Ready for your close-up, ATL? Lakewood film studio deal up for Monday vote

Ready for your close-up, ATL? Lakewood film studio deal up for Monday vote
By Katie Leslie
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Hollywood, meet Lakewood.
The Atlanta City Council is expected to approve Monday a leasing agreement with EUE/Screen Gems, Ltd., a film and television production company which plans to transform a portion of Lakewood Fairgrounds into the area’s first state-of-the-art studio complex.
The deal, with backing from Mayor Kasim Reed, would be a boon to the city and state’s film industry as the new facility would likely attract attention from major production studios in Los Angeles and New York, local film production sources say. In turn, city officials hope the center will boost local economy with an estimated 1,000 new jobs that will stimulate the area’s food, hotel and rental services.
The proposed 50-year leasing agreement would cost EUE/Screen Gems $250,000 per year before jumping to $600,000 after a decade, according to city officials. EUE/Screen Gems plans to utilize about 30 acres of the fairgrounds, refurbish Lakewood’s historic Spanish Mission Revival exhibition halls and convert them into sound studios, as well as build a sound stage upwards of 40,000 square feet that could accommodate television, commercial, digital and film productions, according to the proposal.
The deal would require EUE/Screen Gems to invest about $6 million in the project. Roughly $1 million will go toward the exhibition hall renovation, said John Lavelle, director of the City of Atlanta’s real estate portfolio.
While the Georgia Film, Music & Digital Entertainment Office declined comment, pending the council’s vote, local film insiders say transforming Lakewood into a large-scale production hub will further Atlanta’s reputation as a major destination for the industry. While the region has drawn studios for its breadth of locations and industry workers, it hasn’t been able to offer a major facility that meets the technical needs of filmmakers.
“Over the years — and it’s not an exaggeration — we’ve lost dozens of movies because we didn’t have sound stages,” said Norm Bielowicz, a location scout in Atlanta and former department head for the Georgia Film, Music & Digital Entertainment Office. “The truth of it is, especially with larger movies, they need stages. Even though technology is allowing us to do more and more without location pieces, you’ve gotta build some things.”
The EUE/Screen Gems deal provides just that.
“It will create a big buzz in town and certainly help us land more films, I believe,” said Jim Sedlak, an Atlanta-based production manager, assistant director and stage manager with the Directors Guild of America. “Having been around town for a long time, I think it will help cement deals in terms of [what we can offer]. We have a world class airport, a lot of hotel space, we have terrific base of technicians here in town and more and more equipment. … The tax incentives we have in place are huge, but one of the missing parts is having a soundstage for rent.”
In 2008, the state legislature passed the Georgia Entertainment Industry Investment Act, giving a production company that spends at least $500,000 in a year up to 30 percent of its budget in tax credits. Since the package was signed into law, entertainment productions have increased statewide by 400 percent, while investment numbers have jumped from $262.1 million in 2007 to $770.2 million in 2009, according to Stefanie Paupeck, spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Economic Development.
Those tax credits, in addition to Lakewood’s proximity to the airport, talent base and variety of settings, is what drew EUE/Screen Gems to the area, said Chris Cooney, President and COO. The company also has sound stages in New York and Wilmington, N.C.
Charles Judson, communications director for the Atlanta Film Festival, said the idea of converting Lakewood into a studio has been tossed around since the early 1980s, after Burt Reynolds filmed “Smokey and the Bandit” in the area.
“It was supposed to happen years ago. In the heyday of high-production location, even in the ’80s, we were consistently in the top five [of destinations] and that was before incentives,” Judson said. “There’s always the question of what would have happened had they been able to capitalize on that in the ’80s.”
City officials say the move won’t just benefit the film industry here, but also the Lakewood community, a seemingly forgotten area in southwest Atlanta.
“That’s something near and dear to our hearts and concerns, as it is for the neighborhood’s,” said Lavelle. “They’ve expressed their concern, not for film-making itself, but for what opportunities it might have for the neighborhood. … We see it as a potential for job creation and generation of a new industry that helps diversify its base.
“Those opportunities locally are something we want to work with [EUE/Screen Gems] on … to possibly develop some of the trade skills to make people employable within the industry, and not just for clerical or administrative type jobs.”
City officials say EUE/Screen Gems is the first company to make a serious bid for the Lakewood area in the nearly three years since the city began searching for development proposals. Efforts to attract suitable businesses to the area have been largely unsuccessful, said Lavelle and Luz Borrero, deputy chief operating officer for the city.
“Really no one has come forward with a business proposal that makes any sense in terms of taking advantage of what is on the ground and bringing investment opportunities that are complementary to it,” Borrero said. “Unfortunately no, we will not have anything that could be compared to this opportunity.”