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"Four or five years ago, it was different. Directors like Alex Orr and Jacob Gentry [and small film collectives like] Fake Wood Wallpaper and POP Film were all doing work. Venues like Eyedrum and Apache Café would have screenings of new local stuff at least once a month."
While reporting on local film production for the website CinemATL in the mid-1980s, Judson followed regular indie projects such as "Dailies," which gave filmmakers unifying themes for new programs of original short films every three or four months. "Dailies" provided the inspiration for The Signal, a cerebral, zombie-style horror film by Gentry, Dan Bush and David Bruckner that debuted at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival.
Indie film scenes have a kind of symbiotic relationship to commercial productions. If there's no production work in town, scrappy young filmmakers can't pay their bills to support their labors of love. But if there's a surplus of work, filmmakers can have trouble finding collaborators and a crew.
Judson saw signs of the former situation in 2006 and 2007. "There was a lull in production, and a lot of filmmakers couldn't sustain a living here," he says. "Many of the people who left were the ones who built this little indie film community. It was demoralizing that so many well-known filmmakers in the Atlanta community were leaving for New Orleans, New York and Los Angeles."
Filmmaker and "Dailies" alumnus Bret Wood now faces challenges of the opposite extreme. Having shot films in Atlanta for a decade, Wood now sees the local microbudget filmmaking scene as hampered by fewer opportunities and less energy. Wood recently completed A Little Death, a turn-of-the century period piece set in a brothel and based partially on a Frank Wedekind play and an Anton Chekhov short story.
Compared to Wood's previous indie production, 2006's Psychopathia Sexualis, A Little Death required a logistical juggling act to assemble a crew — because crew members are now in such high demand due to the better-paying big-budget productions. "It was a two-week shoot, but I had to rotate in and out three different gaffers, two assistant directors and three script supervisors."
Georgia's tax incentives don't pay off for filmmakers like Wood, whose budgets fall in the tens of thousands rather than millions. Georgia's film tax credit requires productions to spend a minimum of $500,000 per year. "It would be nice if the tax breaks were extended to $50,000 [projects]," says Wood.
Wood acknowledges that most aspiring filmmakers will eventually move to New York or Los Angeles, pointing to peers like Orr and Gentry. "It's a rite of passage. But it doesn't seem to me like a new crop of people has been replacing them. I think the greater availability of paying work and the difficulty of raising resources has led to fewer microbudgeted films."
Genier believes it's still possible for passionate grassroots filmmakers to make their work, despite the higher-paying competition. "There's always a crew to pull from that's just moved here and looking for experience. It can be done, but it's a harder row to hoe."
Judson believes the presence of bigger-budget films like The Blind Side will eventually offer a boost to film festival darlings like The Signal. "One of the benefits of having a thriving film industry is that it allows you to take a risk and help out indie filmmakers," Judson says. "For us to be a true film city, we have to have a thriving indie community like we have a thriving film production scene. This town is wide open for someone to become the face of our indie scene."
Atlanta's gains have come at Los Angeles' expense. In Georgia, it's relatively easy to get entry-level work as a film extra or a behind-the-scenes production assistant. Hands-on experience comes much more quickly now than it would have a decade ago.
That doesn't mean Atlanta has become a permanent home for movie decision-makers and A-list talents. Wood notes, "The principle creative talent — the writers, directors, creative cast — they're shipped in from out of town. I don't know anyone locally who's been able to penetrate that." Tyler Perry may be the exception who proves the rule.
Comedian, singer and "Drop Dead Diva" actress Margaret Cho does keep a residence here, and she's fallen in love with Atlanta's comedy and music scene. "It's fun for us in Atlanta on a series because we always have actor friends coming into town doing different shows. Everyone shoots something in Atlanta at some point." Cho primarily treats the city as a home base — not that she's home much. "I don't live in Atlanta year-round because I tour a lot, and so I am on the road when 'Drop Dead Diva' is on hiatus."
Genier acknowledges that his residence won't be permanent. "It's lovely to film here and Atlanta is a really great city, with its restaurants and sports teams. But at the end of the day, you like to sleep in your bed, live in your own house. When the projects are done, I'm gone."
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