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And of the many filmmakers who work in Georgia, Ray McKinnon may have more ideas about the South than anyone -- and may be the best ally in Southern film's fight to rise again.
The image goes OUT OF FOCUS as harp music plays in universally recognized cue for a FLASHBACK. A MONTAGE begins as the image resolves on:
• Burt Reynolds wielding a bow and arrow in Deliverance (1972).
• Henry Silva (or stunt man) bursting from an uppermost window of Peachtree Plaza and plummeting to the street in Sharky's Machine (1981).
• William Petersen running down the endless zigzag staircase of the High Museum -- standing in for Hannibal Lecter's insane asylum -- in Manhunter (1986).
• Morgan Freeman chauffeuring Jessica Tandy through North Druid Hills in Driving Miss Daisy (1989).
If Georgia had a golden age of local filmmaking, it began with Deliverance, despite its unflattering Southern associations conjured by "Squeal like a pig!" The gritty survival tale set on the Chattooga River signaled a turning point for the state's budding film industry. Deliverance marked the rise of 1970s icon Burt Reynolds, who used his clout to film the likes of the Smokey and the Bandit movies in Georgia throughout the 1970s.
A visit from Jimmy Carter to the Deliverance set even inspired the then-governor to found what is now the Georgia Film Video & Music Office. "Other movies had filmed in the state before," says Greg Torre, current director of the office, "but for Deliverance, the governor was impressed by all the levels of the production, the sheer number of vehicles, people, props, costumes involved on a movie set."
Georgia became one of the first states in the nation to actively court the film industry, says Torre. With its diverse geography, Georgia became a cinematic stand-in not just for other Southern states but for the Midwest, New Jersey, Vietnam, and the sci-fi future. "Things really picked up steam in the 1980s, and we got a lot of television business," says Torre, pointing to the TV series "In the Heat of the Night" and "I'll Fly Away," as well as the hundreds of TV commercials and music videos filmed here every year. And Driving Miss Daisy's multiple Oscars validated Georgia as the heart of the showbiz South.
Stock footage of gathering storm clouds, ominous flashes of lightning. Ominous music booms on the soundtrack.
Things began to change in the 1990s, in Georgia and elsewhere. Georgia's work force of actors, camera operators and other film workers began to unionize in greater numbers, diminishing Georgia's advantages over heavily unionized California.
And icy winds blew from the North as well, after Canada passed an aggressive tax-incentive program giving film companies significant savings. Suddenly, Toronto began standing in for seemingly every major U.S. city. "Where before the four major shooting cities were Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta and probably Chicago," Torre says, "now they were Los Angeles, New York, Toronto and Vancouver."
The Georgia Film, Music & Video Office saw a shift in Hollywood's priorities. Where once the financial advantages of a place took a backseat -- first to a professional filmmaking infrastructure, then to the quality of locations -- money suddenly began trumping all other decisions.
So, in 2001, Georgia fought back by passing a sales tax exemption for film productions. The measure helped make 2002 a particularly robust year for Georgia filmmaking, including five major productions: the comedy prequel Dumb & Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd, the college musical Drumline, the gospel comedy The Fighting Temptations, the Robert Redford kidnapping thriller The Clearing, and the completion of the Reese Witherspoon romantic comedy Sweet Home Alabama.
Yes, despite the title, Sweet Home Alabama was shot in Georgia. In your face, Alabama!
And that doesn't include about nine smaller independent films, including the family feature The Adventures of Ociee Nash. According to Torre, movies shot in 2002 had an impact of $267.2 million in Georgia.
Other big productions were on the horizon, including the future Oscar-winning Ray Charles biopic Ray. "They had made their second or third trip here and had pretty much committed -- we were helping them find office and warehouse space," Torre says.
But upping the ante, Louisiana passed an extremely aggressive and generous tax incentive program, and Ray's pre-production team investigated the potential savings. "You know how you always remember where you were when something tragic happens?" Torre says. "Well, we were standing in the lobby of the Marriott Marquis when they told us they were going to Louisiana."
So Ray, a film with "Georgia on My Mind" at its center, was shot in Louisiana. In your face, Georgia!
From then on, major feature productions grew scarce in Georgia. The past two years only saw one each, both being biopics with local connections: the golfing film Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius in 2003, and HBO's Franklin Roosevelt story Warm Springs. (That doesn't include local indies like The Lady from Sockholm, which boosted employment of the local sock puppet work force.)
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Welcome to my hood y'all!