Film Industry Offers Georgia Cities a Tourism Legacy

Georgia Cities Newspaper
Film Industry Offers Georgia Cities a Tourism Legacy
May 1, 2009

For decades those in the film and television industry have known the advantages of using Georgia—with its mild climate and cities filled with charm and aesthetic beauty—as a film locale. When production crews come to town, cities enjoy an immediate boost to the local economy and often continue to see a positive impact on tourism years after a production has wrapped.

Take the 1972 movie “Deliverance,” shot in the city of Clayton in Rabun County. Clayton’s, and indeed the state’s, tourism industry still enjoys the residual economic benefits generated from the nearly 40-year-old movie.

“Three men who were stunt rafters on the project stayed behind when the film was completed and founded Georgia’s white water rafting industry,” explained Bill Thompson, deputy commissioner for the Georgia Film, Music & Digital Entertainment Office. “This industry employs approximately 500 seasonal people per year, serves 20,000 tourists per year and is conservatively estimated to have generated more than $30 million for Georgia’s economy in the last 37 years.”

In recent years, as other states began offering tax incentives for film and television productions, Georgia suffered from increased competition, and the number of annual productions in the state waned. However, House Bill 1100, a bill Governor Sonny Perdue signed in May 2008 that gives film, television and music productions in the state a 20 to 30 percent tax incentive, has already dramatically changed the tide in favor of Georgia’s film and television industry. The bill is helping to spark Georgia’s music and gaming industries as well.

In the first quarter of 2008, only one major production was filming in the state; a year later, eight major productions are shooting. While Thompson’s office could barely close a deal in 2007 and 2008, 25-30 feature films and TV series are projected to be made in Georgia in 2009 and there are approximately 100 prospects in the pipeline.

“Many of our customers tell us that Georgia’s balanced and business minded set of incentives, as well as our mature workforce, suppliers,mild climate, ease of transportation via Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, and our beautiful scenic locations, make Georgia the number one most desirable place to produce films,” Thompson said. “Because of HB 1100, we are expanding our workforce, supplier base and all of the other ingredients required to be a major player in the entertainment industry.”

This spring the cities of Covington, Decatur, Dunwoody, Madison and Newborn were all among filming locations for the movie”H2,”a sequel to the 2007 remake of Halloween, a horror flick that first debuted in 1979.

“When there is filming here, we see a lot of extras milling about,” said Decatur Assistant Economic and Community Development Director Linda Harris.”We don’t keep official track, but we believe some extras are introduced to the city during filming and then return to enjoy our amenities.” Perhaps an indirect boost to tourism is the fact that “H2” producers made a contribution to the Friends of the Decatur Cemetery, one of the filming locations for the movie. The scenic, historical cemetery is a popular city attraction.

“H2” is currently generating what Thompson calls film induced tourism.

“The press coverage of a film being produced in a certain community can cause more people to visit,” Thompson said, adding that Georgia has many excellent examples of such communities including Savannah, Covington and Juliette, attracting money-spending visitors who are fascinated by seeing the actual locations where a movie has filmed.

Savannah has seen such an economic impact on its tourism from film and television projects that in 1995, the city set up a Film and Tourism office to help market picturesque city locations and Savannah’s trained pool of production workers.

“Since 1995, we have seen more than $100 million in economic impact from film, television and other media projects,” said Jay M. Self, director of Savannah’s Tourism & Film Services. “Our office does not measure the effect on tourism, though we know it is significant.”

Self offers examples of how local merchants capitalize on the city’s rich film history: “Local merchants sell replicas of the Bird Girl statue featured on the cover of `Midnight In The Garden of Good and Evil’ and local resident Ron Higgens operates a Movie Tour, showcasing the locations used by the many movies that have shot here.”

The Covington/Newton County Chamber of Commerce produces and freely distributes a map depicting locations in Covington where television shows “Dukes of Hazzard” (1979-1982) and “In The Heat of the Night” (1989-1994) filmed several scenes.

In 2008,more than 2,000 tourists, some as far away as England, Germany, Italy and France, descended upon Covington for DukesFest, an annual event celebrating the television show, which took place at the Atlanta Motor Speedway in nearby Hampton.

“People would come here and stay in Covington during the DukesFest and visit the Square,” said Clara Deemer, head of the Chamber’s Tourism Division. “One day, we had25 General Lees (the iconic car used in the TV show) and police cars on the Square.”

Deemer estimates that between 60 and 75 percent of all of the county’s tourism is based upon the two television shows.

Pam Mayer, coordinator with the Coweta County Convention and Visitor Bureau, said the area is seeing a huge impact from HB 1100 incentives but visitors still come to the area to see places used in past films, and in the process, spend money on hotels, food and souvenirs.

“People want to the see the homes that were filmed in `Fried Green Tomatoes’,” Mayer said. “In Juliette, tourists are sure to stop in the Whistle Stop Café, which was one of the main locations used in the film.”

Thompson said “Fried Green Tomatoes” transformed Juliette, which had a population of four when filming crews arrived and was in imminent danger of disappearing under encroaching kudzu.

“Today, Juliette is a thriving small town whose economy is completely based upon the film,” Thompson said. “Whistle Stop Café owner Robert Williams claims that more than 100,000 visitors come to Juliette each year.”

With word spreading about Georgia’s tax incentives, the future looks bright for cities wishing to seize upon the opportunity of Georgia’s growing digital entertainment industry.

“Not only are we uniquely positioned to grow our film and television production segments, we also currently enjoy a huge music industry in Georgia that employs 9,500 people in over 1,000 music businesses,” Thompson pointed out. “Georgia’s music industry represents an annual economic impact in the state of more than $2 billion per year. We are also pushing very hard to grow Georgia’s video game development industry, which grew by $50 million dollars in 2007 and has generated more than $182 million dollars since 2005. We believe Georgia’s video game development industry has huge potential for future growth.”

For cities that wish to attract production crews to their communities, Thompson has some advice: be welcoming, be cooperative and be supportive. Further, Thompson suggests cities undertake some self-evaluation.

“We encourage Georgia cities to realistically evaluate their current resources and make themselves as attractive as possible to film and television producers,” he said. “Immediately, each community should take steps to preserve historic buildings and other unique features in their communities in order to be more desirable to filmmakers. New is not always better when it comes to making a film. Any community that wants to promote themselves as a location for film and TV production should feel free to market themselves directly to film companies and also send a promotional package to the Georgia Film, Music & Digital Entertainment Office.”

“Make our division aware of any truly unique natural features, historic buildings, unusual architecture or other local attributes that we may not be aware of and send us a notebook of photos with descriptions and exact locations,” Thompson explained. “GPS coordinates are appreciated. Also let us know if the owners of those locations are totally open to the idea of allowing filming at those locations and provide all contact information. Do not send photos of any locations that are restricted or not available for use.”