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LIGHTS, CAMERA, GEORGIA

$4.4 billion film production industry takes center stage in Peach State

It’s hard to believe now, seeing steel and concrete structures rise up from the red clay northeast of Atlanta, but the site had previously been an industrial wasteland mostly covered by a two-foot-deep slab of concrete. Crews had to break it all up, recycle all the rebar, navigate the buried parts of the automotive stamping plant that had operated at the location until 2008. Today, though, the area has been transformed. And in June of 2023, it will become home to one of the largest studio complexes in Georgia’s burgeoning film production industry. 

When it’s finished, Assembly Studios in Doraville will have 20 soundstages and over 1 million square feet of space. And the whole thing will be as fundamentally Georgian as a Chick-fil-a sandwich and a slice of peach pie.

“Our mantra from day one has been, we’re going to show the world what Georgia can do,” said Jay Gipson, Developer on the project for Atlanta-based Gray Television. “The steel comes from Georgia. The concrete group we’re using comes from Georgia. Everything we’re doing has a Georgia base to it. I think when people think of film studios, they naturally think it’s people coming from L.A. or New York. But no— these are Georgia lives, and Georgia jobs. That’s like saying every car manufactured here is coming from Detroit or Japan. No, they’re coming from Georgia. Once people get their hands around it, they realize that it impacts a lot of lives and a lot of communities.”

Georgia has long been a favorite as a filming location, dating back to movies like “Deliverance” from 1972 and “Fried Green Tomatoes” from 1991. But over the last 14 years, the Peach State has become home to a deep-rooted film and television production industry that’s churned out blockbusters like Marvel movies and award-winning television series such as “Ozark” and “Stranger Things.” Georgia has nearly 4 million square feet of soundstage space, with another 3 million on the way. The state is poised to one day challenge greater Los Angeles, which leads the world with 5.4 million square feet of soundstage space, according to the region’s film office. 

The economic impact of that growth has been massive. Film and TV productions spent only $132 million in Georgia in 2007, according to Lee Thomas, Deputy Commissioner of Film, Music and Digital Entertainment at the Georgia Department of Economic Development. During fiscal year 2022, that amount ballooned to a record $4.4 billion, which represented 32 feature films, 36 independent films, and 269 episodes for television networks or streaming services. And that number doesn’t include the development of soundstages or other entities supporting what has clearly become one of the film production capitals of the world.

“People in L.A. marvel at what’s happened here,” Thomas said. The demand to film in Georgia is so acute, that soundstages can’t be built or expanded fast enough. “We’ve lost projects because at some point, there’s just a finite amount of space,” she added. “So we are looking forward to having some of these new properties coming online.”

Properties like Assembly Studios in Doraville, which has partnered with NBC Universal. Like Athena Studios in Athens, which will have around 350,000 square feet. Like Electric Owl Studios, which will have six stages on 17 acres in Stone Mountain. Like Cinelease-Three Ring Studios in Covington, which is adding eight new stages to its existing six in a project to be completed in late 2023. Like Tyler Perry Studios, which opened a new location in 2020 on the site of the former Fort McPherson army base. Like the ever-expanding Trilith Studios near Fayetteville, which built its own 235-acre neighborhood adjacent to what is the second-largest film studio in North America—for now.

And if you think all this studio space is reserved for elites jetting in from La-La Land, think again. “At least 85 percent of people on any given set are Georgians or Georgia residents,” said Kelsey Moore, Executive Director of the Georgia Screen Entertainment Coalition at the Georgia Chamber. “It took us a little while to develop that workforce infrastructure, but now, it’s significant. We were looking at tens of thousands of Georgians working in the industry, and now we're getting close to that mark of 100,000 Georgia jobs in the industry.”

That impact is felt throughout the state, in ways both small and large. Cinelease, which started in Georgia with one employee and 8,000 square feet, now has a staff of 30 and a presence in three counties, according to General Manager Gannon Murphy. At PES Structural Engineers, principal Travis Paul has gone from a first studio project with Tyler Perry in 2011 to projects in New Orleans, Texas, Ireland and Saudi Arabia, as well as Georgia. The development of Assembly Studios in Doraville is roughly a $150 million project, according to published reports.

“The backbone of everything going on in the film industry in Georgia is 99.9 percent Georgia people,” said Gipson, who handles Development and Construction Management for The Gipson Company. “Sure, you have talent that flies in and spends five days or three months here, and then they're gone. But the people that make up the heart and core of this business are Georgia people.”

Tyler Perry Studios
Photo credit TPS

THE GAME-CHANGER

Georgia has never been a stranger to film and television. Its moss-lined byways and rural settings proved the background for movies like “Smokey and the Bandit,” along with TV series like “In the Heat of the Night.” The inception of the Georgia Film, Video and Music Office in 1973 helped fuel an increase film production, including award winners like “Forrest Gump” and “Driving Miss Daisy.” The location was hard to beat— but soon, location wouldn’t mean as much to film studios as the bottom line. 

“Incentives came about in the late 1990s in Canada, and that really changed the game,” Thomas said. “Everybody had to have incentives to be considered for projects. And so rather than a director or producer deciding, ‘Oh, this is the best look for the film,’ it really became the backroom accounting people running the budgets and seeing where their money was going to go.”

Tax incentives offered by British Columbia made the Canadian province such a popular filming destination that soundstages booked up and some projects were shot in empty warehouses. In the U.S., Southern states that had gotten a taste of the film industry jumped into the game. First in 2005 and then again in 2008, then-Georgia Gov. Sonny Purdue went to Turner Studios to sign the Entertainment Industry Investment Act, the latter version of which offered a 20 percent tax credit for qualified productions and an 10 percent tax credit if an animated Georgia promotional logo appeared within the finished product.

“I think this bill will jump-start the Georgia film industry,” Rep. Butch Parrish, a sponsor of the legislation, said at the time. And it has, proving the necessary capper to other built-in advantages such as a temperate climate, an ease of access via Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, and a ready workforce bolstered by the presence of the Georgia Film Academy, a program founded in 2015 which has since partnered with 27 colleges and universities in the state.

“Georgia really has kind of everything. They can shoot year-round—I mean, you're probably not going to shoot outdoors in Michigan in February, right? And we have diverse locations, with big cities and small towns and the mountains and the coastline. We compete with New Mexico, which has a very specific look. With Georgia, pretty much any script we get, we can try to pull a location package that will work for them,” Thomas said. 

“We also have a lot of infrastructure—a lot of soundstage space and a lot of equipment suppliers, which makes it cheaper to film here if they can get everything locally. We have a lot of people who have been trained in the industry, both through the Georgia Film Academy and schools that have picked a up film curriculum. And Georgia has stayed on a certain path with this incentive. We have made modifications over the years, there have been changes and some basic housekeeping done. But it hasn't been the back-and-forth that you've seen in some of the other states.”

That last point is crucial, particularly in respect to another state that was once viewed as Georgia’s primary competition for film production in the South. North Carolina had its own bustling film industry centered in Wilmington, and some of the first incentives offered by any U.S. state—at one time, as much as 25 percent for some film productions. But North Carolina lawmakers killed that program in 2014, replacing it with a smaller, grant-based initiative that left the state’s film industry a shadow of its former self.

“It evaporated, almost overnight,” said Darrell Rochester, Chairman of Rochester and Associates, an engineering firm based in Gainesville and Fayetteville that’s been active in studio development. “So that’s a very real, and very important issue.”

While there’s perhaps no single movie or series that signaled the arrival of the current era of film production in Georgia, clearly a few stand out as harbingers of the $4.4 billion industry seen today. Debuting in 2010, the AMC series “The Walking Dead” was an immediate hit—not just among viewers, but also among those in Senoia, where the series was largely filmed, and sparked a surge in tourism. “’The Walking Dead’ made the connection for people on how much this industry can help revive and revitalize some of our communities, and create a whole new kind of tourism offshoot,” Moore said.

Five years later, superheroes joined zombies as mainstays on Georgia soundstages. “Ant-Man” was the first of what would be many Marvel films shot in Georgia, among them such blockbusters as "Avengers: Endgame,” "Spider-Man: No Way Home,” "Black Panther," and "Avengers: Infinity War.” “Marvel produces a lot of stuff with their spin-offs and now for Disney+, so they have to generate a lot of product,” Thomas said. “So I would say, they’re probably always here, with two or three shows going on here at one time.”

Although Georgia film officials have had a longstanding relationship with Disney, now Marvel’s parent company, the state initially didn’t have the infrastructure to land a Marvel production. “We couldn't get a Marvel movie. The people at Disney would put us in front of the Marvel people, and we would pitch for these shows, but there just wasn't a facility big enough,” Thomas said. That changed after the state found room to land and produce the second, third and fourth films in the “Hunger Games” series, “which was the beginning of getting us into these tent-pole productions,” Thomas added.

But it doesn’t take a Marvel blockbuster to produce dividends for Georgia. The Netflix series “Stranger Things” spent 359 days in the state filming its fourth season, according to the Georgia Department of Economic Development. It spent $127 million hiring an estimated 2,080 local crew members, nearly $2 million on hotel nights, $3 million on car rentals, transportation and airfare, and over $800,000 on wardrobe, hair and makeup. The series is set to return to Georgia for a fifth and final season.

Photo: The Gibson Company

“This incentive, as planned, has built an infrastructure and ecosystem in Georgia that creates high-paying jobs and an atmosphere for small business and entrepreneurs to thrive,” said Gannon, of Cinelease. “Georgia has seen film job rosters expand from a few thousand to almost 10,000, and perhaps most importantly, vendors and suppliers that focus on entertainment-specific services have put roots down to employ support staff around the year.”

MANAGING THE LOAD

“We need to design and build a replica White House in six weeks.” It was an unusual request, to be certain, but Travis Paul has learned to expect the unexpected as the Principal at PES Structural Engineers becomes more and more involved in the Georgia film industry. There was the time when he was asked to help design a 150-foot yacht, which is currently bubble-wrapped and awaiting use in a forthcoming production. There was the backlot at the original Tyler Perry Studios in Greenbriar, where Paul helped design 10 different houses for use in television shows. When the Perry studios were moved to their current location, he helped recreate the same thing in a different place.

“I will say that my wife gets a little tired of me pausing movies to point out items that we have been involved with, or making sure I watch the credits at the end to see where different productions were filmed,” Paul said. “We design buildings every day, but the design work for studios is always unique.”

Engineering is but one industry that has benefitted from the explosion of film production in Georgia, which ramped up at a time—on the heels of the Great Recession—when many firms were looking for work. Today, engineering firms play an integral role in the development and expansion of film studios. They help determine the structural integrity of locations such as bridges and old buildings. And during production, they’re constantly involved in managing the loads on a soundstage’s roof structure, which can be asked to support heavy props like helicopters.

“The construction of the soundstages is only the start of the story for structural engineers in this industry,” said Paul, who’s also involved with Assembly. “Once the soundstages are in operation, the engineer’s involvement is continuous, especially if they have existing buildings on the campus that are used for filming. Every sound stage has a letter written by the SEOR (Structural Engineer of Record) that notes how the roof structure can be loaded. The SEOR tries to clearly denote the allowable loading, but rigging companies and some production companies often require verification from the SEOR and a stamped review of their proposed loading regardless of whether it is obvious that their loading meets the SEOR’s requirements.”

As the film industry expands in Georgia, more engineering firms are becoming involved in studio development. “It’s not too dissimilar to a large industrial-type development, but there are some unique differences,” said Jeff Collins, vice president at Rochester and Associates, which works with Trilith. “I need to get trucks around here, to get access around the studio lots. They’re a buzz of activity, so you have to think about the volume of people, the safety of the people on their bikes and golf carts, how you’re going to park them. So how they use the facility is much different.”

Studios have to be accessible—but only to a point, added Helen Simpson, Department Manager of Civil Engineering for Lowe Engineers, which works with Cinelease. “You don't necessarily want a lot of public involvement in your studios, right? So we have to be able to have it accessible, but yet you don't want the public to be able to literally come up to the fence and see. You kind of want it hidden to a certain extent. But yet you still have to have big, open areas for the massive quantities of trucks that are used, because each film has its own army that rolls in.”

At WMD Engineering Consultants, Founder Michael DeLoach has long specialized in facilities like shipping terminals—long-span structures with no interior columns. Film studios “kind of fit a groove with us,” he said. WMD did the concrete package on the former Pinewood Studios, since rebranded as Trilith, and is handling the full structural design for the Cinelease-Three Ring expansion. Studio development has become such a large part of WMD’s book of business, DeLoach added, that he’s had to turn other jobs down.

“It's to the point now where we're having to turn people away, there is so much design work,” he said. “It’s just word of mouth—we did Pinewood, they mentioned us for Three Ring, and then Cinelease recommended us for another job in New Jersey. It's been a good stream of work for us, and it looks like it's going to continue well into the future. The movie people like working in this area, like the relatively cheap land acquisition costs, like all the tax incentives Georgia has put into place. And abundant labor, cheaper housing in Georgia compared to California, all of that stuff goes into the bottom-line cost of the movie.” 

For many engineering firms involved with studio projects, there’s been a learning curve—most evident in the tight timelines involved. “The ingredient that we did not realize was going to be so dramatic is that they expect these things to be built in very short order,” Rochester said. “Truthfully, it falls harder on the contractor than it does on us. But they always have us under the gun to hurry up and get a permit. The reality is, in some cases, they have 120 days or 180 days to build these buildings. They've scheduled the movie production to occur at a certain time, so these buildings have to be ready for them to take occupancy in order for that to happen. It's a pretty intense deal.”

But those stresses are clearly worth the effort, given the steady stream of work that Georgia’s film production industry has created for engineering firms in the state. And that work comes with other benefits as well, albeit some completely unforeseen ones—like engineers getting to walk the red carpet at studio openings or local movie premieres, or getting to brag a little about their role in creating the next Marvel blockbuster or Netflix hit.

“You tell people you design shipping terminals, and they’re like, ‘Oh, that sounds boring.’ And it is. As engineers, we like boring,” DeLoach said. “But the movie side of it has been really cool. When somebody sees a movie on TV, we can say, ‘Hey, we designed that studio.’ You don’t get that with a shipping terminal.”