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Hollywood Player-Turned-Georgia Educator Stresses Hands-On Approach

Most films schools cater to those who aspire to be auteurs or some other form of cinematic visionary. The Georgia Film Academy has a different goal that, while perhaps less lofty, is even more rarely achieved: to find its students gainful employment in the entertainment industry.

“We’ve disrupted higher education,” boasts Jeffrey Stepakoff, the GFA’s founding executive director. “Imagine going to university professors and saying, ‘If you want to study films, you have the makings here. But if you want to train people to go get a job in a few months, they need to get on a set and know which way a knuckle on a C-stand goes, and nobody in your university knows that.’”

Stepakoff’s own training tilted toward the creative side. An Atlanta native, he arrived in Hollywood in 1988, armed with an MFA in playwriting from Carnegie Mellon U., to launch a career in showbiz. He went on to work as a writer or writer-producer on 15 primetime or first-run cable TV series, including “The Wonder Years,” “Sisters,” “Hyperion Bay” and “Dawson’s Creek,” where he served as co-executive producer.

In 2015, Stepakoff was working as a co-executive producer on the ABC Family series “Chasing Life” when he was approached to establish the GFA. His mission: help build up a local crew base to service the ever-increasing number of productions pouring into Georgia since it enacted its 30% film and TV tax credit in 2008. “It was a chance to come back to Georgia and build something that is permanent and sustainable for an industry I love so much,” says Stepakoff. “I couldn’t say no.”

A joint effort by Georgia’s university and technical college systems, the GFA doesn’t have a its own campus. Instead, its courses are offered as an overlay program at a dozen colleges, including Georgia State U. and Savannah Technical College.

“What we didn’t do was go to our universities and hire people like me who have MFAs or PhDs, who are experts in Fellini films and ask them to train our film crews,” says Stepakoff. “I went out into the production community, to the unions and the sets, and found industry experts who in some cases have 30-plus years of experience on our sets in Georgia, and we built a core program that teaches students all the fundamentals they need to be a value to production.”

The first phase of the GFA program takes students on an immersive tour of the craft departments, including grip, electrical and lighting, and teaches them basic skills, including walkie-talkie protocol and how to read a call sheet. The second phase has them focus on a specific in-demand trade, from rigging to production accounting. In the third phase, they get an internship on a professional production, working alongside union members on set.

The result: Since the GFA launched a little over 2½ years ago, more than 3,500 residents have taken the courses, 650 have been placed in crafts internships, and hundreds have joined the workforce, according to Stepakoff.

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