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Georgia's blank check to Hollywood 

Five years and hundreds of millions of dollars later, has the state's film tax credit been worth it?

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ON THE RISE: Film industry supporters hope local indie productions, such as Heavy Water, shown here filming in early July in a shuttered East Atlanta theater, will see a boost. - DUSTIN CHAMBERS
  • Dustin Chambers
  • ON THE RISE: Film industry supporters hope local indie productions, such as Heavy Water, shown here filming in early July in a shuttered East Atlanta theater, will see a boost.

Reitz says part of sustaining Georgia's film boom over the next five years will be grooming and providing incentives for a community of independent Georgia producers, directors, fundraisers, and financiers. Getting them here was the first step. Now they need the resources to become entrepreneurs and drive a thriving local filmmaking community.

"We need to stop thinking how does the filmmaker get their film made. We have to start thinking about how we help filmmakers start creating their own production companies and their kind of own ecosystems where they can make films, not make a film but make films," says Judson. "If you can help filmmakers actually pay their bills day to day and actually go from project to project, the more likely we're going to see more projects come out on a regular basis."

Accomplishing that will have a lot to do with people's ability to focus Atlanta's fragmented creative energies. The Atlanta Film Festival relocated its headquarters to Georgia State University two years ago and actively pursues conversations and collaborations with local educational institutions, including GSU, Georgia Tech, and Emory, as well as arts organizations such as international animation group ASIFA Atlanta. Jacoby's and Pinewood's future plans include establishing schools to train industry professionals. The Plaza Theatre's new owner Michael Furlinger is encouraging local filmmakers by offering them weeklong runs and a 50/50 box office split for their films if they can sell at least 90 percent of the seats at their first screenings. SCAD's churning out hundreds of graduates a year ready to work immediately and build résumés locally.

"There's nothing like when you put together people from the gaming community in the same room as somebody from animation and somebody from music and give people a sense that they're part of a greater community. It's not just they're just part of the filmmaking community, you're part of a creative community that encompasses five or six different industries," says Judson.

If the state can sustain its growth and continue to solidify a creative community, then "not just Atlanta, but Georgia legitimately becomes the third key media marketplace in America, after Los Angeles and New York," says Reitz.

Pinewood broke ground on its initial 305,000-square-foot studio complex in Fayette County this spring. Jacoby Enterprises is fast-tracking the construction of its Gwinnett County soundstages to early 2014. Inevitably, additional warehouses will be converted into studios or just market themselves as such. More and more films are slated to apply for permits, some possibly through Atlanta's new film office created to streamline applications and give neighborhood residents weary of invasive productions a City Hall contact where they can gripe.

The industry's growth shows no signs of slowing, but there is concern that it all might be happening too fast, too soon, and that a film production bubble is starting to inflate.

"We always dreamed of being a billion dollar business, and we're practically a billion dollar a year business. That was our prediction, but it happened in half the time that we predicted," says Reitz. "One can grow too quickly to the extent that there become too many studios too soon [and that could hinder] our ability to fill them with product and keep them profitable."

In January, Mayor Kasim Reed told the Atlanta Press Club he believed that by 2015, Atlanta would be mentioned with Los Angeles and New York City as one of the top-three American filmmaking cities. There's no way of knowing at this point if the tax incentive's indirect benefits add up to enough to offset the more than $70 million a year paid out in credits. But between the tens of thousands of workers employed in local film and TV production, and all the cottage industries springing up, it's hard to argue that the credit isn't working in Georgia's favor.

"What's happening now is [Atlanta] is going from being a glorified location to being a city with the kind of massive infrastructure for this business," says Kris Bagwell, executive vice president of EUE/Screen Gems Atlanta.

"Georgia, because of the location, scenery, Atlanta airport, we'll thrive in this industry as long as we play on a level playing field and we don't get behind some other incentive," Akins says.

The industry's rapid growth hasn't allowed much time for Georgia to pause and consider its identity as a filmmaking hub. Reitz and other industry insiders say that the de facto branding of the state and its capital city as the "Hollywood of the South" and "ATLwood" oversimplifies what's actually taking place here.

"It's like, why are we trying to be Hollywood? We don't need to be Hollywood," says Reitz. "We want to be Georgia. Whatever that's going to be, I believe, begins to truly materialize in the next phase. ... Because it's not just Hollywood movies, it's television, it's digital games, it's music. It's all those things that make this a unique destination. Since the Olympics we have not created another identity and we need to. But it'll come. It'll come."

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