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To compete with states with booming film programs such as Louisiana and Michigan, Georgia passed a tax incentive as part of House Bill 539 in 2005 but began wooing Hollywood in earnest by raising the percentages in 2008. Currently, the state offers filmmakers a 20 percent base tax credit, plus an additional 10 percent if they put the Georgia logo on the end roll credits.
Most states offer such soft money incentives, but those romantic comedies or monstrous TV series won't come for the tax breaks alone. "Some states don't really have the infrastructure to support film production," says Genier. "You end up bringing half your crew into the state. Is there a grip? A medic? Craft services? The tax incentive dwindles."
Fortunately, Georgia has enough experienced crew in place thanks to a modest but lively filmmaking tradition that spans a truckload of Burt Reynolds movies, "The Dukes of Hazzard," "In the Heat of the Night," Driving Miss Daisy, Fried Green Tomatoes and Zombieland. The Georgia Film Office's newly formed designation of "Camera Ready Communities," spanning 16 counties from around the state, identifies the places willing and able to host an influx of Heigls and Duhamels.
Out-of-town filmmakers like Georgia's local crew base for several reasons. Get Low director Aaron Schneider praised not just the quantity of workers, but positive attitudes beyond cashing a paycheck. "The real test of a filmmaker, from cameraman to production designer, is the drive to make a great movie, even though we didn't have much money to offer."
And where locals may take for granted Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport or the Georgia scenery outside the perimeter, filmmakers see cost-saving convenience. They save money by booking direct flights for their talent and, once they arrive, whisking them to any number of diverse locations: mountains, farms, beaches, quaint little towns and skyscraping cities. What's more, Atlanta's habit of tearing down its historic architecture may also have an unexpected benefit, allowing the city to more easily play the part of Anytown, U.S.A.
Thomas praises the ability of production designers to make Atlanta pass for elsewhere. "It's staggering what they can do. They can look at a house and say, 'Baltimore would never have that window,' or 'It would never be sitting that close to the street.' They can give 10 reasons why one house will work and one why the house won't work," she says.
With productions like Fast Five, the fifth of the Fast and the Furious car-chase movies, Atlanta can even pass for Rio de Janeiro. Sort of. "It's not like they're dragging palm trees through the city," Thomas points out. "They shot a lot in Puerto Rico. Here they're using interiors and gritty urban exteriors."
Another reason Hollywood appreciates filming in remote locations is that Los Angelenos are soooo over it. "Los Angeles has so many films that eventually people get tired of the filming and focus on the inconvenience rather than the benefit," Genier says. "Places that haven't had filmmaking day in and day out, their natural hospitality comes out."
Genier savors the times he's been filming on blazing summer days and a neighbor has offered cookies or asked, "Would you like some ice tea?"
He acknowledges that Georgia doesn't have everything, including specialty equipment like cranes and balloon lights, so he has to factor in extra time to book them. Georgia also needs more soundstages. The state made strides in that direction earlier this year when EUE/Screen Gems Studios, which operates studios and production facilities in New York City and Wilmington, N.C., began expanding and refurbishing soundstages at Lakewood Fairgrounds.
The existing sets at Lakewood already have hosted the likes of For Colored Girls and BET's "The Game." The Screen Gems expansion includes construction of a new 37,500-foot soundstage, expected to be completed in spring 2011, which should improve Atlanta's film capacity considerably. The company signed a 50-year lease on the property — a vote of confidence in Atlanta's long-term film industry. Atlanta will be ready for, say, The Fast and the Furious 15 or Driving Miss Daisy in a Hovercar.
Just because lots of films are currently being made in Georgia doesn't mean Georgians are making lots of films. Atlanta's influx in major movie and TV production isn't necessarily a sign that the local, grassroots film community is thriving.
Atlanta's never sustained a thriving indie film scene like Austin, Texas, home to such renowned native filmmakers as critics' darling Richard Linklater and cult director Robert Rodriguez. Charles Judson, communications director of the Atlanta Film Festival, finds the current climate particularly sparse.