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In May 2005, the Georgia Legislature fought back again by passing House Bill 539, which, according to the film office, offers tax credits of up to 17 percent to film productions that spend at least $500,000, with additional incentives for hiring Georgia workers and filming in poorer Georgia counties. Torre says the measure has already made a difference: Since May, the state has lined up one major feature and three smaller ones, including Tyler Perry's Madea's Family Reunion and a film starring Big Boi from OutKast, as well as Randy and the Mob. And Torre says the number of requests for production information received by the Georgia Film Office has gone up several hundred percent.
On the soundtrack, the rollicking gospel tune "Still Alive" comes up. CUT TO the exuberant Kirk Franklin singers singing and swaying to the music in a Georgia church.
Although filmed in February and March of this year, The Gospel, a church-set drama replete with contemporary gospel music, proved to be the first film eligible for the new tax savings, thanks to HB 539's retroactive nature. "The tax incentive is absolutely huge for us," says Rob Hardy, the Atlanta-based writer/director of The Gospel, which opens this week. "Plus, it'll attract more filmmakers, which means there will be more work here for everyone."
Hardy, who partnered with producer Will Packer and distributor Rainforest Films, demonstrates how fledgling, self-taught local filmmakers can work outside the system -- then make their way in. In 2000, Hardy's low-budget erotic thriller Trois, thanks to Rainforest's guerilla marketing and distribution campaign, was the second highest grossing independently distributed African-American release ever, and the fastest to earn $1 million. Trois even spawned two follow-ups on DVD.
Hardy and Packer, eager to avoid being pigeonholed as makers of erotic thrillers, sought a change of pace with The Gospel. Thanks to the timely success of The Passion of the Christ in early 2004, Rainforest interested Sony Screen Gems in the modern retelling of the prodigal son story. "When we made Trois, there had not been many erotic thrillers for the urban demographic. We took the same approach for The Gospel, which is a faith-based drama. Most films like this, for people of color, are comedy-based."
Shot entirely in Atlanta and employing about 200 people, The Gospel depicts a sexed-up R&B singer (Boris Kodjoe) who returns to the church of his ailing father (Clifton Powell) and butts heads with an ambitious young pastor (Idris Elba of HBO's "The Wire"). It's the first time Rainforest has worked with such established actors, although The Gospel's real stars are recording artists such as Fred Hammond and Yolanda Adams.
After years of releasing films straight to video or on limited numbers of movie screens, Hardy is ecstatic to be getting national distribution. "It's going to be on more than 1,000 screens, just like your typical movie from the quote-unquote urban demographic."
Rainforest's up-from-the-grassroots success shows that when more films get made in Georgia, they will better reflect the ideas and concerns of Georgians across demographic lines. "The more we add to the existing infrastructure, [the more] local filmmakers will find it easier to develop their own projects," Torre says, "and write stories that they're familiar with."
BLACK AND WHITE FOOTAGE OF a tumbledown Southern ghost town, silent except for the whir of crickets. We see empty streets, shuttered storefronts and HOLD on an antiques store. The image DISSOLVES AND TURNS INTO COLOR until we see, in the shop's place, a brightly painted restaurant in the same location reading "Whistle Stop Café: Fine Food at Fair Prices," with customers on the waiting list chatting on the front porch.
Over his 18 years at the film office, Greg Torre takes particular satisfaction in the film Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), particularly the boon the Universal Studios project meant for Juliette, Ga. "It was a kudzu-covered, decrepit place before the film came."
Once a vibrant Monroe County mill town boasting the world's largest grist mill, Juliette saw the mill close in 1957. By 1990, its main street had only two open businesses, but Juliette still retained traces of a timeless, treasured Southern town. Universal chose Juliette as the site for its adaptation of Fannie Flagg's female-empowering, century-spanning Southern novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café and poured $250,000 into the area, including turning the Williams General Merchandise store into a working restaurant.
Thanks to the infusion, Juliette is now a small-scale success story and an example of how film locations can be a boon to tourism. In 2003, the town was receiving as many as 500 visitors a week (even though Fried Green Tomatoes actually was set in Alabama).
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