The Big Ground Game
“Of all the tax-incentivized states outside the historical production hubs, Georgia has the greatest possibility of a long-term, sustainable film and television business,” says Brian Livesay, who with Ed Richardson and John Rooker is a managing partner and co-founder of the new Atlanta Metro Studios.
Georgia’s prime position can be attributed to three things, notes Richardson: “Strong government leadership, education that helps build a long-term crew base, and local developers and comrades-in-arms at the other studios. The studio infrastructure here is the third leg of the stool. Without all of those things working together we’d end up in a dystopia.” Here, Oz takes a look at some of these third-legs, touring the many fine studios in the state of Georgia.
Since its launch, Pinewood Atlanta Studios has been on a building boom. The purpose-built complex located on 700 acres in Fayetteville opened in February 2014 with five sound stages, mill and vendor space and production offices. Shortly afterwards, another 18,000 square-foot stage opened. Twelve months later five more stages made their debut, along with a 15,000 square-foot stage dedicated to the on-site Georgia Film Academy.
Now, in Phase Three of the build, six additional stages are poised to open in January 2017. Among them is the mammoth 40,000 square-foot Stage 17, which boasts 55-foot clear height. Pinewood offers 300,000 square feet of production facilities adjacent to the stages with workshops, offices and meeting rooms. Over 400 acres of backlot feature open space, woodlands, a pond and swamps.
A separate media park, which Pinewood encourages all area productions to use (not just those on the lot), includes such leading vendors as Chapman / Leonard Studio Equipment, Hollywood Trucks Georgia, MBS Equipment Company and Panavision. The world’s only Home Depot Studio Store is also a tenant.
“We’ve been very blessed to work almost to capacity since day one,” says Vice President of Operations Brian Cooper. “Ant-Man was our first film, then Captain America: Civil War and the just-released Passengers, plus the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming. We currently have one project on the lot and another coming in with Phase Three.”
Cooper is “very excited” about the opening of Stage 17, Pinewood’s largest soundstage. He also cites the launch of the complex’s fourth hybrid stage designed to host live television and independent features. A 20,000 square-foot production office with a New York brownstone façade will offer additional exterior shooting options, Cooper notes. And a 76,000 square-foot concrete pad, supplied with power, fiber and water, is available for green screen and VFX shoots.
“With the opening of Phase Three, Pinewood Atlanta Studios will become the second-largest, purpose-built production facility in the U.S.,” says Cooper.
Pinewood came to Atlanta with a strong studio heritage in the UK and quickly made a name for itself with “the quality of our stages, their ease of use and our very service-oriented approach,” Cooper notes. “We’re building a one-stop shop, with all the amenities and the media park.”
Pinewood is also home to the state-run Georgia Film Academy, which just graduated its first class of 40 students. The school offers a one-year certification program to recent grads and career changers alike. “It has a very diverse student body,” says Cooper. “The Academy runs internships on productions at Pinewood and all across the state.”
Cooper believes that “as Pinewood grows, the Georgia market grows and that benefits all of us. All the studios in Atlanta work very closely together in terms of the Georgia production incentives and what it takes to maintain the industry here.”
EAGLE ROCK STUDIOS
Located on 35 acres just 15 minutes from Buckhead, Eagle Rock Studios Atlanta opened in April 2015 with 470,000 square feet of stages under one roof. Three of its four stages each measure approximately 30,000 square feet with one about 28,500 square feet; ceiling heights are 27 feet. A covered breezeway-base camp provides easy access to the stages and offers over one-quarter mile of interior base camp parking.
A member of the DeKalb County Film, Music and Digital Entertainment Commission, Eagle Rock also has more than 150,000 square feet of flex space and two floors of production offices. Cinelease is on the lot, and other support services are a phone call away.
Although Eagle Rock was converted from warehouses, “everything is purpose-built for soundstages,” notes Beth Talbert, Vice President of Studio Operations. “Before the stages were built, we made a point to go to every department on a production and talk about their needs. We worked very hard to build to their requirements so it would be easy for them to come in and start working.”
The studio’s comprehensive services mean clients don’t have to make a lot of a la carte choices. “All the power and AC are in place; lighting and grip is on the property,” says Talbert. “Three office hubs have fully-furnished space. And flex space offers support for construction, storage and gold rooms.” Eagle Rock’s covered breezeway protects cast and crew from the elements, whether the Georgia heat or cold and inclement weather.
Eagle Rock’s list of clients include Jason Bateman’s Netflix series, Ozark, Sony Pictures Television’s Powers series, two seasons of OWN’s Greenleaf series, 20th Century Fox Film’s upcoming Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul, and the Garry Marshall feature Mother’s Day. Currently on the lot is the new feature based on the popular YA book series, Darkest Minds. Eagle Rock also has two stages at its Stone Mountain facility where Lifetime’s Devious Maids series just wrapped its fourth season.
"There's always room for improvement."
For the last 18 months the studios have primarily hosted single-camera TV and film projects, but Talbert says Eagle Rock is “actively working on getting multi-camera scripted and unscripted shows,” too.
Recently, Talbert was in LA where she found that both Game Show Network and Nickelodeon were looking to bring multi-camera shows to Atlanta. Eagle Rock is well positioned to accommodate those shows, she notes. While its facilities are still close to brand new the studios are always tweaking infrastructure and services based on feedback from clients. “There’s always room for improvement,” she says.
ATLANTA METRO STUDIOS
Phase 1 of Atlanta Metro Studios was completed in March 2016, and its six soundstages have been fully occupied by productions ever since. Located five minutes, or as Brian Livesay likes to say, “one song” from the airport, the complex comprises 30 acres of the former Shannon Mall in Union City. The facility is 20 minutes from midtown Atlanta.
Phase 1 features 135,000 square feet of purpose-built soundstages. Stages 1, 2, 3 and 4 are each 20,000 square feet. They’re separated by soundproof, moveable partition walls which, when all are open, create an 80,000 square-foot stage, “the largest purpose-built soundstage in North America,” according to Livesay. Stages 5 and 6 are each 27,500 square feet; when their soundproof, moveable partition wall is opened the combined space is the second-largest purpose-built soundstage in North America. Grid height is 40 feet throughout; Stages 1-4 and Stages 5 and 6 have uninterrupted grids.
"We try to be in tune with productions because we come from production."
The space is “quite malleable,” Livesay notes, and can easily serve films, episodic television and streaming series, commercials, game shows, even rehearsals for live touring. Its first tenants were the just-wrapped Sony Pictures feature Jumanji, a reimagining of the 1995 film, and the new Fox series 24: Legacy, a spin-off of the hit 24, which makes its home at the studios.
Atlanta Metro Studios also boasts 50,000 square feet of mill/flex space and 60,000 square feet of production offices. On-site vendors and services include Hollywood Trucks Georgia, Herc Entertainment Rentals for heavy equipment, MBS Equipment Company, Scott Smith’s Atlanta Entertainment Rentals for high-quality vehicle rentals, Pam Swofford’s Production Housing, and Studio Wellness message therapy.
Six acres of open areas afford additional shooting options. “Both of our tenants have done large exterior green screen work there,” Livesay reports.
Livesay believes Atlanta Metro Studios stands out for being purpose built for film and television and for the influence he and Richardson have had on the facility. “We both come from the production world: Ed is a producer and I’m a production designer. So we’re intimately familiar with the workings of a studio,” says Livesay. “We’ve tried to be predictive and not reactive to the needs of our clients. If they want to do something like dig a hole in the stage floor or have a big exterior explosion in the parking lot, we can usually say yes. We try to be in tune with productions because we come from production.”
Phase 2 of Atlanta Metro Studios is already on the drawing board. Plans call for it to “just about double the size of our stage, mill and production office facilities,” Livesay reports. “We’re hopeful of breaking ground on the expansion in 2017.”
EUE/SCREEN GEMS STUDIOS
In 2010, EUE/Screen Gems was the first major, brand-name studio to arrive in Georgia. Located just minutes from the airport and downtown, the family-owned company has been a familiar name in the industry for more than half a century. It brought its legacy to a local heritage site, the hundred-year-old Lakewood Fairgrounds, where it has revived the once-derelict property and restored the original Mission Revival architecture.
EUE/Screen Gems Studios Atlanta now boasts 10 soundstages: seven carved out of old fairground buildings and three purpose built. The latter number includes Stages 7 and 8, which offer a combined 37,500 square feet of column-free space, 40 feet to the grid, and Stage 10 with 30,000 column-free square feet, 40 feet to the grid.
The 33-acre site also has 250,000 square feet of production space and 50,000 square feet of furnished office space. EUE/Screen Gems Studios Lighting, Electric & Grip (LEG) opened a new 20,000 squarefoot warehouse this year and launched a collaboration with California-based MBS Equipment Company to service on-site and location productions.
“What distinguishes us is our location, between the airport and downtown, and expertise,” says Executive Vice President Kris Bagwell. “We feel lucky to have saved a historic place – the fairgrounds were the home of summer entertainment in Atlanta for a hundred years, and now we’ve brought them back year-round in the modern era. We have some of the largest stages east of the Mississippi.”
Business has been “fantastic” since the studios opened, he reports, with projects including Hunger Games: Mockingjay parts 1 and 2; two of the Divergent films and two seasons of USA Network’s Satisfaction. The just-released feature Passengers shot in Stages 7 and 8, whose combined space made it larger than any other studio in Atlanta at the time. Currently, a new feature occupies the larger stages and a streaming series fills the rest. The complex is booked through mid-2017.
“In capacity and occupancy the studio business is more like a convention center than a hotel,” Bagwell explains. “You can’t operate at 100 percent occupancy all year; 80-90 percent is a great year. It’s a difficult business to forecast. Shows don’t tend to book way in advance: a TV series once called us hoping to start shooting two weeks later.” Bagwell muses about a studio-building “bubble” but says building new infrastructure is still trending. But it’s important for all players to realize that “this is very much a service business, not a warehouse business,” he says.
EUE/Screen Gems Studios Atlanta effectively services clients with an extensive inventory of its own lighting. “Eighty percent of the time we can fill production needs with our own equipment, but we have a relationship with MBS for gear we don’t have,” says Bagwell.
While building a “true backlot” may be “down the road for us,” the former fairgrounds property offers location possibilities of its own. “The Last of Robin Hood, a feature about Errol Flynn with Kevin Kline and Dakota Fanning, shot exteriors with our buildings doubling for the Paramount lot in the 1940s,” says Bagwell. The Hunger Games features also erected sets in the lower parking lot.
The complex recently added 10,000 square feet of additional office space. Its master plan calls for three more stages on no specific timetable. “We’re more interested in doing it well than trying to get too big too fast,” notes Bagwell. “Your reputation is everything in this business, and we want people to know we’ll take care of you at EUE/Screen Gems.”
Bagwell also chairs the Georgia Studio & Infrastructure Alliance, an education and advocacy group. Eagle Rock Studios and Atlanta Filmworks Studio are also members of the Alliance. “We can’t take any of this [production boom] for granted,” he says. “We spend a lot of time with legislators explaining that studios are the modern equivalent of factories, and this is an industry in which America leads the world. Nowhere, including New York, has as much infrastructure on the ground as Georgia. We have a chance to be the biggest place east of California producing entertainment. But we have to keep our nose to the grindstone and not get cocky.”
ATLANTA FILMWORKS STUDIO/STUDIO SPACE ATLANTA
Just 15 minutes from downtown, Atlanta Filmworks Studio features a 20,000 square-foot column-free stage with 42-foot clear-span ceiling, more than 16,000 square feet of production offices, 3,000 square feet of executive offices and 20,000 square feet of mill and flex space.
Its sister facility Studio Space Atlanta has three studios comprising 8,000 square feet plus a full kitchen, client lounges, production offices and conference room. Pre-lit cyc wall packages, diffused lighting packages, a basic lighting package and photo strobe package are available as well as additional lighting and grip gear, microphones and 5-, 3- and 1-ton grip trucks.
Studio Space Atlanta opened in 2008 and runs 24/7 servicing commercials for advertisers such as Zaxby’s and Graco, corporate videos, still photographic shoots and music videos. It also hosts interview segments for many reality television shows, like Real Housewives of Atlanta and Love & Hip Hop Atlanta.
“We put a lot of money into catering to TV clients,” notes Daniel Minchew, owner of Studio Space Atlanta. “In the past two years we added more soundproofing and silent AC; all the ceiling lights are on dimmers. There’s not a lot more to do – we built out the facility by listening to our clients. We want to make shooting here as comfortable and easy as possible.”
Minchew joined with partners Glenn Murer and Mark Henderson to launch Atlanta Filmworks Studio in 2013. “It’s a medium-size stage,” he says, “but being column-free is a huge deal, and you can do anything you want in there with the 42-foot clear ceiling. We’ve been lucky to be the primary shooting location for AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire for its entire run: the show came in for its first season as soon as we opened and is booked with us through January 2018. That’s been a big plus for us.”
"We want to make shooting here as comfortable and easy as possible."
It’s been fun to watch the metamorphosis of Halt and Catch Fire from season to season, Minchew reports. “They built a Victorian house in the studio, then ripped that out and did a cool warehouse interior,” he says. “They even shot behind our facility in a wooded area and turned the parking lot into the exterior of a bowling alley where they were having a party.
“When the show first came in they told us what they wanted, so we built out the stage to meet the needs of the production,” Minchew explains. “But once in place, their requirements can transfer over to any show that follows.”
Production in Georgia shows no signs of leveling off, he notes. “It seems as soon as a new studio opens it’s filled up right away. As many studios as have opened during the last two or three years there’s still a need for more space.”
THIRD RAIL STUDIOS
One of Georgia’s newer film and TV production studio, Third Rail Studios, has opened four miles north of Buckhead, less than 10 miles from midtown Atlanta and adjacent to MARTA for easy transit.
Third Rail Studios features 60,000 square feet of column-free soundstages with a 41-foot height clearance. Adjacent is 37,000 square feet of flex space and an additional 28,000 square feet of production offices. There’s also room to house some exclusive vendors and preferred partners, such as MBS Equipment Company. The studios “are purpose-built and can be configured with removable walls to form three 20,000 square-foot stages or a 20,000 square-foot stage and a 40,000 square-foot stage,” he explains.
“We looked at production in Georgia and felt there was a need for a purpose-built studio on the north side of town,” says President of Operations, Dan Rosenfelt. The studio complex will be complemented by the future development of The Yards with residences and eateries. “We felt it was a very viable location.”
Third Rail’s first client was the father-son buddy comedy, An Actor Prepares, starring Jeremy Irons. The independent feature is shooting on 20,000 square-foot Stage 1 and using considerable amounts of flex space. The New Line film, Rampage, based on the classic video arcade game and starring Dwayne Johnson, will occupy the entire facility from early to mid-2017.
Rosenfelt, who has extensive experience in every aspect of production, including running the boutique Riverfront Stages in LA for five years, intends to make customer service the defining feature at Third Rail Studios. “At the end of the day a studio is a big box for a production to live in, but what separates one studio from another is the quality of its stages and the extent of its customer service,” he says. “One hundred percent of our job is to make sure clients have a great experience.”
Rosenfelt sees no end in sight for production growth in Georgia. Recent top-level meetings with production companies and studios in LA yielded reports of more shows headed this way, he says. “There are so many avenues out there now. Amazon and Netflix are not slowing down. Content is so valuable to all outlets. There couldn’t be a better time to be in the studio business.”
He’s pleased by the camaraderie he’s found among the studio community in Atlanta. “Everyone understands that it’s up to all of us to ensure that productions have a positive experience here. I’ve been impressed by everyone I’ve met and by the capabilities of all the studios. But there’s no resting on our laurels. We all have to be actively involved in telling Georgia’s story to the industry.”