If it weren't for Atlanta's booming film industry, Neil Palmer never would have met the wolves.
In 2008, Palmer had no Tinseltown aspirations. The 47-year-old father of three was working as a systems plant manager for Anthony International, a glass door company in Madison, Ga., when it was bought out by a California firm. "Middle management always gets cut," he deadpans, "so I lost my job."
After Palmer joined the unemployed ranks of the Great Recession, he sent out hundreds of resumes over nearly two years. He finally caught a break thanks to his pastime as a high school wrestling coach. One of the students was the son of Mike Akins, the local business agent of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, a labor union for film industry workers.
"One night, Mike called me at 9 p.m. and told me to be ready at 6 a.m. the next morning," Palmer recalls. And so began his showbiz career.
Like Palmer, numerous carpenters, hairstylists, accountants and other workers upended by the economic slump have found steady gigs through Georgia's skyrocketing number of film and television shoots. Palmer began by doing "greens" work, such as chopping down trees or clearing plants from a shot. He also runs odd jobs as a "utility" or interfaces between the workers and the bosses as a job foreman. After years spent huddled in a cubicle and holed up in meetings, Palmer now spends his 60-hour workweek on sets of such productions as the CW's supernatural drama "The Vampire Diaries," a film version of the kid-oriented adventure series "Ben 10," and the upcoming Jason Bateman/Ryan Reynolds body-switch comedy, The Change-Up.
Palmer gets a kick out of seeing his work realized on the big or small screen. And while he's enjoyed the occasional brush with celebrity, like catching a wave from Bateman, Palmer sounds most star-struck when he talks about the afternoon he was on location for "Vampire Diaries." He noticed an animal handler taking two big beasts on a bathroom break and remarked, "Those are big dogs."
"Those aren't dogs," a crew-mate told him. "Those are wolves."
Fascinated, Palmer walked over and asked if he could touch them. "Take your work gloves off, and let them come to you," the handler said. The wolves approached Palmer and nuzzled against him as if they were pets. One even stood on its hind legs and pressed its paws against his chest. "I was shocked at how big they were. I'll never forget the look in their eyes."
Even more than dancing with wolves, Palmer appreciates having a steady income. The film industry has kept him busy every single day for the past four months, and he sees no sign of the work drying up.
"Around six to eight movies are being filmed right now," he points out. "My boss is from California, and he says everyone's moving to the East Coast."
It's hard to think of Atlanta as one of "the coasts," but the city has become the nexus of Georgia's booming film and video production, which spans from A-list feature films to commercials, music videos and video games.
The Georgia Film, Music & Digital Entertainment Office, the branch of the state's department of economic development devoted to cultivating and promoting film work, estimates that the economic impact of film and TV production in Georgia saw a fivefold increase from 2007 to 2010, topping out at $1.3 billion. For many reasons, the Georgia film industry has exploded like an action-movie fireball, although some creative costs do exist.
So many showbiz luminaries have come to work in Atlanta recently, it's as if Peachtree Street has become a red carpet. Sandra Bullock stormed school gridirons for her Oscar-winning role in The Blind Side. Bill Murray, Sissy Spacek and Robert Duvall visited Crawfordville for Get Low. Katherine Heigl paired up with Ashton Kutcher for Killers and Josh Duhamel for Life As We Know It. One-man media empire Tyler Perry hosted Whoopi Goldberg, Janet Jackson, Thandie Newton and others in For Colored Girls, which opens Nov. 5. Covington has bloodsuckers for "The Vampire Diaries," south Decatur has teenage werewolves for "Teen Wolf," and downtown Atlanta has zombies for "The Walking Dead." Betty White even stopped by to film a Hallmark Channel movie.
Years of wooing Hollywood has paid off with a vengeance, according to Lee Thomas, who this summer took over the film division of the Georgia Film, Music & Digital Entertainment Office. "We spent so many years trying to get momentum to get filmmakers to come here. It was like pedaling a bike, trying to get up speed. Now, we've got the momentum, and we're trying to stay on the bike."
Producer Joe Genier first began working in Atlanta when his studio, Lionsgate Films, teamed up with popular stage star Tyler Perry for Diary of a Mad Black Woman. Since then, Genier has worked on most of Perry's films, although he's currently overseeing the first season of MTV's "Teen Wolf" series. "For the past five to six years, Georgia has been hot," he says. "Eventually you'll wind up where the hot incentive is."