The Good, the Bad, and the Indie
Reported by Jessie Ammons, Rich Eldredge, Amanda Heckert, Chantel O'neal, Jackson Reeves, Betsy Riley, and Katelyn Schiavone
A scene from Glory, courtesy of GDECD
: The first black-and-white silent movie is produced in the state—or so local film experts claim. No one can seem to find the name of the film or its plot.
December 15, 1939: Gone with the Wind premieres at the Loew’s Grand Theatre on Peachtree Street in Downtown Atlanta. There’s a state holiday, a motorcade with stars Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable—but no Hattie “Mammy” McDaniel, thanks to Georgia’s Jim Crow laws. The film, produced entirely on a Hollywood back lot, will shape the world’s idea of the Peach State for decades.
November 12, 1946: The worldwide premiere at the Fox Theatre of Walt Disney’s much-maligned Song of the South, based on Atlanta Constitution editor Joel Chandler Harris’s Br’er Rabbit tales. Disney himself is reportedly so nervous he skips the screening to chain-smoke at the Georgian Terrace across the street.
February 17, 1951: The first Georgia-filmed feature length movie, I’d Climb the Highest Mountain, is released. Based on an eponymous novel by local writer Corra Harris, the film follows a Methodist minister and his North Georgia congregation; it primarily rolled tape in White County, including Helen and Cleveland.
April 1955: A Man Called Peter debuts. Filmed at Decatur’s Agnes Scott College and written by alumna Catherine Marshall, the movie tells the story of a Scottish minister’s journey to a position as chaplain of the U.S. Senate. The Ivy League–esque campus will become one of the region’s most popular filming locations, appearing in twenty-nine movies and TV series, from Scream 2 to The Blind Side.
June 8, 1956: Disney’s The Great Locomotive Chase—based on the 1862 Civil War event in which Union soldiers hijacked Confederate train The General—premieres starring Fess Parker. It is filmed on the Tallulah Falls Railway, which will be mostly defunct five years later.
May 1971: George Ellis—also known as “Bestoink Dooley,” a ghoul that introduced horror movies late at night on WAGA—opens the Ansley Mall Film Forum, an art-film haven and the first theater to bring midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show to the city.
June 1971: The four-year-old Atlanta International Film Festival snags its first major studio premiere: Columbia Pictures’ Fools’ Parade. Though the festival will fizzle later in the decade, it shows the city is ready for a big film event of its own.
April 1, 1972: Oh, that this were only an April Fools’ joke. Norcross becomes a B-movie hotspot with J.C., in which Jesus returns to earth and joins a motorcycle gang. Other cringe-worthy films shot in the OTP burb include 1984’s rabid zombie–filled Night Shadows.
July 30, 1972: James Dickey’s backwoods adventure novel-turned-movie Deliverance plants Georgia firmly on the minds of Hollywood producers.
1973: Following Deliverance’s success, then Governor Jimmy Carter opens the Georgia Film Commission, one of the first of its kind in the country, to promote the Peach State as a film location.
1974: The Atlanta chapter of Women in Film and Television—an international nonprofit that promotes women in the entertainment industry—is founded, with seven inaugural members.
October 1974: The House on Skull Mountain, a horror film costarring—Xernona Clayton?!?—debuts with scenes in Underground Atlanta and Callanwolde Fine Arts Center, which has also appeared in Sharky’s Machine and Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius.
December 1976: Ted Turner’s Superstation—later known as TBS—is born as the first indie cable network to broadcast to all fifty states from a satellite. Turner’s networks will prove to be fertile training grounds for Atlanta’s future film crews.
1977: IMAGE (Independent Media Artists of Georgia, Etc.) Film and Video Center is founded in response to a collaboration between the National Endowment for the Arts and the Georgia Council for the Arts. IMAGE will hold weekly screening series, workshops, and seminars; host editing facilities at the then seedy corner of Tenth and Peachtree streets; and create what’s now known as the annual Atlanta Film Festival 365.
January 30, 1978: Fire destroys Peachtree Street’s historic Loew’s Grand Theatre just a few months after its doors closed due to declining attendance.
December 1978: They Went That-A-Way & That-A-Way debuts starring Tim Conway as an undercover prison inmate. In the penultimate scene, escapee Conway runs down the long front lawn of Blackland Road’s Nunnally-Arnold mansion—which claims to be the most photographed home in Atlanta—followed by an angry mob of party guests, convicts, Civil War reenactors, soldiers, and police.
January 26, 1979: The Dukes of Hazzard debuts. Only the first five episodes of the Southern-fried series—which ran from 1979 to 1985—were shot in Georgia, but visitors still ride through filming locations like Covington to spot Hazzard hot spots. That includes the Newton County Courthouse, which most recently showed up in The Vampire Diaries.
February 17, 1980: The general release of famed director John Huston’s adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood. Huston admired the Milledgeville writer, but was on a tight budget. Most of the film was shot most around Macon, with Georgia actors filling out the smaller roles.
1981: Thanks to big-screen hits like Smokey and the Bandit, Hollywood has pumped an estimated $400 million into the Georgia economy during the preceding decade. As the state’s film industry grows, many Hollywood crew members relocate east.
July 10, 1981: The Big Peach doubles as the Big Apple in a bank robbery scene ultimately deleted from the debut of futuristic popcorn flick Escape from New York. The old Omni MARTA station figures prominently. We’re sure it looked cutting edge at the time . . .
1985: The High Museum of Art hires IMAGE Film & Video Center director (the forerunner of the Atlanta Film Festival) Linda Dubler as its curator of media arts. Dubler proves to be a transformative force for international cinema fans in Atlanta, bringing films from across the globe to the High’s Rich Theatre.
September 27, 1985: Chuck Norris vehicle Invasion U.S.A. premieres. For the film, Peachtree Street from the Hyatt to Woodruff Park was transformed into a battle zone, complete with tanks and helicopters. “What that required was enormous levels of cooperation between the city and the state and all the retail and hospitality folks in Downtown Atlanta,” recalls longtime location manager Norm Bielowicz. “Anybody who was making movies at the time said, ‘Oh, I’ll have no trouble working there.’”
August 15, 1986: The shot-in-Atlanta film adaptation of author Thomas Harris’s Manhunter debuts with the first screen appearance by future Silence of the Lambs villain Dr. Hannibal Lecktor (portrayed by Brian Cox). Even scarier, when profiler Will Graham (played by William Petersen) visits “Hannibal the Cannibal” in prison, he’s being housed at the High Museum of Art!
1987: The nonprofit Out on Film debuts in Atlanta, eventually becoming one of the oldest and most attended gay and lesbian film festivals in the country and giving early exposure to Del Shores’ future cult classic Sordid Lives and the quirky comedy-drama Transamerica.
1988: Three weeks into filming School Daze at his alma mater, Morehouse College, writer-director Spike Lee is kicked off campus due to Morehouse’s concerns over his planned portrayal of fraternity life at a historically black college. He finishes the picture at nearby Morris Brown College.
1988: Director Pat O’Connor shoots his fish-out-of-water comedy Stars and Bars in Georgia, starring Daniel Day-Lewis as a British art expert sent south to purchase a rare Renoir. A small river is constructed in the lobby of the Marriott Marquis, where a suited, briefcase-toting Lewis capsizes in a canoe as he makes his way to the elevator in the Disney-fied resort.
March 6, 1988: TV series In the Heat of the Night premieres; it will run until 1994, filming largely in Covington (Georgia native Dan Biggers, who played Dr. Frank Robb, is the great-grandson of a Newton County sheriff). The show leaves a lasting effect: Visitors still frequent the town today to see favorite sites.
October 3, 1988: Turner Network Television launches with the first-ever cable telecast of Gone with the Wind. Later, in November, Turner reignites interest in wrestling with his purchase and airing of World Championship Wrestling.
October 21, 1988: Romantic comedy Mystic Pizza debuts, delivering Smyrna’s own Julia Roberts her first major role—and sending her now trademark smile into the Hollywood stratosphere.
1989: Shot-in-Atlanta Driving Miss Daisy wins four Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actress for Jessica Tandy’s title character, and Best Writing for Atlanta playwright Alfred Uhry, who adapted his Pulitzer Prize–winning stage hit for the screen. The film shot both exteriors and interiors at 822 Lullwater Road in Druid Hills and The Temple. Little Five Points’ Sevananda, meanwhile, was transformed into the Piggly Wiggly for the film’s classic grocery scene.
December 15, 1989: Glory, starring Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, and Matthew Broderick, opens nationwide after filming around Savannah and Jekyll Island. Here’s crazy Georgia weather for you: Heaters had to be brought in to melt snow from the set in February, and snowblowers were used during a March shoot to create the illusion of a freshly flurried ground.
1990: Oz Publishing’s Tia Powell publishes what will become the first Georgia Film, Video & Digital Entertainment SourceBook, a directory of the state’s film crew and support companies. Now it fills out a whopping 492 pages.
September 1990: Years from now, Ted Turner will point to the premiere of his Atlanta-produced animated baby, Captain Planet and the Planeteers, as proof he cared about the environment before “global warming” became a buzzword.
September 14, 1990: Rotten tomato alert! Blood Salvage debuts. The tale of inbred rednecks gone bad will make you think twice about driving along Georgia’s highways. That is, if the traffic doesn’t stop you first.
January 11, 1991: Sally Field’s Not Without My Daughter premieres. The film, which will go on to be one of the most name-checked Lifetime movies, used a suburban lake house in Dunwoody’s Northridge area to double for Michigan; fake leaves were even taped to the trees during a spring shoot, to emulate fall.
October 7, 1991: Acclaimed NBC series I’ll Fly Away begins the first of two seasons exploring the relationship between the family of Forrest Bedford (a Southern lawyer) and his black housekeeper during the nascent days of civil rights. Atlanta, Conyers, and Covington doubled for the fictional Bryland, including a turn by Little Five Points’ Variety Playhouse as the town’s theater.
December 1991: Ted Turner, along with Apollo Investment Fund, buys Hanna-Barbera for $262.5 million and turns its library into meat-and-potatoes programming for Cartoon Network. The entity will become a breeding ground for original, Atlanta-produced animation such as Frisky Dingo and Squidbillies.
December 27, 1991: Fried Green Tomatoes, starring Kathy Bates and Jessica Tandy, hits the box office. The film is nominated for two Oscars and three Golden Globes. Tourists will continue to sojourn to the tiny South Georgia town of Juliette—which producers renovated to double for fictional Whistle Stop, Alabama—for years to come, boosting the town’s population (a measly four people, pre-Fried) and businesses such as the film’s famed Whistle Stop Cafe, a former general store that the owner kept as the eponymous dining spot postproduction, title dish and all.
January 17, 1992: What Entertainment Weekly calls “low-rent science fiction,” Atlanta calls “the time Mick Jagger came to town to film futuristic flop Freejack.” Emilio Estevez headlines as a race car driver who is jerked to the future by 2009-era Jagger just moments before a fiery crash at the track—Road Atlanta, that is.
March 13, 1992: Rural Alabama, rural Georgia, youths, yutes. My Cousin Vinny—in which two New York city slickers charged with murder are defended by Joe Pesci—opens after a cinematic tour de Georgia, filling in this time for the Yellowhammer State. The summer shoot caused temperatures on the set—a Covington warehouse—to swelter into the triple digits.
1993: Toronto becomes the third-biggest spot for filmmaking in North America. So? Tax breaks there and in other Canuck cities begin to lure shows north from Georgia, sparking an almost decade-long slump for Peach State productions.
October 8, 1993/February 21, 2003: Ted Turner produces two Civil War epics, a decade apart—and both Gettysburg and Gods and Generals feature a cameo by Ted himself, a la Hitchcock.
November 5, 1993: The redundant RoboCop 3 premieres after taking advantage of Atlanta’s many abandoned buildings awaiting demolition in the lead-up to the 1996 Olympics.
April 1994: Robert Osborne debuts as the host of the newly christened Turner Classic Movies. The cinematic scholar’s segments tape in Atlanta, and in 2005 Osborne will kick off his own Classic Film Festival in nearby Athens.
July 6, 1994: Forrest Gump makes a star of the Savannah bench from which the eponymous hero tells his tale. Thousands of tourists will flock to the coastal city to see the bench at Chippewa Square, then at the Savannah History Museum, where it will be relocated.
March 3, 1996: Andersonville—a TNT miniseries chronicling the atrocities of the eponymous Georgia Civil War prison camp—premieres. Filmed in Turin and backed by Ted Turner, the drama will win an Emmy for director John Frankenheimer.
November 21, 1997: Following the premiere of the Savannah-centric Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’s film adaptation, tourism there skyrockets. Many of Midnight’s extras are locals—including real friends of Midnight’s eccentric protagonist Jim Williams, such as lawyer and owner of the University of Georgia “Uga” mascots Sonny Seiler.
1998: Nonprofit Eyedrum begins supporting arts in its gallery, including innovative films from local producers and artists.
February 1999: Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport becomes the busiest airport in the world. A decade later, L.A. and New York producers will cite Hartsfield’s constant flights to those cities as a luring factor.
October 2000: The first Atlanta Jewish Film Festival—which grew out of a film series put on by the American Jewish Committee’s Atlanta chapter—is held; it will later become the second-largest Jewish film fest in America and the largest film festival period in the city, hosting 26,000 attendees in 2011.
January 2001: Local actor and director Ray McKinnon releases The Accountant. The film, which also features future costar of The Shield and fellow Georgian Walton Goggins, shoots in Douglasville and Covington—and wins the Oscar for best live-action short.
2002: Georgia passes its first tax incentive—a “point of purchase” sales and use exemption—but it’s still not enough to pull in big business.
December 13, 2002: The Georgia Dome, Clark Atlanta University, and the fictitious “Atlanta A&T Band”—composed of members of the Atlanta Drumline and local band students—step out in Drumline, a Dallas Austin–backed drama.
February 25, 2005: Tyler Perry’s first feature-length film, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, premieres; it costs about $5.5 million to produce but nets more than $20 million for the New Orleans native in its opening weekend. The once homeless producer used his own McMansion for shooting—including the scene in which his notorious nom de guerre, Madea, cuts a couch in half with a chain saw.
April 30, 2005: HBO’s Warm Springs, which documents FDR’s prepresidency stay in the Georgia town, debuts after shooting on location in his old quarters. The authenticity surely lends itself to the miniseries’ five Emmy wins. More than 60 percent of Warm Springs tourists surveyed later that year will cite the film as a “very important” reason for their visit.
May 2005: The first film tax credit passes the legislature. But it’s just not enough to draw much away from better deals in other Southern cities and states.
January 12, 2007: The likes of Clark Atlanta University, Morris Brown College, and Georgia Tech become Truth University in Stomp the Yard.
January 23, 2007: Local auteurs David Bruckner, Jacob Gentry, and Dan Bush debut their low-budget horror flick The Signal at the Sundance Film Festival, where Magnolia Pictures buys the distribution rights for $2.3 million. Fictional setting Terminus tips its hat to the city in which it was filmed. The alums of PushPush Theater’s film arm, the Dailies Project, will nab a John Cassavetes Award nom at the 2009 Spirit Awards.
June 6, 2007: After a promising pilot run in May 2006, Tyler Perry’s locally produced House of Payne scores him a reported $200 million, 100-episode deal with TBS to broadcast the series nationally. When it debuts in June 2007, it garners 5.9 million viewers—at the time the largest sitcom audience for a basic cable network.
May 12, 2008: Governor Sonny Perdue signs record tax incentives into effect, granting a flat tax credit of 20 percent across the board, with an extra 10 percent if the production adds the Georgia logo at the end of its credits. Georgia is the first state to require such a promotion.
September 12, 2008: Tyler Perry’s feature The Family That Preys hits screens. It’s the first production to work with the Georgia film office to put the new incentives into practice—trial and error and all.
October 4, 2008: Well, it’s TP’s year, isn’t it? The mogul opens his multimillion-dollar production studio on thirty acres in Greenbriar. Oprah brings the tears to the star-studded grand opening, which features Will Smith, Sidney Poitier, and other screen legends.
October 7, 2008: The Real Housewives of Atlanta premieres three days after Tyler Perry Studios opens. Take a moment to let the irony soak in, and take solace in knowing that TPS is ITP while RHOA is OTP.
December 12, 2008: Brookwood-based Macquarium’s Fathom Studios releases animated film Delgo after a decade in the making. It sets a record for having the worst wide release ever, earning $511,920 at 2,160 sites. You can’t say they didn’t try.
July 12, 2009: Lifetime’s Drop Dead Diva takes over Peachtree City and scores stellar ratings for the women’s network. Sharp-witted costar Margaret Cho begins gracing Atlanta’s stand-up scene and befriends Blondie.
September 10, 2009: Fangtastic! Shot in Covington, The Vampire Diaries sets a ratings record for the CW, giving the young network its most-watched premiere. TVD stars like Ian Somerhalder begin to be spotted around town—Parish, anyone?
October 2, 2009: Zombieland opens number one at the box office after leaving a trail of undead around Georgia, including in Decatur, at a grocery store in Powder Springs, and at the Atlanta Motor Speedway. And there’s a little ATL cross-promotion: RHOA’s “Big Poppa” lends his West Paces Ferry megamansion to a scene with the now famous cameo by Bill Murray.
November 20, 2009: Sandra Bullock may not know how to fake a Southern accent, but she will finally nab an Oscar thanks to her work in Atlanta-filmed The Blind Side, which also features such local actors as Afemo and Elizabeth Omilami, Rhoda Griffis, James Donadio, and Libby Whittemore. Augusta native Quinton Aaron was just working as a security guard before being cast as Michael Oher; he trained with Georgia Tech’s football team to prepare for the role.
December 31, 2009: The first full year of the tax incentives yields 348 productions with a cumulative economic impact of $1.3 billion.
April 2010: TBS signs Conan O’Brien once the dust settles from his late-night fallout with NBC, putting a spotlight on the little Atlanta station that could.
May 2010: EUE/Screen Gems signs a fifty-year lease to rent out the Lakewood Fairgrounds (paying the city $250,000 per year for a decade, and $600,000 afterward). More than $7 million will be spent fixing it into a top-of-the-line studio with stages and office space.
June 20, 2010: Adult Swim’s The Boondocks “outs” TBS darling Tyler Perry; the episode is quickly pulled, but forever available on YouTube and iTunes.
October 31, 2010: The Walking Dead leads to many jokes about how the series’ post-apocalyptic vision of Atlanta—including major scenes Downtown—barely differs from our current state of affairs. AMC laughs all the way to the bank as the series becomes the network’s highest-rated show.
February 2011: Snowball effect! Panavision opens a state-of-the-art facility in Westside; Paramount Pictures plans to open a lighting and grip company in Atlanta.
April 29, 2011: Atlanta doubles as Rio de Janeiro for Fast Five. Obviously our city couldn’t have played itself, or all the car-chase action would have been stuck in gridlock.
May 30, 2011: Common (yes, that Common) is the mayor of Atlanta in VH1’s ridiculous, dated, yet addictive ATL-set Single Ladies.
June 5, 2011: MTV thickens Atlanta’s supernatural mystique by filming its sexed-up, melodramatic revamp of the eighties flick Teen Wolf here. It scores strong enough ratings to get a second season.
July 2011: Family Feud moves from Orlando to Atlanta, partly thanks to recent host Steve Harvey’s residence in our fair city.
ENDING BLOCK: Hopefully these queued-up movies will prove better than Hall Pass: the Farrelly brothers’ Three Stooges; the Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd vehicle Wanderlust; and a remake of Footloose, premiering next month.
Tally as of press time? So far the film industry has invested more than $683 million in Georgia, resulting in an economic impact of $2.4 billion.