|New investments in movie industry flow. Recent decision will help expand studio at Lakewood.
By Greg Bluestein
Some may chuckle at the city officials eager to dub Atlanta “Hollywood South,” but the metro area has fast become a filmmaker’s haven – thanks largely to taxpayer help.
A decision last week by Atlanta’s economic development agency to commit as much as $500,000 in local property taxes to help a company build new soundstages at Lakewood is another reflection of both the film industry’s growth here and government incentives that have fueled it.
Since state lawmakers adopted an expanded tax break for production companies in 2008, dozens of TV shows and movies have been shot here, and studios have sprung up from the exurbs to the city. Local governments are increasingly chipping in, too.
The studio at Lakewood whose expansion is being aided by the city, EUE/Screen Gems, said demand has been so heavy for the soundstages it opened in 2010 that it needs two more.
That sort of success, however, has some critics questioning the need for public financial help. Joe Henchman, of the conservative Tax Foundation, argues that film industry incentives fail to encourage economic growth partly because many of the jobs they create are temporary and are sometimes filled by people from other states.
“There’s so many competing priorities for tax dollars right now,” he said. “It’s surprising to me that any state would prioritize subsidizing one of the most profitable industries in the world over other uses.”
Backers say the millions of dollars in state and local incentives have more than paid off.
“The tax credits have reinvigorated the industry,” said Ric Reitz, an actor, writer and director based in Atlanta.
“Before, I was working everywhere but Georgia. And now more than 50 percent of my work is Georgia-based, which is a great thing for me and my family.”
The scene was set about four years ago when lawmakers beefed up a tax break aimed at moviemakers. The version they passed offers TV and film companies spending at least $500,000 on a project up to 30 percent of the production’s budget in tax credits. That helped Georgia compete with rival locales offering similar juicy incentives.
The state’s film office says the tax credit, expected to cost about $49 million this year, has helped boost film and TV production spending tremendously – from $132 million in fiscal 2007 to about $690 million last year.
There’s a catch, though. The infusions often create a flurry of part-time or temporary work that ebbs and flows with a production’s schedule, rather than permanent jobs.
Atlanta Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd has one idea to shift the mix in favor of longer-term work: She’s encouraging local tech schools to train students on behind-the-scenes specialties. The hope, she said, is to attract post-production work and other permanent industries.
“They’re looking for people in the city as opposed to paying a lot of money flying in folks from out of town,” she said of production companies.
The industry’s growth can be felt in perhaps surprising places across the metro area.
Tyler Perry built a 200,000 square-foot facility in southwest Atlanta that features five stages and a 400-seat theater. Parts of AMC’s wildly popular “Walking Dead” series are filmed at studios near Senoia, a rural enclave in Coweta County, as well as the Lifetime series “Drop Dead Diva.”
Atlanta isn’t the only local government aiding the industry. Paulding County funded an 11-acre facility called Atlanta Film Studios with a $5.6 million bond. The studio recently wrapped “42,” a feature about Jackie Robinson, and it could soon attract other business, too. Jamie Gilbert, the county’s economic development director, said a company that distributes production units for films could open a permanent location near the studio – bringing at least 10 new jobs with it.
“It’s a great economic development tool, and people are investing in infrastructure in the community to try to root the business here,” said Jeremy Hariton, a partner with Road-Town Enterprises, which manages the facility.
Among the largest of local studios is the EUE/Screen Gems project. It came about in 2010 when a New York-based company decided to convert 34 acres of city-owned land at Lakewood Fairgrounds into a sprawling film studio. With the help of up to $1.1 million in property taxes from a district that includes the property, the first phase of studios were completed in March 2011.
The facility, which has so far hosted 350 productions, was at capacity from Day One, said Kris Bagwell, the studio’s vice president. The planned $3.3 million expansion would add two sound stages with the help of up to about $500,000 in property taxes collected from a special tax district to help fund the project. It would create only seven full-time staffers, city officials say, but it’s expected to spin off 600 part-time gigs.
“On some days, there are 600 people working on the lot who either weren’t working or they were working in California, New York, Louisiana or North Carolina,” said Bagwell. “We hear all the time from people who say, ‘This is the first time I’ve gotten to come home and work.’ “
It’s all helping amp up Atlanta’s celebrity quotient. John Travolta, Jennifer Garner and Clint Eastwood have been recently spotted eating at some of the city’s finest restaurants. And there’s tremendous buzz surrounding the cast of “Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” which is now filming in metro Atlanta.
It’s not all glitz, though. Some of the biggest business at local studios comes from commercials, corporate videos and other lower-profile work.
Invest Atlanta President Brian McGowan said he’s certain the investment in the local film industry is worth it, noting California’s frustration that upstarts in Georgia have lured away so many recent projects.
The city, he joked, should put up a stark billboard in Hollywood with an arrow pointing eastward and a sign noting that Atlanta is 3,000 miles the opposite direction.
“There is this quite unspoken thing happening in Hollywood where people want to be here,” he said.
**The following article appeared in the Atlanta Journal Constitution on September 24, 2012