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Tinseltown taps Atlanta as movie-making mecca! Will showbiz boom bring boffo box office?

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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."

Robert Duvall in Get Low - SAM EMERSON

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."

Tyler Perry's For Colored Girls - COURTESY LIONSGATE

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.

Stomp the Yard filming on location in Atlanta - JOEFF DAVIS
  • Joeff Davis
  • Stomp the Yard filming on location in Atlanta

"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."

“Drop Dead Diva” star Brooke Elliott - KANNIE YU LAPACK
  • Kannie Yu LaPack
  • “Drop Dead Diva” star Brooke Elliott

It would be nice if Atlanta could claim more artistic ownership of local productions, rather than simply the financial advantages. Still, screen artists don't necessarily need to live in the places they chronicle on film. English director John Boorman crafted one of Georgia's most edgy, haunting films, Deliverance. On the other hand, actor/filmmaker Ray McKinnon, a native of Adel, Ga., won the Oscar for his equally brilliant, 38-minute short "The Accountant." The quality of a movie relies on the talents of its makers, wherever they come from.

And even after the film productions relocate or wrap up, they still leave residual economic benefits for tourism. At a Camera Ready Community press conference on Oct. 7, Clara Deemer, the director of tourism for the Covington/Newton County Chamber of Commerce, told about honeymooners from Milan, Italy, who made a point of visiting Covington. The newlyweds' American itinerary consisted of trips to Ground Zero, Disneyland, the launch of the space shuttle Endeavor ... and the town where "The Dukes of Hazzard" was filmed.

In the long term, Georgia's filmmaking boom may be like a circus coming to town, bringing bright lights, razzle-dazzle and employment when we need it most. Even if the movie people pack up their tents and move onto the next hot incentive, they'll leave memories preserved on celluloid, along with a foundation of facilities and experience for native filmmakers to bring their own films to life. Plus, at least some of us had a chance to dance with the wolves.

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