Roll Cameras! Movie industry is big business in Atlanta

By Sandy M. Tyler

Melissa McCarthy was just at a Braves game, Paula Patton was seen sipping drinks at the Midtown W Hotel and Amy Adams was taking pictures with fans in the Fado Buckhead bathroom. Not to mention the sightings of Jason Bateman, Justin Timberlake, Jessica Alba and Clint Eastwood all over town.

If it seems like Hollywood’s stars have left the West Coast and relocated to Atlanta, you’d be right. The entertainment industry is big business in Georgia thanks to the Georgia Entertainment Industry Investment Act recently amended by Gov. Nathan Deal.

The most recent version of the bill, passed in 2008, offers a 20 percent income tax credit to qualified film, TV and commercial productions shooting in Georgia with an additional 10 percent tax credit given to productions that embed a Georgia promotional logo in the tiles or credits or as product placement within the content of the production. There was also the added incentive of an 8 percent sales tax credit for qualifying production purchases in Georgia, which will return to the state’s coffers on Jan. 1, 2013.

The result of such an attractive incentive package has been a staggering 1,000 percent increase in the film and entertainment business in Georgia since 2007. From July 2010 through June 2011, 336 productions were shot in Georgia with spending of more than $689 million and an economic impact of more than $2 billion dollars in the state. Thirteen TV series were in production in the spring of 2012, according to Stefanie Paupeck, Communications Specialist with the Georgia Department of Economic Development, with countless other movies, commercials, music videos and TV pilots currently being shot in and around the Atlanta area.

And although the tax incentive is the main driver for the amount of work being done in Georgia, attracting this level of business takes a commitment from the whole state. In order to educate and prepare the state’s counties to service the needs the of entertainment industry, the Georgia Film, Music and Digital Entertainment office introduced the Camera Ready program which provides fast and easy access to county production resources and location information. Significant economic impact can be felt on the local level including the hiring of local residents, hotel stays and purchases of local goods and services. There are countless stories throughout the state of small businesses growing or in some cases being saved because of the impact of a large production coming to town.

“In the 1990s, people came to Georgia to shoot Southern stories, and that was it. Now the entertainment industry is shooting and spending money all over the state of Georgia,” says Linda Burns, an Atlanta based producer and production manager. And although the increase in business has meant greater availability of equipment and sound stages, crew is one of the areas where the industry is trying to keep up.

Seeing the need for well-trained production assistants (PAs), those beginning their careers in the production industry, Burns teaches PA Academy classes through the Atlanta Film Festival whenever her schedule permits. In 2011, she even taught an advanced course for production assistants, underwritten as part of a federal grant for job training in film and entertainment in Georgia, to prepare PAs for work on films and episodic TV sets.

Atlanta is now a legitimate film production center, right up there with New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, and local industry veterans are working to fill the needs of a thriving industry. After 14 years as a talent agent in Atlanta, Jennifer Kelley founded Big Picture Casting along with her partner Rita Harrell in 2011. “We’re doing a little bit of everything – features, commercials, industrials, you name it,” says Kelley.

Big Picture Casting is also responding to the industry’s desire for the best talent, teaching valuable workshops that include showing local talent how to perform well in auditions and even how to drink properly on camera, a skill that’s actually much harder than it might seem. “The quality of talent is rising and the actors here are getting bigger opportunities and training in order to be better. We love the work that’s coming in (to Atlanta), and all we can do is try to prepare everybody, so that our clients are pleasantly surprised instead of disappointed. Most of the leads are still coming out of the major markets, though. It’s a process,” says Kelley.

Production businesses investing in Georgia serve not only the growing film and entertainment industry but also help out established local production companies as well. Panavision Cameras, which closed their Georgia facility in 1998 due to a lack of business, has returned, and EUE/Screen Gems has constructed five sound stages with over 150,000 square feet of production space in Southwest Atlanta on the former Lakewood Fairgrounds site. EUE/Screen Gems employs 250 people on their lot with plans to add more employees as needed.

“Production equipment is more readily available now, and the latest and greatest that used to only be available in LA and New York is now here,” says Linda Burns. Sheryl Myers, a long-time Atlanta production veteran and currently the Executive Producer at Stateline Films says, “Competition is a good thing for me as a producer because if I’ve got vendors competing, I’m going to get better rates on things I need.”

But most importantly, all of the entertainment industry’s growth gives Georgia’s film community something it has lacked in the past, real legitimacy. “As a production company based in Atlanta, we now have more credibility. We’re now located in a production center; we’re not just an outpost.” Says Myers, “The whole level of the game was raised when this (the tax incentive) happened.”

There’s also a strong sense of hometown pride, as Atlantans have seen movies like The Blindside and TV shows like The Walking Dead, both shot in town, find success. Rather than the jaded population of other production hot spots, Georgians are still excited to see a film crew. But, it’s not just a great tax incentive and world-class production support that’s turned Atlanta into a production powerhouse; Atlanta’s film industry has something that’s only on offer in the South. As Sheryl Myers puts it, “There’s a nice, hospitable way that people work in the industry here in Atlanta. It’s a Southern thing maybe, but it’s just the way we set things up, and the industry responds to that when they get down here.”

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