What Sustains Georgia’s Film Industry?

Cinema Entertainment International News

A combination of factors help support the Peach State’s film productions.

With its eighth season premiering Oct. 22, “The Walking Dead” has been one of America’s most popular television shows since its debut in 2010. But the series did more than bring flesh-eating fear into the homes of viewers; it carried fans from a rural hospital through zombie-infested towns and fields to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. And that was just the first season.

While the Georgia setting in “The Walking Dead” was obvious, other successful series were more subtle about the setting. “The Vampire Diaries,” which ended earlier this year after eight seasons, was shot in Covington, about 40 miles east of Atlanta. Jackson sits nearly 50 miles south of Atlanta and serves as the home to Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” the second season of which becomes available Oct. 27.
Georgia has also played host to many high-profile feature film productions, including Marvel Studio’s 2017 “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” and “Thor: Ragnarok,” which premieres Nov. 2.

Film and television productions alone spent $2.65 billion in Georgia in fiscal year 2017, according to records from the Georgia Department of Economic Development. The entertainment industry as a whole – which includes commercial and music video productions – spent $2.7 billion and had an economic impact of $9.5 billion on the state.

That’s a large leap from fiscal 2011, when TV and filmmakers spent just $671.6 million in the state, and the industry as a whole spent $689.3 million and generated an economic impact of $2.4 billion in Georgia.

But this growth didn’t happen in a vacuum.

In the 1970s and ’80s, Georgia hosted productions for blockbuster movies including “Deliverance,” “Smokey and the Bandit” and its sequel, as well as “Driving Miss Daisy,” and popular television series like “In the Heat of the Night” and “The Dukes of Hazzard” also called the state home. In 1973, then-Gov. Jimmy Carter created a state film commission to attract more productions to the state.
In the late 1990s, however, things changed.

Canada started an aggressive tax incentive program that, coupled with exchange rates, began taking away some of our business,” says Lee Thomas, deputy commissioner of the Georgia Film, Music & Digital Entertainment Office.

The real wake-up call for Georgia was the loss of the 2004 film “Ray,” which told the story of Georgia native Ray Charles.
“We had scouted a long time with the Ray Charles story,” Thomas says. “When Louisianapassed its tax incentives, they closed the office and left.”
In 2005, Georgia decided to make itself more attractive to show business again. The state government passed a tiered system of tax incentives in the hopes of attracting film production companies. The system’s complexity made budgeting difficult for producers, Thomas says. In 2008, the package was updated and remains, aside from a few administrative tweaks, much the same today, she adds.
“Since we passed the tax incentives, from a financial standpoint, it’s been pretty nuts,” Thomas says.

The state’s current incentive program “provides a 20 percent tax credit for companies that spend $500,000 or more on production and post-production in Georgia, either in a single production or on multiple projects,” according to the film commission’s website. An additional 10 percent is available to companies that include a promotional Georgia logo in the work.

But tax incentives are only one piece to the puzzle. While they help attract business, infrastructure provides stability. According to Adweek, 16 film and TV studios announced plans to locate or expand facilities in Georgia since 2010.

“Pinewood studio was probably the biggest win for us,” Thomas says. “That’s like the mothership for all the sound stages in the world. To all of a sudden have that in Fayetteville, Georgia, is mind-boggling.”

Pinewood Studios Group built its Atlanta campus, also its first in the U.S., in 2014 with six sound stages. After two expansions, the 700-acre site now houses 18 sound stages with nearly 1 million square feet of covered space. Outside of California, Pinewood Atlanta is the largest purpose-built studio complex in the country, meaning it was built specifically to fit the needs of the film industry.

Pinewood Studios’ Georgia site has played host to “Passengers,” “Avengers: Civil War” and “Ant Man” as well as other Marvel films.
“We’ve been at capacity since the day we opened,” says Frank Patterson, president of Pinewood Atlanta Studios.

He says the company’s expansion into Georgia was due to the right-place, right-time circumstances: a combination of private interest and investment, the tax incentives package, Georgia’s history as a business-friendly state and the infrastructure – including key vendors – already in place from previous productions.

“It’s not like walking into a state that doesn’t have a background in production and trying to erect something new, which has happened in other states, and it’s very painful,” Patterson says.

“It’s things that you don’t think about, for sure,” Thomas says of vendors, which include a Home Depot on site at Pinewood’s lot. “It’s everything from pest control to people getting their flu shots. I went to get contact lenses one day, and they said they were so busy because they had to be on set to outfit ‘The Walking Dead’ and ‘The Vampire Diaries’ [with] contact lenses.”

The film industry was responsible for 92,000 direct and indirect jobs in Georgia in fiscal 2017, according to the Georgia film office. With project demand high and infrastructure in place, the state has begun to focus on maintaining that workforce.
Cue the Georgia Film Academy, a collaboration between the University System of Georgia and the Technical College System of Georgia with a goal of ensuring there are enough trained Georgians to meet the demands of the industry.
Jeff Stepakoff, whose background includes development and production in TV and film, started as the executive director in August 2015. Courses had to be approved, developed and adopted by both educational systems before classes began in January 2016, a year after the project was announced.
Today, nearly 2,000 students have taken GFA courses and 454 students are enrolled for the fall 2017 semester, according to the GFA. Initially, the curriculum was aimed at “below-the-line” crew – lighting and electrical work, for example. It has since created courses for “above-the-line” roles, like screenwriting, and students have opportunities to intern on unionized sets.
Along with classrooms at each of its 13 partner institutions, the GFA has a dedicated space at Pinewood Atlanta. That partnership, Patterson says, honors a long legacy of apprenticeship and training in the film industry.
“When Georgia said, ‘Let’s combine the tech school and university system to create this program for below-the-line crew,’ there was such a natural fit,” Patterson says. “That’s like, of course, that’s exactly what we’ve been doing in our industry for decades.”
We think there’s a natural relationship between what we’re doing and the growth of the industry,” Stepakoff says of the GFA’s programs. “The more the industry grows, the more we can expand to be effective.”
He said the biggest challenge facing the GFA is the demand for the program. While the goal is to expand to serve as many Georgians as possible, Stepakoff says, it has to be done to scale to ensure consistency in its courses. Ultimately, however, it’s all about boosting the economy and the industry in the Peach State.
For us, [the partnership with the GFA] means ensuring the future growth of this marketplace because we have people moving into the pipeline who are well-trained [and] ready to move into our workforce,” Patterson says.
Those are people like Ryan Lizardi, 26, who finished the GFA program this spring. He had some college credit but no experience in the film industry prior to enrolling with the GFA in the fall of 2016. After his spring internship, Lizardi networked, was accepted into the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees’s Georgia union – Local 479 – and started day-playing, meaning he was brought onto productions on days when an additional set of hands was needed.
“From there, everything just kind of snowballed,” he says. “People started passing my number around, and I’ve have been getting calls ever since.”
Now Lizardi is focused on landing a full-time role with a film production.
“This is it for me. I’m super passionate about this, and never in a million years did i think I’d have the opportunity to make this a reality.”
Corrected on Oct. 20, 2017: Frank Patterson is president of Pinewood Atlanta Studios.
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