incorporates features like optimal lighting and 400-amp power throughout.
Kelly says, “One of the things that we loved about this space is its flexibility. So we even have one sound stage that has a floor drain in it. You can do water effects if you wanted to. It’s the only place in the Mid-South region where you can do that. I am not sure we would have designed that into a new build, but we’ve certainly capitalized on the infrastructure that was already in place here.”
Indeed, flexibility seems to be the ongoing theme throughout WWS. Even rooms made for special purposes are flexible enough to be repurposed, like WWS’s private theater. Originally planned for screening production footage or for staging live performances, the 70-seat theater has been used as an audition space for new band members and as a talent showcase venue for recording industry executives.
Kelly says, “We never thought that we would find a private theater in a building… we thought that we would have to build that level of amenity from the ground up. But renovation comes with a price. We had to do a lot of rehab in that space to get it to where it currently is, which includes $250K worth of audio equipment for theater-style sound and recovering all of the acoustic panels. This lets performers hear what their fans are going to hear and creates the ambiance you would find in a theater or concert hall.”
An A-List Experience
Before the official opening, Kelly and his team had already worked with stars like Darius Rucker, Katy Perry, Thomas Rhett, Brooks & Dunn, Kane Brown, and others.
Officially opening its doors in January 2023, its first client production was “Holland, Michigan.” A forthcoming feature length project for Amazon Studios and Nicole Kidman’s Blossom Films, the film is directed by Mimi Cave and stars Kidman and Bryan Cranston. This production created over 200 local resident jobs, hired over 375 companies within the state as vendors to the production, and saw over $33M in direct expenditures in Tennessee.
“It’s been interesting. In the short time we’ve been open, WWS has gotten a good cross-sample of clients in the entertainment industry,” Kelly says. “We started out thinking we were going to just be music tour rehearsal/production space, but it quickly became evident that the same facilities were in demand from the feature film and TV/streaming industries in production entertainment content.
To keep this momentum going, Kelly and his partners are committed to making WWS an enjoyable experience for everyone on a production team. They treat WWS as “a five-star hotel that just so happens to have soundstages.”
“It’s not just a matter of a venue or leasing a vacant room. It’s a matter of treating people well. You can’t fix attitude in post,” Kelly says. “We make sure that the needs of our clients are taken care of. If you’re in the service business, that’s what you have to do. And if you do that, your clients will be more creative and tell their friends.”
Meeting the needs of such large teams is done courtesy of WWS’s team, which presently has 13 full time employees and a dozen part time employees in different roles.
“Our staff have the experience and understanding of what it takes to create a particularly suitable environment for production and entertainment. We’re blessed to be able to surround our core team with a bunch of experts that can assist us in giving guests a superlative experience. We’ve assembled the best,” Kelly says.
Working together to create “a safe, relaxing, and productive atmosphere,” the WWS team consists of professionals from various backgrounds. Some team members hail from major film and television productions. Several were once part of the Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s (TPAC) exemplary staff. And with total security being part of the goal, a couple of team members have law enforcement and military experience.
“Safety is part of our brand. We have armed security on site, as well as a medic… We know, as people familiar with production, that safety and security is a major concern,” Kelly says. These onsite measures are augmented with a surveillance network of 90 smart cameras equipped with facial recognition and license plate reading technology that’s monitored in WWS’s security command center. This oversight is complemented by a strong relationship with the Spring Hill Police Department, which Kelly states is only a few minutes away.
Places to Park
WWS was architected to accommodate hundreds of people at once, as each housed production demands sizable teams. To make this possible, WWS has over one thousand parking spaces on site.
Kelly explains, “It’s silly, but parking is a huge deal! Every production is really an army on the move with potentially hundreds of cars and dozens of vans and tractor-trailer rigs.“
Pointing to the crime that plagues some productions in major cities, Kelly says that clients visiting WWS from out of state are often relieved to know that the campus is so secure. WWS’s parking facilities are well-maintained, making them something of a national novelty. This alone is a huge draw for production companies planning their next big project, and will no doubt continue to pull creative capital from LA and Atlanta.
Plans for the future of WWS include expanding the facility’s size from 38 acres to 56 acres. “This prevents us from having to have an underground parking facility, or from forcing our guests to have to park offsite and travel over.”
Kelly says, “This summer, we’ll break ground on four 20,000-square-foot soundstages, which will be located in our current parking area and reduce some of the available spaces. We’ll make more spaces to offset this loss.”
This will be the first phase of additions, with WWS planning on adding a total of eight new sound stages by the time the new construction is complete.
“We’ll also have to add tens of thousands of square feet of warehouse and mill space for the creation and storage of sets, costumes, and props. We need that space in order to grow into the type of company that can handle almost any feature film, TV/broadcast/streaming project, or music rehearsal,” Kelly says.
In addition to the construction, Kelly has plans to build relationships with local and national production communities, joining certain productions as a producer/co-producer to give them access to WWS, and leveraging state tax incentives so that local production talent can stay in Middle Tennessee.
Kelly says, “We will never compete with our clients as far as content creation. But anytime we have excess capacity, we want to see that put to use. That may be a matter of having a project ourselves to utilize the space, or whether we want to enable local filmmakers… There are a lot of low and micro-budget projects that need a week’s worth of soundstage work. Knowing some of those people in that area, we can provide that space and enable others to succeed and gain credibility… We are a for-profit company, but we also want to help nurture our local creative community.”
For further information about Worldwide Stages, visit its website and social media.