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Georgia’s Production Incentives Seal the Deal for Hollywood

Homer Simpson gave the Georgia film and TV production community backhanded props in this season’s premiere of “The Simpsons,” telling prospective producers he had three conditions for permission to turn son Bart’s near-death experience into a movie: input on the script, tickets to the premiere, and, “I’m not thanking the Georgia Film Commission, no matter what.”

The fictional Homer’s ire is likely inspired by the real-life ubiquity of the “Filmed in Georgia” peach logo on screens big and small these days. In the past year, it’s appeared in the end-credit rolls of Marvel blockbusters and numerous other films such as “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” and “Rampage,” as well as a TV series including “The Walking Dead,” “Atlanta,” “Stranger Things,” “Insatiable” and “Ozark.”

Save for “The Walking Dead” and “Atlanta,” none of the above projects are set in Georgia, and if it weren’t for the logo, viewers probably wouldn’t know where they were shot. That’s because the state offers a wide variety of looks, from Atlanta’s ultra-modern downtown to rolling hills in the north and flat farmland in the south, as well as a wealth of swamps, anywhere USA suburbs and folksy small towns. In the upcoming movie “The Front Runner,” about the ill-fated 1988 presidential bid by Gary Hart (played by Hugh Jackman), the state stands in for locales ranging from the Colorado Rockies to coastal Florida.

“The only things I’ve been asked about where I just say ‘No, we don’t have it’ are fjords and super-rugged Alps-style mountains,” says Lee Cuthbert, a location specialist with the state of Georgia’s film, music & digital entertainment office.

The varied locales are enticing, but the real reason projects are flocking to Georgia is its rich production incentive. That seemingly ubiquitous “Filmed in Georgia” logo on-screen translates into an extra 10% on top of its base 20% tax credit for qualified in-state spend.
Producers can get even more in Savannah, where upcoming sci-fi film “Gemini Man,” starring Will Smith, was shot. The city offers projects an additional 10% rebate on qualified local spend, as well as up to $2,000 in moving expenses per household for crew members relocating to the city.

Georgia’s incentive is not the richest in the land. Louisiana and New Mexico have tax credits that top out at 40% and 30%, respectively, but if you want to get more than the base 25% in either state, there are a list of qualifications and restrictions. In Georgia, all you have to do is slap on the peach logo.

“Our program is great because it’s straightforward,” says Lee Thomas, deputy commissioner of the Georgia film, music & digital entertainment office. Unlike most other states, “it doesn’t have a cap or sunset.”

That means the funding will not run out if other projects get in the door before your does, and the incentive has no set expiration date, so it won’t go away unless the law is repealed by the state, giving it a degree of certainty. That’s important, because if a state doesn’t seem committed to its incentive, Hollywood gets cold feet, as demonstrated by the steep production drop-off in New Mexico when its then-new Gov. Susannah Martinez merely threatened to scale back its program in January 2011.

Fortunately for the Georgia film and TV community, nominees from both parties in its current gubernatorial election, Republican Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams, have pledged their support for the incentive. But it can be hard to gauge what the legislature will do.

“You’ve got a lot of turnover in the legislature, probably 30% a year, so the men and women there now are not the folks who passed the credit,” points out Kris Bagwell, exec VP of EUE/Screen Gems Studios, which has a 10-stage, 33-acre Atlanta studio complex. “Sometimes you’re just educating them on what the credit is and the success of it.”

One of the vehicles for that education is the Georgia Studio & Infrastructure Alliance, an organization chaired by Bagwell that lobbies for a coalition of the state’s studios and vendors.

“We launched it four years ago so we could speak with one voice down at the capital,” says Bagwell, “and the thing we talk about is jobs, jobs, jobs.”

Bagwell and his compatriots have a lot to talk about. According to the MPAA, the Georgia film and TV industry has created more than 92,000 jobs paying close to $4.6 billion in wages. In the 2018 fiscal year, ending June 30, Georgia hosted a record 455 projects that had a direct in-state spend of $2.7 billion and an overall economic impact of $9.5 billion. That represents close to a 4,000% increase over 2007, the year before the state’s tax credit was increased from 9% to 30%; pre-incentive bump, the economic impact was just $242 million.

Georgia has a long history of hosting film and TV productions, from a slew of Burt Reynolds films in the ’70s (“Deliverance,” “The Longest Yard,” “Gator,” “Smokey and the Bandit”) to a string of acclaimed dramas in the late ’80s and early ’90s (“Driving Miss Daisy,” “Fried Green Tomatoes,” “Forrest Gump”), but it was never a hotbed of production until the 30% incentive was enacted in 2008. Competition from Canada, which upped its incentives in the ’90s, took its toll on filming there, as did other domestic tax credits that appeared in the mid-2000s.

As the number of projects mushroomed in recent years, so has Georgia’s production infrastructure. Today, the state has more than 100 managed stages, 18 of which are located at Pinewood Studios Atlanta, which opened in 2014 and is now the largest soundstage complex in the U.S. In 2015, prolific actor-filmmaker Tyler Perry purchased the decommissioned Fort McPherson military base to be the new site for Tyler Perry Studios, and earlier this year, the studio’s former president Ozzie Areu partnered with his brother Will and singer Gloria Estefan to purchase Perry’s original site in Atlanta’s Inman Park, with plans to re-launch it as Areu Bros. Studios.

The only significant threats to Georgia’s success have been a pair of anti-LGBT measures. In 2016, Disney, Netflix and the Weinstein Co. threatened to boycott the state when a bill that would’ve allowed both public and private organizations to deny services to people who offend their religious beliefs passed both houses of the legislature, but it was vetoed by Gov. Nathan Deal. Calls for a boycott were renewed earlier this year when the Georgia State Senate passed a bill that would’ve made it legal for taxpayer-funded adoption agencies to reject same-sex couples, but the bill died in the house.

While the political atmosphere might at times be foreboding, Georgia has a reputation for being exceptionally welcoming to visiting productions.

“In L.A., if you’re in a situation where you need to move a generator, they might block that for a day,” says director Deon Taylor, who shot his horror-comedy “The House Next Door” in the Peach State late last year. “In Atlanta, they actually work with you to figure it out. People are problem-solving versus making problems.”

Just Peachy: A sampling of films and TV shows shot in Georgia

“Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues”
“Ant Man”
“Ant-Man and the Wasp”
“Avengers: Infinity War” (1)
“Baby Driver”
“Black Panther”
“Captain America: Civil War”
“Divergent: Insurgent”
“Divergent: Allegiant”
“The Fate of the Furious”
“Furious 7”
“Fast Five”
“Game Night”
“Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2”
“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”
“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay,” Parts 1 & 2
“Identity Thief”
“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle”
“Magic Mike XXL”
“Pitch Perfect 3”
“Ride Along”
“Spider-Man: Homecoming”
“Thor: Ragnarok”
“Tyler Perry’s Madea Goes to Jail”
“X-Men: First Class”

TV Series
“The Quad”
“Stranger Things”
“The Vampire Diaries”
“The Walking Dead”
“24: Legacy”

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