Georgia’s movie business is on a roll. Twenty-six feature films were shot here in the last two years. New facilities are under construction. Film and TV production tripled to $770 million in 2009, according to the Georgia Film, Music & Digital Entertainment Office, a division of the Georgia Department of Economic Development.
“We’re 10 times busier than we’ve been in some years,” said Lee Thomas, the office’s newly appointed director of the film division, who worked previously as senior locations liaison.
“It’s fun to be the state that everybody loves right now.”
Thomas, 44, talked recently about Hollywood’s spotlight on Georgia:
Q: A recent Los Angeles Times story said Georgia is now one of the top five states in film production. How did this happen?
A: It’s easy to pinpoint; it’s [due to] our new tax incentive that took place in 2008. We had initially put an incentive through, House Bill 539, in 2005, but the state raised the percentages in 2008. So now we’re at 30 percent tax credit. [Producers basically get a credit equivalent to 30 percent of their in-state production expenses.]
Q: Hollywood hears about these tax breaks pretty quickly?
A: They do. Years ago, Canada was the first place that started tax incentives and a lot of our business went to Canada, especially a lot of our television projects. Then Louisiana picked up the ball; that was kind of the first strong U.S. tax credit program. We put a program in place in 2005, but it was a little confusing. Producers found they couldn’t budget very easily with it. So in 2008 our program got streamlined. That is the secret of our success now.
Q: Who was responsible for streamlining the tax break?
A: There was a subcommittee, a group of people who worked on making the program better, more competitive. The Georgia Production Partnership, which is a local group, they were instrumental in helping get that passed.
Q: So it was local filmmakers?
Q: They worked on getting the tax credit passed, which obviously benefits them as well?
Q: I read that Georgia’s film tax credit is one of the highest in the nation now. Do we just give these companies the farm?
A: It’s not really one of the highest in the nation. There are a lot of states that have much more ambitious percentages than we do. For instance, Michigan has [a] 41 percent [tax credit]. The thing is, with Georgia, we have a lot going for us besides the tax-credit program. We have crew here. We have infrastructure here. We have Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, so people can get in and out pretty easily. It really becomes about the whole package. The idea was not to give away the farm but to do something that would be sustainable.
Q: Is it true that producers get a 10 percent break just for using our logo in the credits?
A: It is. That’s how you get to the 30 percent tax incentive. I think we were the first state to ask for anything in return for the incentive. So we get this great marketing opportunity.
Q: Is the pace of production in Georgia continuing this year?
A: Yes. We think this year will be a record year, beating last year.
Q: Who’s been scouting locations here lately?
A: We have “Footloose” [a remake of the 1984 dancing-is-evil, Kevin Bacon movie], which is a Paramount motion picture. They’re set up now. They’re in pre-production.
Q: Anybody else?
A: There is “The Change-Up” [a body-swapping comedy with Ryan Reynolds and Jason Bateman]. It is being directed by David Dobkin. He did “Wedding Crashers.” He did “Fred Claus.” We believe that they’re going to be setting up here very soon, as well.
Q: EUE/Screen Gems, which also operates studios in New York and Wilmington, N.C., is building a 30-acre complex at the Lakewood Fairgrounds. How significant is that?
A: It is great. We’ve lost a lot of projects over the years by not having a large enough soundstage in metro Atlanta. Their plan is to knock down some of the metal buildings — they’re going to leave the historic buildings alone — and build a 30,000-square-foot, dividable soundstage that will be available in the spring.
Q: Will they actually renovate the historic buildings?
A: They are going crazy over there renovating right now. It looks amazing.
Q: Does all this activity make the area sort of a Hollywood East?
A: Certainly, Wilmington for a long time had that distinction. But I think, absolutely, the more infrastructure that we get the better. We have tremendous momentum right now, and there’s no sign that that’s going to stop.
Q: Does this activity change the way the South is portrayed in the film industry? Traditionally, it’s been rooted in stereotypes.
A: For a while, it was all true Southern films. It would be “Fried Green Tomatoes” or “Driving Miss Daisy.” Now we’re getting all kinds of projects. We’re getting zombie films. We’re getting action films. It really showcases all different types of looks for the state.
Q: They don’t just come for moonlight and magnolias any more.
A: I think we actually get considered for everything. For instance, [the action movie] “Fast and the Furious 5” is using us for Rio.
Q: As a stand-in for Rio de Janeiro? That’s a stretch.
A: It is a stretch, but we welcome them.