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GaBiz Editor in Chief touches base with Georgia Film & Entertainment Office Deputy Commissioner Lee Thomas about the state’s star-studded assets and the massive economic impact of the film industry.

The global film industry is big business, and Georgia has been steadily on the rise, garnering A-list productions from feature movies to television series. The Georgia Film & Entertainment Office, a division of the Georgia Department of Economic Development, celebrated 50 years this year and is dedicated to marketing the state to film businesses and facilitating the needs of productions while they’re here. Thanks to a compelling tax incentive program, diverse landscapes from cities to coastline to mountains, and an increasingly experienced workforce and developed infrastructure, productions are flocking to the state. And, while this year’s Hollywood writers strike caused a pause on nearly all projects, as of Sept. 27, the 148-day strike is over, thanks to a three-year deal the Writers Guild of America made with major studios. The agreement will allow professionals in all roles to get back to work. It’s timely, then, that we speak with Deputy Commissioner of the Georgia Film & Entertainment Office Lee Thomas about the state’s rise to film prominence and the future of the industry here.  

Most Georgians are aware that film is big business, but they may not realize how the industry has transformed the economic landscape. Can you offer some insight?  
Absolutely. We recently released Georgia’s production spend total for fiscal year 2023—$4.1 billion. This represents only the estimated direct spend of the film production on the ground here. If you look at the spend for one project, like Season 4 of Stranger Things, you can see how many people are impacted by this industry.   

This one project, out of the 412 filmed in FY23, spent more than $192 million in the state, with Georgia cast, crew, and extras on payroll for $127 million of that, so this is an incredibly labor-intensive business. They paid for 15,603 hotel room days and spent more than $1.9 million on housing.   

This number does not consider ancillary economic activity—like film tourism or the hundreds of millions of dollars that have been spent on infrastructure to support the industry.    

What are some of the most exciting infrastructure projects that have either happened recently or are on the horizon in Georgia?  
In March of 2021, Gray TV announced it would build film stages on 128 acres of undeveloped property in Doraville at the site of the former GM factory. It is now almost complete, and NBCUniversal will be a long-term tenant of the property. Also, a new gold LEED-certified soundstage complex, Electric Owl, opened on Redan Road in Stone Mountain.   

Athena Studios just opened a soundstage campus in Athens. The developer, Reynolds Capital, also constructed a building for the University of Georgia and the Georgia Film Academy to teach students filmmaking—giving them access to a full soundstage experience.   

BlueStar Studios has almost completed restoration and construction at the decommissioned Fort Gillem site to create a $180 million, 53-acre campus in Forest Park, and Great Point Studios’ project, Lionsgate Atlanta, is underway in Douglasville.   

Georgia has gone from hosting 45,000 square feet of stage space in 2010, to more than 4 million square feet, and is on track to host almost 7 million by 2025. Georgia now has the second highest amount of stage space in the United States.  

The Georgia Film Office just celebrated 50 years. What have been some of the most important milestones in establishing such longevity and success? 
Well, of course, the first would be the start of our film office, which was created by then-Governor Jimmy Carter in 1973 after he saw the economic impact and jobs provided by the movie Deliverance, which filmed in Rabun County in 1972. As a result, he decided to create an office to market the state to the film industry.   

The second milestone was the passage of the Georgia Entertainment Industry Investment Act, allowing up to a 30 percent tax credit on production expenditures on qualified projects, which went into effect in 2008. Beginning in the late 1990s, Canada started offering incentives to attract film production. As a result, Georgia lost a lot of projects, and subsequently lost crew and vendors. This 2008 legislation was pivotal in not only keeping Georgia competitive, but able to attract a tremendous amount of production, and later, infrastructure.     

In 2010, the Camera Ready program was started, and by 2014, all 159 Georgia counties had a trained, Camera Ready designee in place. These designees help our efforts to market the entire state for production.   

And, in August 2015, the Georgia Film Academy was created. It’s a partnership between the University System of Georgia and the Technical College System of Georgia to fast-track students into the film industry. The concept for the Georgia Film Academy sprang from Governor Deal’s High Demand Career Initiative, which was launched in January 2014 to address Georgia’s important workforce needs. The Georgia Film Academy is now teaching film and television curriculum at 29 campuses throughout Georgia.  

Staffing and hiring are hot button topics across industries. How is Georgia facilitating more education and increased specialized programs that will train the next generation of skilled professionals for our film industry?  
As a native Georgian with a degree in film, I can tell you there are so many more opportunities now here in Georgia than when I was in school. Not only does the University of Georgia offer a Master of Fine Arts in Film, Television, and Digital Media that provides students with hands-on filmmaking opportunities, but there is curriculum offered at the Georgia Film Academy to fast-track people into the industry. Children can start learning filmmaking in elementary school now, which is amazing. I look forward to watching the work of these homegrown storytellers in the years to come.  

How does the film industry provide economic benefits for years after a production wraps?  
Film and television productions can be amazing tourism drivers! We tend to focus on the amount spent on a production, but we’ve also seen the enormous impact a project may have years, even decades, after it has shot in our state. We know that tourists flock to Covington not only because of recent projects like The Vampire Diaries, but also because five episodes of The Dukes of Hazzard were shot there 40 years ago. In just a few seasons, The Walking Dead helped transform Senoia from six storefronts to more than 150 small businesses downtown. In Hall County, an enterprising local fishing charter company began offering lake tours of the filming locations for Ozark, charging more than $300 per person due to high demand and limited space. Beyond the direct spend, it may take years, even decades, to understand the complete economic impact of a project on an area, but it is certainly a substantial economic driver.