Pinewood Atlanta’s president wants to make Y’allywood a new media magnet

“We’re thinking big”
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Frank Patterson
Frank Patterson

Photograph by Mark Hill

When he was invited to head up Pinewood Atlanta Studios last year, Frank Patterson thought he was the wrong man for the job.

It’s not that he wasn’t qualified to oversee a three-year-old filmmaking campus that had already hosted the productions of several Marvel blockbusters. Patterson’s 30-year career in the entertainment industry has included directing films, producing cutting-edge special effects, and mentoring aspiring filmmakers. He’s used to a challenge. So Patterson was prepared to tell the Pinewood brass that he didn’t want to serve as property manager for their sound stages. Or, as the 55-year-old Texas native puts it, “I really wasn’t interested in renting boxes.”

It turned out that the nation’s third-largest production studio had still grander ambitions—ones that convinced Patterson to sign on as the facility’s first president. Besides overseeing Pinewood’s nearly 1 million square-foot compound in north Fayette County, he’s been charged with launching a sort of incubation village of media start-ups on the property. If successful, it could help cement metro Atlanta’s status as one of the world’s preeminent filmmaking hubs.

“We intend to create an ecosystem of companies that leverage new technologies to exploit and build upon existing forms of storytelling,” says Patterson, who assumed his new duties at the beginning of January. “We’re thinking big.”

Movie-making is already a major industry in Georgia, thanks largely to state tax incentives that debuted in the late 2000s. In the past fiscal year, nearly 250 films and TV projects were shot in Georgia, according to the state. Productions spent more than $2 billion, generating billions more in economic impact.

When Pinewood Studios—the venerable U.K.-based company best known as the home of the James Bond movies—decided to set up shop in Georgia, it was already thinking about the future. The company partnered with Chick-fil-A scion Dan Cathy and other local investors on a 700-acre site that initially had five sound stages when it opened in February 2014. Cathy is planning to build a $700 million, 230-acre mixed-use development nearby.

“The company barely got the first stages built in time for the client who’d already rented them,” Patterson says. That client was Marvel Studios, whose first movie filmed at Pinewood, Ant-Man, went on to gross more than $500 million worldwide. Since then, Pinewood has been building to keep up with Hollywood demand. Like its parent studio in England, the Fayette County location specializes in providing state-of-the-art stages and rigging needed for such big-budget productions as last year’s Passengers and Captain America: Civil War, as well as upcoming Spider-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy installments.

In January Pinewood opened six new sound stages, including Stage 17, which, with 40,000 square feet and ceilings that soar 50 feet high, is one of the largest in the U.S. The complex also contains offices, post-production facilities, lighting vendors, set construction areas, on-site caterers—even the country’s only Home Depot store located on a movie studio lot.

Things are moving so quickly that, rather than build new offices, Pinewood repurposed an elementary school across the road from the complex. Patterson works inside that building.

He’s used to educational settings. For the past 14 years, Patterson served as dean for Florida State University’s College of Motion Picture Arts, which accepts only 30 undergraduates a year (he stepped down in December but remains on the faculty). In 2008 The Hollywood Reporter named Patterson one of the most influential film professors in the country for mentoring young filmmakers, including Barry Jenkins, director of Oscar Best Picture winner Moonlight.

“Atlanta is perfectly positioned to become a magnet for new media start-ups,” says Patterson, who now lives in Atlanta. “It has a rich academic network with university research facilities, a robust movie business with an experienced workforce, and even a strong venture capital community for business incubation.”

Patterson envisions the Pinewood campus becoming something of a mini Silicon Valley for new media companies. Think firms devoted to emerging virtual reality or motion capture technology, or a start-up focused on next-generation sound design or video game software. The studio could be an active investor or simply provide a location alongside a major movie lot, says Patterson, who was cofounder and CEO of the technology company best known for creating a virtual Michael Jackson that “performed” at the 2014 Billboard Music Awards.

Pinewood has already helped boost the local movie industry by providing space—including a dedicated soundstage—for the Georgia Film Academy, a state program that trains would-be film crew members. Hundreds of students have taken part in on-set internships, with some working on the crews of Marvel films.

Pinewood’s efforts could place Georgia at the forefront of the entertainment industry, says Chris Escobar, executive director of the Atlanta Film Society and vice president of the Georgia Production Partnership, the trade association that helped author the tax credit legislation. 

Georgia might be one of the busiest production locations in the country, Escobar says, “but right now, we’re just a factory. Having media companies based here, as Pinewood plans, will keep intellectual property revenue in the state.” And Patterson, Escobar says, is the right person to make that happen: “He’s a visionary.”

This article originally appeared in our April 2017 issue.

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