Lights, Camera, Kudzu
It’s been more than 30 years since Deliverance jump-started Georgia’s film industry, and now movies, TV, commercials and videos have a $450-million impact on the state’s economy. But the competition is fierce, especially from other
Lewis King became the basis for one of the enduring characters in American literature and cinema because of an adventurous heart and his proficiency with a canoe paddle. But it was his skill with a ping-pong paddle that earned King big-screen immortality.
Deliverance author James Dickey used his river buddy King as the model for Lewis Medlock, the gritty outdoorsman played by Burt Reynolds in the film version of the novel about four Atlanta men on a deadly canoe trip. Then Dickey insisted to the filmmakers who descended on northeast Georgia that King needed to be involved in the movie.
“He told them something, probably that I was indispensable. He could exaggerate a bit,” says King, a longtime Atlanta real estate man who now lives in Sautee-Nacoochee, not far from the Deliverance setting.
“I wound up being called the ‘technical advisor,’” King says. “I got screen credit because I beat the director, John Boorman, in a ping-pong match. I was asking for $40,000, but he offered screen credit.
“Anyway, when I saw the film, there it was – my name, huge, on the big screen. I was shocked … and I thought, ‘Here’s a guy who pays his gambling debts.’”
The Warner Brothers production filmed on location during the summer of 1971 in Rabun County, on the Catoosa and Tallulah rivers. The movie, starring Reynolds, Jon Voight, Ned Beatty, Ronny Cox and a host of northeast Georgia locals, was a smash with critics and audiences.
Deliverance, which made its theatrical debut 35 years ago, is one of those seminal films that becomes synonymous with a place and its people, thanks to Boorman’s stark portrayal of violent, backwoods mountain men. But, perhaps even more important, the film represents the launch of Georgia’s modern film industry.
“This office is a direct result of that little film,” says Bill Thompson, director of the Film, Video and Music Office in the Georgia Department of Economic Development. “Ed Spivia was the state’s director of tourism at the time Deliverance rolled into north Georgia. He went up there, saw the large crew, the equipment, the money being spent. So he came back to Atlanta and told Governor Jimmy Carter, ‘Hey, there’s a vibrant business here.’”
Carter created the Georgia Film Office in 1973 and Hollywood kept coming back.
“There was a time when Georgia was number three in the nation in film and TV production,” says Thompson, who stepped into his job in November, after 25 years in the film, video and television domain. “We were out on the edge. But today, most states have some form of entertainment industry incentive. The competition is quite fierce.”
Thompson’s film mission is to push Georgia back to the edge, market the state to Hollywood producers while nurturing a growing indigenous community of independent filmmakers.
Since the film office’s inception in 1973, according to state figures, about 550 major motion picture and television movies have filmed here, generating more than $4 billion for Georgia’s economy. Last year, the total production budget value in Georgia for movies, TV, commercials, music videos and video game development was $251.1 million for an overall economic impact of nearly $450 million.
But there is a sense that Georgia has slipped and may be missing out on a meatier role.
Scott Tigchelaar, president of RiverWood Studios in Senoia, refers to the 1980s and 1990s as “the good old days,” when a string of blockbuster hits were made in Georgia, including two Academy Award winners for best picture: Driving Miss Daisy (1989, filmed in Atlanta and Coweta County) and Forrest Gump (1993, Savannah).
“Georgia had a good heyday. That’s when we really built our film infrastructure,” says Tigchelaar, whose 120-acre studio complex, the largest in the state, is about 45 miles from downtown Atlanta with a list of hit client films that includes Fried Green Tomatoes and Sweet Home Alabama.
“Equipment companies, lighting, cameras, post-production houses were all springing up,” Tigchelaar says. “And it was cheaper to film in Georgia, much less than Los Angeles or New York. We have versatile terrain, good weather, easy access.
“Those were the primary reasons movies took off here. Then the film industry sort of went away. The Canadian dollar got cheap, Canada added tax incentives. And also, the film industry went offshore.”
Tigchelaar and Thompson both note the Cold Mountain irony – a Civil War film that takes place in the South, but was shot in Romania.
“Some states have been able to claw back into the picture by passing their own tax incentives for film production, and Georgia is following suit,” Tigchelaar says. “But time might be working against us, because other states with better incentives are building their infrastructure, and getting film after film. Right now, there are eight movies being filmed in Shreveport. I mean, Louisiana is cleaning everybody’s clock.”
Louisiana was number one last year in the trade publication, P3/Production Update, which ranks the top 10 places to shoot in the United States (outside of California, whose $34 billion film and TV industry in 2005 puts it in another universe).
Ranking criteria include financial incentives, infrastructure, support services, annual revenues generated by the film industry, level of difficulty for productions, crew base, cost of living and desire to return. New Mexico, Florida, New York, Hawaii and North Carolina were ranked ahead of number seven Georgia.
Georgia’s legislature passed the Georgia Entertainment Industry Investment Act in 2005; it offers a 9 percent base tax credit and up to 17 percent in credits based on how much a production spends, where it’s spent and who gets hired. With just minutes left in this year’s session, the legislature increased the incentive package somewhat in a bill that was sent to the governor’s office.
“So much of the decision-making process is done before location scouts even hit the ground,” says Jay Self, director of the Savannah Film Commission. “They’ll budget a movie for location before seeing it based totally on the economics of the incentives.”
Savannah was a hotbed of major studio activity in the 1990s (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, The Legend of Bagger Vance, as well as Forrest Gump).
“We’re busy with smaller projects now, like independent films and catalog shoots. As for larger feature films, we just don’t seem to be economically competitive at this point,” Self says. “We are directly impacted by South Carolina. Our locations are pretty much the same, but their cash rebate program more than doubles Georgia’s incentives.”
Self offers up the recent example of Reinventing the Wheelers, the working title of a new TV series pilot starring Alyssa Milano that takes place in Savannah. It was shot in Charleston, SC. “They had a total budget of about $4.5 million,” he says. “Based on Georgia’s incentives at the time, they would have saved $300,000 if they filmed here. They wound up saving $680,000 in South Carolina.”
The Georgia Production Partnership (GPP), a nonprofit coalition of industry professionals, was established in 1998 to help nudge Georgia’s purse keepers in a direction that is favorable to film.
“Since our inception we’ve been consulted and have influenced a number of initiatives,” says Craig Miller, co-president of the organization and a filmmaker whose Craig Miller Productions turns out commercial and industrial films for a client list that includes Coca-Cola, UPS and The Weather Channel.
“Our goal is to provide a single voice to speak with government, or entities outside of the state who might have interest in shooting here, to promote filmmaking across Georgia and put us back in the forefront,” he says.
A group of about 15 filmmakers and Atlanta Film Festival programmers and jurors has boarded a purple bus on a bright morning for what Alison Fibben of the state film office calls, “a snapshot of what you can do in Georgia.”
The tour is being arranged by the film office and IMAGE (Independent Media Artists of Georgia, Etc.), the nonprofit organization that created and manages the annual Atlanta Film Festival, a 31-year-old event. The focus is clear – there is much to offer the filmmaker in Atlanta.
This is a tour of the filmmaking infrastructure. The first stop is PC&E (Production Consultants & Equipment), then on to some of the city’s other top equipment and production facilities, including CineFilm, Crawford Communications and, finally, the ultra-cool Lab 601, a post-production plant located in the old Mathis Dairy building on North Avenue.
The brainchild of brothers David and Peter Ballard, Lab 601 has all of the latest digital video and audio post-production tools in a setting that looks like a high-tech kindergarten. All day we have been looking at million dollar machinery that can convert film to digital, change the color of a person’s fingernails, create stunning visual and audio magic – but the highlight for the tour group seems to be the fire pole the Ballards have installed at Lab 601. Almost everyone slides down.
Next door to Lab 601 are the offices of Pop Films, an up-and-coming independent collective of former Georgia State film students whose movie, The Signal, was a hit at the Atlanta Film Festival after debuting at Sundance, where producers secured the filmmaker’s Holy Grail – a distribution deal that will put their horror film on 500 screens this fall.
Interest in the film has netted Pop Films a three-picture deal, says the state’s Bill Thompson, including a remake of the 1980 camp horror flick, Motel Hell, and a sequel to The Signal.
“These are a bunch of young guys who basically worked for free and made a smart movie that people in Hollywood are paying attention to,” Thompson says. “That’s the kind of indigenous little production company we’re going to see more of.”
The film program at Georgia State is loaded with potential. “We have a huge undergrad program, 400 to 500 majors right now,” says Kay Beck, who taught Thompson and has been something like a guru for GSU film students. Talk to The Signal’s guys, or the guys at Fake Wood Wallpaper, who produced another independent comedy-horror hit, Blood Car, and Dr. Beck’s name keeps coming up.
Beck is director of the Digital Arts and Entertain-ment Laboratory (DAEL) at Georgia State, which she describes as something like a business incubator, a smaller, arts and entertainment version of Georgia Tech’s Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC).
“The growth and interest in film and video has skyrocketed, because of the democratization of production equipment,” Beck says. “We can all make movies now and edit them on our home computers. My generation – the boomers – wanted to write the great American novel. Now the desire is to make the great American movie. Visual communication has become the norm and everyone can be a filmmaker.”
It’s worth noting that the audience favorite at this year’s Atlanta Film Festival (150 films in the 10-day event) was a documentary, Darius Goes West, produced by amateur filmmakers.
The movie – brilliantly funny and poignant – chronicles the cross-country journey of Darius Weems, an Athens youth with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, and his friends. Directed by Logan Smalley, a University of Georgia grad who plans to study special education at Harvard, the film has traveled the country, picking up awards at every festival where it is shown, with all proceeds benefiting muscular dystrophy research (www.dariusgoeswest.com).
Big Screen, Big Dreams
The old reliable behemoth of Georgia’s film and television industry is Turner Broadcasting in Atlanta. That includes the Cartoon Network, Turner South, Turner Classic Movies, TNT, CNN. Turner remains the communications standard with its limitless supply of programming, but much of the original work, popular TV shows such as The Closer, are produced out of state.
Atlanta remains Georgia’s entertainment industry hub – a hip-hop vortex that attracts music video and commercial producers. But the city is increasing its image on the movie map thanks to Tyler Perry Studios (TPS), which promises to produce two feature films and about 100 television show episodes a year, much of it focused on African-American themes. This is the brainchild of writer/director Tyler Perry, whose hit films, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Madea’s Family Reunion and Daddy’s Little Girls, were made in Atlanta.
“Atlanta has been our good luck charm, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” says Roger Bobb, supervising producer of a TV series being made at TPS, House of Payne. “We’re proving that you don’t have to be in Hollywood to shoot films and television series, that independent thinkers can get around the Hollywood system and create profitable, viable productions.”
Rainforest Films (Stomp the Yard) is another independent firm that is building Atlanta’s reputation as a solid location for African-American filmmakers, while BET (Black Entertainment Network) is producing its new sitcom, Somebodies, in Athens.
Down in tiny Colquitt, Georgia, Ralph Wilcox, a veteran black actor and producer, has launched the Southwest Georgia Film Commission, and a production studio.
“At first, the business and political community thought this whole notion had to be hatched by a con man,” says Wilcox, director of the commission and the Jokara-Micheaux Production Studio.
Thanks to a state grant and the assistance of the producers of Swamp Gravy, the popular story play that has become a Colquitt cultural industry, Wilcox is now teaching film to rural students – makeup, sound, lighting, set design, acting. Billy Bob Thornton is planning a film in the area, and Wilcox says he’s getting calls from Hollywood.
“Word is getting out, people are starting to take the area seriously,” Wilcox says. “My vision is to use the movie industry as a vehicle for economic development.”
In Senoia, Scott Tigchelaar is positioning his massive RiverWood Studios for its own brand of economic development. They’ve purchased land in Senoia with the intention of filling it with period-looking structures.
“Everything we build will look like it was built 120 years ago, to be consistent with the historic look of the town,” says Tigchelaar.
In the perfect script, a movie is the gift that keeps on giving. Tigchelaar envisions a live, work and shoot community – restaurants, office space and residential housing that will double as a live back lot for future RiverWood Studios projects in the years to come.
For the some of the local crew on Deliverance, the impact lasted decades. When James Dickey recruited his pal Lewis King to join the action in northeast Georgia, King in turn recruited Claude Terry and Payson Kennedy, two Atlanta canoeing buddies. They got paid $150 a day to serve as location experts, stunt doubles for the actors, or raft captains for a production team on troubled waters.
“Neither of us went home again,” says Dr. Terry, who purchased river gear from Warner Brothers following production, left his post as a med school professor at Emory and started Southeastern Expeditions.
Kennedy left his job as a librarian at Georgia Tech to start Nantahala Outdoor Center, which opened for business around the time Deliverance was premiering on the big screen. It didn’t hurt business.
“No, that movie was really good for business, for both of us,” Terry says. “That movie was a life changing experience.”