The television and film industry is one of the hottest economic drivers in Georgia today. Lee Cuthbert, a location specialist for the film division within the Georgia Department of Economic Development, told participants at the Rome Floyd Chamber Confluence Conference on Thursday that in 2007, before Georgia developed its latest series of tax incentives for the industry, the movies and television programming had a $241 million economic impact on the state. By the end of 2018, that had grown exponentially to $9.5 billion.
The film office was created in 1973, following the filming of “Deliverance” in Northeast Georgia.
“Then-Governor Jimmy Carter saw that it made a great economic impact on that area. There was no whitewater rafting industry there until ‘Deliverance’ happened,” Cuthbert said. “The thought was, this brings jobs and investment, so lets get this going all over the state.”
Cuthbert said Canada was first to create tax incentives to lure Hollywood out of California or New York, and projects flocked north of the border for several years. Louisiana became the first state in the U.S. to put together a big incentive package. Today more than half of the states across the country have a film production tax incentive.
Georgia put its first tax incentive package together in 2005. An easier, streamlined version went into effect in 2008 and is still in place today.
“We need an incentive to stay competitive,” Cuthbert said. “This has worked probably even a little better than we hoped that it would.”
Cuthbert said Georgia ranks third in the nation for film and television production today.
The incentive package offered by Georgia is pretty simple. With the minimum investment in a film piece by producers at half a million dollars that must be spent with Georgia vendors, the producers get a 20% tax credit. If the producers agree to utilize a Georgia promotional element, such as a logo or a special video for the state, that bumps them up to 30%.
So if a company invests a million in the production, the company would get $333,000 back in the form of a tax credit, not a cash rebate.
“We’re not cutting a check to anyone,” Cuthbert said. The tax credit goes against any Georgia tax liability, and since most of the big production companies are based out of state and have very little, if any, Georgia tax expense, they sell the tax credit to individuals or corporations that owe Georgia tax bills. “There’s a hungry market for those tax credits and they were able to monetize it to get money really quickly,” Cuthbert explained.
“Georgia has all these great locations, Georgia has everything but a really dry desert; New Mexico takes those projects,” Cuthbert said. With the advancement of digital technology, pretty much all that is needed is a stage base, and the number of stages in Georgia has grown rapidly in response to the need.
“When our schedule is really busy now, we have over 40 shows going on at the same time,” Cuthbert said. Over the course of the past decade, many of the production crews have actually moved to Georgia and are now based permanently here instead of being industry gypsies hopping from location to location.
In 2008, the only stage was located in Senoia, and it was snapped up by “The Walking Dead.” Since then, EUE/Screen Gems signed a 50-year lease with the former Lakewood Fairgrounds.
Now the state has more than 1,000,000 square feet of purpose-built stage space and close to that amount of retrofitted stage space. Pinewood, based in Fayette County, now has 18 stages in Georgia.
“We have probably a hundred world class stages now in Georgia and we need them,” Cuthbert said. “We couldn’t do a big Marvel movie in a retrofitted warehouse. We needed state-of-the art, high-ceiling, purpose-built stages.”
She told the Confluence crowd that the tax credit incentives don’t apply to physical stage investment.
“Those are built by those who mostly live and work in Georgia and thought they would put some skin in the game. That’s all private investment,” Cuthbert said.
The Motion Picture Association of America reports that Georgia has about 92,000 jobs related to the industry and nearly $5 billion in wages related to film and television production.
“This industry had big-three broadcasters and a little basic cable that were all competing for the same amount of content,” Cuthbert said. “We have streamers and all kinds of new content providers who are now increasing the level of business for all of us.”
For example, Netflix spent $13 billion for content last year. She said that in the third quarter of last year alone Netflix provided more than 600 hours of new original content.
“I’ve read that their production budget may be $22 billion by 2022,” Cuthbert said. “Now we have shows in Georgia for Amazon, for Apple, for YouTube Premium, for Pocket.watch — and that’s just a handful of folks who are interested in providing content, so there’s plenty of work to go around.”
Businesses that are not directly related to the film industry, anything from car rentals to hotels and motels, costume rentals, specialized truck rentals and the like, are employing more and more people to meet the needs of the big or small screen.
Cuthbert said that union rules keep much of the activity within a 40-mile radius of the Atlanta airport, but that more and more she is seeing production companies willing to pay the additional fees for travel. “Gemini Man,” featuring Will Smith, was filmed in Glennville in Southeast Georgia, but touched 330 Georgia vendors in 60 cities while filming the movie that is slated for release later this year.
Film- and TV-related tourism is also growing by leaps and bounds. The city of Senoia runs two tours daily to accommodate people from all around the world who want to see where “The Walking Dead” is filmed. The Whistle Stop Cafe in Juliette, made popular in “Fried Green Tomatoes,” is still open and crowded virtually every day for lunch.
“We are going to see film tourism continue for many, many years,” Cuthbert said.
Several projects shot in Georgia are opening soon. “The Best of Enemies” opens this week and “Poms” with Diane Keaton, “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” “Shaft” and “Avengers: Endgame” are also opening this spring.
Responding to a question about how small businesses could do business with the big production companies, Cuthbert said, “It’s really, honestly, about who you know. It’s about networking.”
A number of films have been shot in the Rome area through the years, ranging from “The Mule” with Clint Eastwood, “Need for Speed,” “Sweet Home Alabama,” “The Mosquito Coast,” “Remember the Titans” and others.
More information about the industry and locations in Georgia is available at exploregeorgia.org/film.