When the CW series “Vampire Diaries” began shooting in Jessica Lowery’s hometown of Covington (population 13,118) in 2009, she had no idea the production would become her family’s economic salvation.
Laid off from her job as a special-needs teacher in April 2010, she launched Mystic Falls Tours, named after the show’s fictional small-town Virginia setting. Today, both she and her husband work full time entertaining up to 150 fans a week who come from as far away as Germany and Brazil to pay $55 for an up-close look at the show’s locations, hear insider anecdotes and participate in scene re-enactments.
“It went from me and my daughter watching filming just to have something to do together to what we pay all our bills with,” says Lowery, who recently launched a second tour for the CW’s upcoming spinoff series, “The Originals,” shooting in the nearby town of Conyers.
Lowery can thank Georgia’s 30% film and TV tax credit for her good fortune because that’s what brought “Vampire Diaries” to town after it shot its pilot in Vancouver. Enacted in 2009, the incentive has driven direct in-state production spend to a record $879.8 million in fiscal year 2012, up from $132.5 million in 2007, and greatly expanded Georgia’s crew base.
“It used to be that I couldn’t be on a set in Georgia and not know 80% of everybody on that show,” says Karl Horstmann, prexy of Atlanta-based production house Triple Horse Entertainment. “The other day, we were driving by (a shoot) and I passed 30 people and I didn’t know any of the crew.”
Other small towns have also benefited from the boom. AMC’s “The Walking Dead” is shooting its fourth season in Senoia (pop. 3,300), while the new ABC series “Resurrection” lenses down the road in McDonough (pop. 22,000).
But the bulk of filming occurs in Atlanta, which in recent months has hosted the films “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” “Fast & Furious 7” and “Dumb and Dumber To,” and the Lifetime series “Devious Maids.”
Unlike many current runaway production destinations, Georgia has long been a popular filming location, drawing everything from Burt Reynolds vehicles (“Smokey & the Bandit,” “The Longest Yard”) to TV series “In the Heat of the Night” and “The Dukes of Hazzard,” both of which shot in Covington.
The state’s mix of mountains, swamps, beaches, antebellum architecture, urban cityscapes and Anytown USA suburbs is attractive to location scouts. Also significant is the ease of access provided by Atlanta’s international airport. Lee Thomas, director of the Georgia Film, Music & Digital Entertainment Division, believes it was one of major reasons the state was able to lure the “Hunger Games” sequels away from North Carolina, which hosted the first film.
“When you’re bringing 20 actors or so in and out, it’s a big advantage to be coming straight into Atlanta with its 26 direct flights a day” to L.A., says Thomas.
The biggest knock against Georgia has been its lack of soundstages. Currently, it has only two major facilities for rental: EUE/Screen Gems Studios in Atlanta and Raleigh Studios in Senoia. (Tyler Perry’s studios in Atlanta are dedicated to his own productions.)
“You just don’t want producers to have to trick out warehouses all the time, because that’s expensive and time consuming,” says EUE/Screen Gems Studios COO Chris Cooney.
The good news is there are a number of new studios in the works, including Triple Horse’s $100 million facility planned for Covington and developer Jim Jacoby’s 12-soundstage complex slated for Gwinnett County.
And outside of Atlanta, Britain’s Pinewood Studios is building a tentpole-ready facility — set to complete its first phase of construction in January.
New soundstages are great, but producers “will shoot in a shoe box as long as they’re getting money,” says production manager and first A.D. Tim Bourne, who’s worked on numerous Georgia-based shows. “Take away the incentive and I don’t know what will happen.”
But that’s not likely to occur anytime soon. As part of the due diligence phase for Pinewood “(we) met with the governor and the speaker of the house and they said that during their tenure they would not allow the incentive to change,” says attorney Stephen Weizenecker, who helped broker the deal and will rep the new studios. “Even if that change were to happen, it’s so far o they’d have already recouped their money.”
Production on Their Minds
Typically, when homegrown Georgia production is discussed, the first and only name mentioned is writer-director-actor-mogul Tyler Perry.
But Perry isn’t the only Peach State resident making an impact on Hollywood.
Atlanta-based Giant Studios, which created the motion capture technology used in “Avatar,” “Real Steel,” and “The Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” ilms as well as videogames such as “Halo 4,” has certainly made a name for itself
When the company debuted its virtual production pipeline in 1999, “we felt that if we build it, they will come,” says Giant Studios CEO Candice Alger, “but it didn’t happen.”
So Giant opened up a facility in Manhattan Beach, Calif., where it’s done the bulk of its feature work, while research and development and a portion of its post-pro duction remained in Atlanta.
Then, bolstered by Georgia’s tax credit-inspired production boom, it opened a motion capture studio in Atlanta last year. Alger expects it to be busy with an upcoming ilm project that will run for five years, as well as a wave of videogame work for the various platforms, including PS4 and Xbox One.
Georgia also boasts the animation house Floyd County Prods., responsible for the spy spoof “Archer” and the teen comedy “Unsupervised,” both for the FX Network.
In the live-action arena, Triple Horse Entertainment operates out of a 40,000-sq.- . facility in the town of Covington, housing a production company, a design agency, post-production services and equipment rental.
It’s made scores of commercials (Chick-fil-A, Bridgestone Golf), shot documentaries and even built sets for large miniseries. Now it’s gearing up to construct a multi-stage studio complex.
“It would be able to house some of these larger productions that are currently passing the state by,” says Triple Horse founder and president Karl Horstmann. “We hope to have it up out of the ground this time next year.”