Movie industry, related tourism produce big economic impact
By W. WINSTON SKINNER
Editor’s note: Today’s article on the impact of the filming industry for Coweta County and the South Metro region is the fourth installment in coverage of issues discussed at the recent South Metro Development Outlook conference.
“Fried Green Tomatoes.” “Driving Miss Daisy.” “I’ll Fly Away.” “Drop Dead Diva.” “The Walking Dead.”
Film projects were the topic of a panel discussion — and a recurring point in conversations and presentations — at South Metro Development Outlook. The annual SMDO conference — planned by The Collaborative Firm — was held Feb. 20 at the Georgia International Convention Center in College Park.
“We can’t say enough about the film industry,” Michael Hightower, chief executive officer of The Collaborative Group, said at the opening session of SMDO.
At SMDO, Matt Forshee, president of the Fayette County Development Authority, announced the decision of Pinewood Studios to locate in Fayette County. Pinewood will spend “close to a million dollars over the next few years,” he said.
Also at the conference was a panel discussion on the impact of the film industry in the Southern Crescent. Kay Pippin, president of the Henry County Chamber of Commerce, and Grant Wainscott, director of Clayton County’s film sports and entertainment office, were moderators for the panel.
Scott Tigchelaar, Tyrone Rachal, Lee Thomas and Jason Underwood were on the panel.
Tigchelaar is president of Senoia Enterprises. Rachal is managing director for redevelopment with Invest Atlanta, and Thomas is division director for the state’s film, music and digital entertainment office. Underwood is a location scout for Tyler Perry Studios.
“We have 14 shows here right now. We have 16 shows in prep,” Thomas said.
“The business used to be entirely location driven,” Thomas said. “Now it is incentive driven.” Several people on the panel spoke of the importance of tax incentives passed by the Georgia legislature in the past few years.
Thomas noted Georgia had a flurry of film activity, then began losing projects to Canada in the late 1990s. When Hollywood decided to film a movie about Georgia-born musician Ray Charles in Louisiana, officials and film industry personnel in Georgia took notice.
These days “the studios have big accounting offices that determine” — to a great extent — where a movie will be filmed, Thomas said.
A 2008 incentive approved by the legislature “has made all the difference in the world,” Thomas said. “That’s not to say Georgia has the strongest incentive program in the country. We don’t.”
She said Georgia offers a wide range of terrain for film projects. Thomas also said Hartsfield-Jackson Airport is a plus for getting cast and crew into and out of the state.
The Motion Picture Association of America has ranked Georgia third in the nation for film projects. Economic impact was $244 million in 2007 and $3.7 billion last year.
Communities on the south side of Atlanta have had lots of film and television projects use locations. “We’re always looking to find the magic dust as we work with the location scouts,” Wainscott said.
The relationship those scouts have with city and county officials is often “the most important thing in finding the right space,” Underwood said. “Having a good relationship with them helps drive us.”
Underwood spoke of the importance of “our ability to talk to them and pick their brains.”
Finding space that can be used for a jail, hospital or school is often important. “Each production is going to have specific needs,” Underwood said.
Empty buildings or those with unused wings are ideal. A building where “anything more important than filming” is taking place — like real schools and hospitals — can present challenges for film crews on a schedule and a budget, Underwood said.
“One of the biggest things communities can do is identifying the strengths and the unique things about your community that are camera ready and then communicating them to the (state) film office,” Tigchelaar said.
Georgia has “a lot of unique little towns, unique little features,” Tigchelaar said. “Getting those in front of location scouts is important — letting them know that’s available.”
“Film scouting is a lot more art than science. It has to hit the right director at the right time for the right show. We can’t shoehorn a site that doesn’t work into a production,” Underwood said.
Tigchelaar urged community leaders to act as a concierge — to make sure filming crews have a pleasant and productive experience, the kind that will make them want to return.
“Make it easy for them to be there. Senoia’s done a good job with that,” he said. Tigchelaar said the city council and the police department work together and have put procedures in place to facilitate filming.
Film companies often are “spending a quarter million dollars a day,” Tigchelaar said. “If you want the business, roll out the red carpet.”
Rachel talked about the Screen Gems Studio at Lakewood Fairgrounds. That project “created over 600 jobs, some on site,” he said. “It’s already started to stimulate investment interest in the area around.”
Thomas said there are “a tremendous amount of people getting into the industry” in Georgia. Many of them are individuals who have been out of work and who have experience as drivers, accountants or painters.
“It’s very hard to track the number of people that are in the film industry,” she said.
She said the economic impact from film projects is complex. The tourism that follows a film or TV project “a lot of times... is bigger” financially than the money that comes from the TV show or movie.
Thomas noted “The Dukes of Hazzard” filmed five episodes in Newton County in 1989. For the next 30 years, “Dukes” was the county’s biggest tourism draw. Tourists coming to Georgia communities can have “a huge impact,” Thomas said.
Tigchelaar spoke of the numbers of fans who come to Senoia to see sites associated with AMC television’s “The Walking Dead.” He has gotten emails from Europe and New Zealand from people asking “what can they do” while in Senoia.
“We’re seeing more from that than probably the filming itself,” Tigchelaar said.
A woman from Illinois came to Georgia “looking for these film sights,” Pippin related. She remembered that one of the destinations was a package store that was featured in “My Cousin Vinnie.” The filming sites comprised “her whole trip,” Pippin said.
Tigchelaar urged those at the outlook conference to remain focused on the economic impact from film and to avoid overburdening film companies with paperwork and fees. He said if companies feel “nickeled and dimed,” they will not return.
“What happens in most places — over a period of time — people get greedy,” Tigchelaar said. “Let’s keep the goose laying the golden egg rather than squeeze one more egg out of them.”
Wainscott echoed those thoughts. “How can governments make money off of this? That’s not the point. It’s about getting out of the way and making sure government is doing the things government needs to do,” he said. Wainscott also said it is important for there to be “one point of contact” in an area for film company officials to contact.
Rachel also said it is vital for governments to “let the private sector do what they do best” and then work in partnership. “These are catalytic investments that if done in the right way have positive economic impacts and positive community impacts,” he said.
Jeff Turner, chairman of the Clayton County Commissioners, noted the impact of film projects in Clayton. “We have had several major pictures come to Clayton County and film. We are growing in that area,” he said. Turner said “a lot of credit” should go “to our film industry people.”