New movie production complexes are opening in Atlanta. Will jobs follow?

The expansion in business is accompanied by a shortage of qualified film and TV crews
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It’s hard to miss Hollywood’s presence in Atlanta, whether it’s Fairlie-Poplar transformed into San Francisco’s Chinatown for Ant-Man or Reese Witherspoon handcuffed after scuffling with a traffic cop on Peachtree Road. The local film and television industry—which, according to the Georgia Department of Economic Development, generated $5.1 billion in economic impact for fiscal year 2014—is spawning a surge in lower-profile businesses: production complexes. These studios house massive soundstages, workshops, and a host of support services like makeup, catering, and construction. Some are located in old warehouses or factories. The most ambitious: Atlanta Media Campus & Studios, a 5-million-square-foot Gwinnett complex spearheaded by developer Jim Jacoby that’s the largest of its kind in the Southeast. “The demand for production space and technology is doubling every year,” Jacoby says. “We’re being inundated with requests.”

Illustration by Justin Metz; source photos by Shutterstock
Illustration by Justin Metz; source photos by Shutterstock

But all those expansions haven’t come without growing pains—chief of which is a shortage of qualified film and television crews to work in these huge facilities.

“We’ve gotten so busy so quickly that we haven’t had the crew base and infrastructure to accommodate the business,” says Lee Thomas, deputy commissioner of the Georgia Film, Music, and Digital Entertainment Office, a division of the Department of Economic Development. “It’s a good problem to have, but it’s still a problem.”

Case in point: Cinipix, a production and distribution company that specializes in low-budget films and series in the $2 million to $5 million range. It relocated from California to Jacoby’s Georgia studio campus only to find that some staff for location shoots had to be recruited from other states. “We’re the smallest guy here, so the big studios get all the most skilled local labor first,” says Cinipix founder Mathew Hayden.

To thwart the staffing shortage, Jacoby plans to add a training facility to his campus, with classes taught by industry veterans and faculty from local universities. “The smaller guys making indie films can’t always afford that topline talent, so they really need interns and entry-level labor,” Jacoby says. “Meanwhile, the hardest part is breaking into this industry and getting a solid resume.” State and education officials are pondering ways to boost the skilled labor pool. One idea is tuition waivers for courses, such as set design or animation, that prepare students to join film crews or work in post production. Another option: helping professionals spruce up their skills for the movies—for instance, a carpenter mastering the art of facade construction.

Georgia’s tax credits don’t have a sunset date, but some lawmakers have grumbled about giving Hollywood so many breaks. North Carolina recently reduced its incentives after a state report found that $30 million incentives created just 55 to 70 new jobs in 2011.

Georgia could also face competition from its neighbors. “Film crews go where it’s absolutely cheapest to produce,” says Thomas Smith, an assistant professor in the practice of finance at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School. “If this industry proves a lasting economic engine for Georgia, it wouldn’t take a moment for states like Alabama, Tennessee, or South Carolina to offer greater incentives.” That would cause productions to flee Georgia, which could result in empty, desolate studios, not unlike casinos that never opened in Las Vegas after the recent financial collapse, according to Smith.

Finally, the Hollywood of the South faces pressure from Hollywood itself. California lawmakers voted last fall to triple tax incentives for film and TV productions during the next five years. Which means the competition to be home of the silver and small screens is just heating up.

Jacoby’s planned Atlanta Media Campus & Studios
Jacoby’s planned Atlanta Media Campus & Studios

In development

Atlanta Media Campus & Studios
Jim Jacoby is transforming an old fiber-optic cable plant in Gwinnett County into a 5-million-square-foot complex that will feature six soundstages, classrooms, offices, and multifamily housing. Jacoby already has struck a deal with MBS3, a Los Angeles–based studio home to James Cameron’s Avatar sequels.

Atlanta Metro Studios
Developer Rooker plans to overhaul the former Shannon Mall, opened in 1980 and located about 20 miles southwest of Atlanta in Union City, in collaboration with 404 Studio Partners. Former Turner Entertainment Group and Universal Studios executives will be involved with the facilities, which will include a movie and TV studio. The first phase includes some 130,000 square feet of soundstages.

Eagle Rock Studios Atlanta
Who knew? Beer warehouses make good soundstages. That’s what Eagle Rock, a family-owned beverage distributor, learned when it leased space to TV shows Devious Maids and Resurrection. A giant drive-thru designed for delivery trucks proved to be a surprise asset. “The trailers can pull right in and park, which is great for the actors to be right at set. And no one needs to stand around with umbrellas over them in bad weather,” says Fran Lutz, Eagle Rock’s CFO. The firm, which relocated into a former Kraft plant in Norcross, is converting part of that complex into four 30,000-square-foot studios—including a replica drive-thru.

Pinewood Atlanta Studios
A partnership between U.K.-based Pinewood (known for the James Bond flicks) and a local investment group, Pinewood Atlanta comprises six soundstages ranging from 15,000 to 30,000 square feet. The entertainment complex, which was announced in April 2013, is located on 288 acres of land in Fayetteville and will be surrounded by an extensive support network: a caterer, cosmetics retail shop, and casting company. Recently, the studios hosted Marvel Comics’ forthcoming Ant-Man.

Tyler Perry Studios
Atlanta resident Tyler Perry had planned to expand his eponymous production company with 330 acres of the former Army base Fort McPherson as part of a $30 million deal with the city. But as we went to press, that deal was reported to be in jeopardy. Perry might instead expand his existing complex on 1,000 acres in Douglas County.

On Tap?
The Boisfeuillet Jones Atlanta Civic Center was a location in the first season of The Walking Dead and serves as the venue for Steve Harvey–hosted Family Feud. Now the city’s trying to unload the 20-acre property and is soliciting bids for development that include production studios.

 

$5.1 billion?
Georgia gives film and TV companies a 20 percent tax credit on projects that cost more than $500,000, plus another 10 percent if a state logo is embedded in a movie’s credits. These deals have grown the film business from an economic impact of $260 million in 2008 to $5.1 billion in 2014, according to the Georgia Department of Economic Development. The state uses a Federal Reserve formula to calculate how direct spending (studio rental, salaries) translates to a larger impact, such as when a set carpenter buys a new truck, or a location scout splurges on dinner. Last year, 158 TV and film productions directly spent $1.4 billion in the Peach State. The multiplier used by the state is relatively modest but still leaves room for skepticism. The exact net benefit of an industry can be hard to measure, says Thomas Smith of Emory University’s Goizueta Business School. “Rarely do economic impact studies look at opportunity costs or counterfactual information,” he says. “For example, who’s to say the economic impact wouldn’t have been bigger if we’d offered the same tax incentives to the healthcare technology industry?”

This article originally appeared in our January 2015 article.

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