An Interview with Michael Akins, IATSE 479
Michael Akins is the current Business Agent for IATSE Local 479 in Georgia, starting his tenure in 1996.
He’s seen a lot in his time, watching the industry of Georgia grow and expand, helping to develop the tax incentive that saw the film industry here skyrocket.Oz Magazine sat down with Akins to discuss his term with the 479, his experience in the development of Georgia’s tax incentive, and how the 479 can keep the industry moving.
Tell us about your time with the 479, specifically as the Business Agent
We have to go back 30 years. I worked as a grip, then a key grip, and I worked until 1996 when I became Business Agent. At that point, we’d seen a big decline in available job opportunities for movies and projects that came through town. A lot of our technicians that had been here for years were starting to move out and leave to further their careers. Around 2000, we did mainly MOWs [movie of the week], with small episodics from time to time, but that dried up too around 2002. If you go back and look, that might be around the time the Canadian incentives took off, followed by the New Mexico incentives and the Louisiana incentives.
That’s when we started looking at our industry and the 479: our membership numbers, the job opportunities, etc. A coalition got started called APP: Atlanta Production Partners. It grew to become GPP (Georgia Production Partnership). The industry and the professionals around town came together to affect the industry and examine the marketing of the state [for film] based on incentives. The IA and GPP created an organization called EDGE: Economic Development through Georgia Entertainment. We gathered up money, hired some lobbyists, rolled a bill, got it introduced in 2004, and got a lot of attention really quick. Governor Purdue realized the entertainment business was worth looking at, so we worked with him and got an incentive bill passed in 2005.
How did you help shape the incentive and push the legislative process?
We took a look at the incentive differently than other states. Luckily, we had a fair number of local technicians, so we could potentially crew up a few movies all at the same time [if the productions came here]. Other states had trouble crewing up locally even with incentives. With ours, we focused on the potential jobs and convinced Governor Purdue that the students from places like SCAD, GSU, and Georgia Tech were having to leave just to get work on productions in other states. We wanted to create a situation where graduates could stay in their home state and work instead of having to go elsewhere.
Would you say local organizations like the 479 were instrumental in keeping the jobs here?
The creation of EDGE and the funding for lobbyists was primarily through the labor union. We shared the cost over the years to come, but that initial funding was 479, yes.
And did the incentive benefit back into the 479’s membership growth?
Yes, but furthermore: it gave Georgia an industry they’d never seen before. It wasn’t even on their radar. This incentive increased jobs and membership, but it created a multi-billion-dollar industry that grew in a matter of ten years.
Can you share more about the process of developing the incentive?
The education of the legislators was key. The senators, the representatives, and the governor. To them, it appeared that this was a highly glamorous industry with a lot of money and workers making money hand over fist. The fact of the matter is: the incentive contributes to the local economy equally, between the labor cost to the shows filmed there and the input into the communities. Employment for small businesses, vendors, hotels and motels, and secondary/induced jobs all contribute to the economy just as much as the jobs directly generated from the films. When we got the legislators and the governor to understand that this industry promoted more economic growth outside of the direct cost, the lightbulbs finally started to come on. They started to see the industry as sustainable for Georgia.
How would you say the 479 has changed along with the industry over these 30 years?
We’ve had to become more adaptable to the volume of work and the expertise necessary. In the early 2000s, we were doing MOWs, and that’s an 18 to 200day wonder. You pull a few people together, there’s a few weeks of prep, shoot for 18 days, wrap for a week, and they’re gone. The expertise to do that is based on the local hires’ expertise: the whole thing is budget-driven, so the money isn’t there to do the fancy stuff. Now, we’re producing films at the very top of production, the highest level of technology, right here in Georgia. We’ve had to import some of the technology and experience. With that, though, we get our people exposed to those experts and the highest level of production.
What’s the biggest challenge currently facing the Atlanta film industry?
Growth. Never before has the state of Georgia seen growth like this industry has provided. Go back and look: this incentive was passed in 2005, revamped in 2008, we’re on eight years of the current model. In eight years, you’re looking at a multiplier of a thousand in terms of 479 members. You’re looking at an increase in jobs from maybe 10 or 20 a year [early 2000s] to roughly 200 a year or more. The infrastructure needed for that much growth that fast…that’s the biggest hurdle, in terms of equipment, experience, and technology. When this incentive was written, we were still using film. It’s all digital now, so the technology has changed along with the way we make movies. The state’s done a great job handling the growth and change of the industry here, and it’s poised now to continue that growth into further unprecedented territory over the next four or six years. You’re going to see more infrastructure, more dedicated stage space.
We did about 90 projects last year. Out of that: Screen Gems, Pinewood, Eagle Rock, Raleigh, and Tyler Perry accounted for less than 10% of the productions here. The other projects are somewhere around town, in warehouses and construction zones. There’s so much growth still to come that the state can take on due to the volume of work coming in and the lack of facilities here currently.
How can the 479 facilitate this growth?
I think we’re doing that currently by working directly with productions. We have direct relationships with the studios, which a lot of folks don’t always understand. We deal with Fox, Universal, Warner Bros, Sony—we’re in direct contact with them and we want them to come to Georgia to make a motion picture. They can get their product and leave town if they want to, but we want them to have a good time while they’re here and find qualified people for it as long as we can continue to provide them with that labor source. We keep doing that, then the state and 479 are doing their part. It’s hard to imagine how far we can reach because it’s still growing. I said back in 2008 that the industry would double by 2012, and it did. When Pinewood came up, I said it would double again by 2014. It did. We’ve seen a little slowing down of the growth, but the industry has double twice in ten years and it’s poised to do it again.
The number one expense to production is labor. Put aside the tens of millions of dollars for folks like Tom Cruise, and the majority of the cost for a production is labor. Having to import that labor from out of state is a heavy cost that I would love to see taken away. That comes with a few problems: the hotel/motel industry loves our industry because of that, and their profits are up because of it, but overall: production needs to be able to find local help. It’s a huge cost on them: the wages are higher bringing in folks from the outside, especially with per diem and housing costs, and it drives the labor cost up. So the faster we can train and bring in folks with the skills to work on these projects, the better. That's how we encourage productions to keep coming here.
And how about industry professionals? What can they do on a personal level?
This industry’s really unique. I know that maybe 50% of the folks working in this industry have high school educations. They started pushing a broom in the construction shop, and then they found out how to build a flat, then they became set designers and construction coordinators and set decorators. I know some folks who went to college with a degree in film who started pushing that broom at the same time. You climb the ladder faster with your education, but experience is what you go with in this industry. It’s difficult to teach it in a classroom, you get it from continued exposure, so we just have to keep on producing. When you get hired on as a graphic designer or an electrician or a gaffer and you perform: word about you will have a ripple effect, all the way back to California, and the producers and department heads tell the next one: “This is a great crew we had on this project,” and now you’re onto the next one. The first Marvel production launched here three years ago. First production was about 70-80% out of town folks. The second production had about 60% out-of-towners. By the third show, that 60% was the local hires. As productions come in, producers will hire locally if there’s availability. They’ll hire locally if the expertise and talent is here, and we give them that through experience in job after job after job.
What’s your vision for the growth and future of the 479?
We’re going to keep providing for the industry and showing them what Georgia has to offer. 479 is never worried about the membership numbers: too many members, too few members, that’s not the concern. Our concern is providing a work force for the industry, and we’ll work with everyone to make that happen, because there’s not one organization or one individual that made this thing happen. No other states have had this level of collaboration. We just had the film commissioner meeting [AFCI Cineposium 2016], and every film commissioner I talked to there was blown away by the collaboration. They all said “We don’t have that. The government wants to do this, the industry wants this, the labor unions and studios want different things,” and it’s fractured for them. That wasn’t the case here. We made sure that didn’t happen. We would fight like cats and dogs behind closed doors, but when the doors opened, everyone was on the same page. The film commissioners were really impressed by our group efforts. Casey Cagle was there, and for people to see our Lt. Governor talking to the labor union, which has representatives on his advisory board…that’s unheard of.
Especially in the wake of other states’ programs and incentives getting reformed or recessed in ways that their local industry dislikes.
That makes Georgia very unique, absolutely. We’ve worked with the vendors, the state representatives and the city, the film office, and more. We take meetings on a monthly basis with all of them to find out where they’re going. When there’s a problem, everyone is part of it. If there’s a problem at the city level with locations and Teamsters and 479, we’re all in the room for that conversation. It's about the industry as a whole, not just each problem. The problems need to be handled internally, so it doesn’t ripple back to California and make them think, “Well, you can’t film in Atlanta now.” The moment the incentive goes up for a vote, those producers start getting uneasy and don’t plan for the future here. So we need everyone—small businesses, vendors, representatives, unions—to be altogether. We’re going to do whatever we can to protect the stability here.