Oct. 14--HAMPTON -- What better way to use the historic downtown Hampton Post Office's mishmash interior than to turn it into a film studio?
m2 Pictures was running out of workspace when the years-empty building went up for auction in March. The 7-year-old firm didn't know what was behind "Door No. 1" when the owners snagged the former Post Office-restaurant building with a $300,000 bid.
"It's an old beast of a building," m2 Pictures President and Executive Producer Mike Sinclair said. "It's fun to see it start to come alive again."
He and another m2 owner, Ray Walsh, cut the chains of the iconic 29,000-square-foot building to find rotting wood, a flooded basement, piles of junk and a varied scene with a restaurant kitchen, two bars and dining areas, a defunct basement nightclub, an outdated penthouse suite replete with Jacuzzi and a smaller modern apartment. That helps explain why the building's value fell from $1.4 million in 2010 to $425,000 this year, according to online assessment records.
While it could cost the company $800,000 in renovations, the eclectic venue with some high ceilings could serve as various sets for m2's ongoing docudrama shows for Investigation Discovery, a true-crime channel owned by Discovery Communications.
On a tour, Sinclair envisioned the various shots he could grab: whispers in a dining room back corner, arguing at the balcony bar or naturally lit actors on the rooftop. Two of the kitchen's large walk-in refrigerators store props. He pointed to the third. "That's our morgue," he said, meaning producers could use it in shows about death or murder.
The post office at 132 E. Queen St. is just down the street from m2's main offices at 27 W. Queens Way. Sinclair insisted the firm's presence stay downtown with its two server-connected buildings. m2's growth had already taken over sister company Metro Productions' main building, pushing some staffers to a better-suited Richmond space, Metro President Ray Walsh said.
Metro Productions had ventured into TV once and failed, but Walsh partnered with Sinclair, who had experience with New Dominion Pictures in Suffolk, to start a separate business borrowing some Metro resources in 2006.
The pair would travel to industry summits carrying a DVD player to meet movers and shakers in the field. More often than not, they were ignored. The firm produced one hour during its first operating year.
Finally, m2 caught a break when the National Geographic Channel picked up Sinclair's documentary on the resurgence in the white supremacy movement called "American Skinheads." Interest in the show led to three more "Inside Hate" programs on the channel.
Another m2 project chronicled the most challenging cases of the FBI, which turned into "FBI Criminal Pursuit" for Investigation Discovery. Sinclair realized as reality and crime TV was taking off, he could find a niche that combined investigative and re-enactment work to explore the psychology of criminal minds. His most successful show now is "Happily Never After," which focuses solely on victims murdered during their honeymoons.
Today, m2 has a development team of six people and 40-full time production employees. In his Rolodex, Sinclair tallies well over 100 freelancers across the country, depending on where they're shooting. For instance, crews plan to film in Alaska next month for "Ice Cold Killers."
The firm creates about 60 hours of TV a year on average and has totaled about 300 hours of programming. m2 didn't disclose how much the company makes, but Sinclair noted the business was profitable although TV has its challenges when networks typically retain show rights.
"I think m2 Pictures and the volume of work they produce out of Hampton is a vital part of our industry here in the commonwealth," director Andy Edmunds of the Virginia Film Office said, adding the company serves as a training ground for local talent.
Gov. Bob McDonnell began Virginia's first targeted push to recruit the industry in 2010 when he signed legislation allowing tax credits for film projects. He also increased the existing Governor's Motion Picture Opportunity Fund to $3 million per year.
While the movies "Lincoln" and now "Captain Phillips" catch the headlines for in-state filming, m2 was listed in a recent economic impact report released by the state for employing the equivalent of 23 full-time people and generating $86,263 in state and local taxes between 2012 and 2013 for work related to the "Catch My Killer" TV series. In the report, Mangum Economic Consulting estimates that the film industry pays 23 percent above the statewide average.
Hampton Roads producers received more than $1 million in grants from the Governor's Motion Picture Opportunity Fund last year, Edmunds said. m2 Pictures has only been awarded up to $128,000 for in-state spending related to "Catch My Killer," Sinclair said.
The Virginia Production Alliance, which lobbies on behalf of producers, would like to focus state money on bringing an ongoing series rather than movies with a shorter presence, said Terry Stroud, the group's director of legislative affairs. In recent years, various state universities have added film production to course offerings and Stroud would like to keep talent in Virginia.
Director Taylor Hackford shot a pilot called "Company Town" around Hampton and at Fort Monroe earlier this year, but the CW Network didn't pick up the naval drama.
M2 Pictures maintains agents in Hollywood and is looking to reach New York or even Canada, Sinclair said. The firm will continue trying out new genres -- like it did with reality TV show "Monsters and Mysteries in America" on Destination America -- to expand its brand as the industry changes, most notably with Netflix and online streaming.
"We are not planning to just sit on our hands in Hampton," Sinclair said. "We're trying to expand the breadth of the stories we're telling."
M2 planned enough coming projects to justify buying the downtown Post Office, which would allow for low-budget shoots and less travel, he said. The firm also has two passive investors. Sinclair hopes the building continues telling its own story, and he's working with a historian to restore historic features and the facade to how it looked when it was built in 1914.
Sinclair plans to have the renovation completed in time for its 100th year next year. The Hamptonian storyteller also just liked the idea that letters chronicling residents' lives streamed through the building for decades.
"I'm glad we're able to bring people's real stories back to life in that old building," Sinclair said.
Bozick can be reached by phone at 757-247-4741.
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