Rev Me Up, Savannah!
The Impact of Film Production on Georgia's Oldest City
When outsiders think of Savannah, they likely picture an image from Forrest Gump or Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Movies released two decades ago still represent the city, and the impact continues to be felt in many ways. Those outsiders see the images and want to visit, while industry insiders and government officials see their success and want the impact to continue. And it all benefits a community that is quickly becoming one of the greatest filmmaking hubs in America. Beth Nelson, executive director of the Savannah Area Film Office, has the data: “Last year, we had a direct local spend from film production of $61 million, which translates to an economic impact of $130 million,” she reports. And that was an improvement on 2015’s record, which saw a direct spend equivalent to the previous five years combined, according to the Savannah Economic Development Authority (SEDA). “Film production is definitely making a huge financial impact on our city, and we’re very happy about that.”
Production has grown substantially in Savannah and Chatham County: outsiders may see these locations all the time in film and television without even realizing it. Recent movies filming in and around Savannah include Baywatch, The Birth of a Nation, Gifted, and Magic Mike XXL, none of which were set there. Meanwhile, television shows and student films are regularly being shot in the region. Locally, the increase in production has been a boom to the economy and is felt positively by all.
One of the factors in the growth is, of course, the incentives, including the Georgia-wide tax credits and Savannah-specific rebates and relocation reimbursements for experienced crew. “If this isn’t a perfect storm, I don’t know what is,” says IATSE Local 491 business agent Jason Rosin about these breaks. He commends the state for being quick to establish both an enticement and an assurance for the studios that he believes will lead to long and healthy relationships.
“What used to happen is Savannah would get one significant film every 18 months, and we would do everything we could to staff and support the production,” Rosin recalls. But now thanks to the tax incentives, the city is going from being a destination location to a production center. “Locations rise and fall based on crew size. Savannah has grown out of that. There are vendors in Savannah, exceptionally talented crew, department heads—there are more department heads moving to Savannah every month.”
Scott Warner, a member of 491 who has worked on pretty much every major film shot in Savannah from Forrest Gump through Baywatch, has also noticed big changes in recent years. “I’ve seen a lot of vendors coming to Savannah,” he says, recognizing some of them relocating from other places he’s done work, such as Louisiana, and noticing that many are now dedicating equipment specifically for use in the movies. “You’ll see man baskets that the grip department uses for putting in lighting. These baskets disappear when they fly people up because they’re painted black. In the past they’d have been factory colors, bright orange or yellow.”
Rosin believes the city is the natural first choice even within the state of Georgia because of the growing workforce, services, and facilities, but particularly for the reputation of the crew base he represents. “We have history. We’ve been making movies in Savannah for a long time. Producers have a familiarity with 491. They know our department heads. They know our work ethic. They know we’re the kind of crew they want to hire when they go on location.”
Perky & Attractive
Any state and city can offer perks that will attract productions and crews, but Savannah is doing much more to build itself up as not just an attractive place to make a movie but one where there is constant production. Shepherded by SEDA and veteran Hollywood producer (and Savannah native) Stratton Leopold, a proper infrastructure for a local film industry has been established alongside the creation of the exclusive local incentives.
For Leopold, the interest was part hometown pride, wanting to see the area prosper, and part first-hand knowledge of what the production industry wanted. One of his movies, The General’s Daughter, was shot in Savannah before the tax credits existed solely because the look was right, though Leopold brought in outside crew. “If I’m doing a big studio picture, yes I can bring anybody from anywhere because typically we’re budgeted for that, but we always try to save money. Then you can do more with the picture. You can afford more visual effects, you can afford more shooting days, you can do more to help the film.”
"Entertainment production was a real opportunity for us...”
Meanwhile, the city benefits from those movies seeking out such savings and then spending that money in Savannah. “Entertainment production was a real opportunity for us,” says Brynn Grant, SEDA’s chief operation officer. “We had seen some periodic success. We had hosted movies like Glory and Forrest Gump and others, but the idea that we could create and maintain a sustainable, healthy film industry, keeping a film crew or two or three working year-round right here without having to travel away from their families is what intrigued us so much.”
Compared to other industries, film production offers employment to people of all levels of education. It is viewed as a positive not just for job growth but, because the incomes of these jobs are substantial, for a promise of career prosperity. And once the professionals are there, that helps the filmmakers. “We wanted to not only grow our crew base because we want our citizens employed and making a good living,” Grant says, “but so we can attract films and have it not cost them more to produce here.”
While much of the crew base is relocated industry veterans, others are coming up through training programs like those at Savannah Technical College in partnership with the Georgia Film Academy. They include both fresh young students and craftspeople looking to change fields, as Warner, a former tugboat captain, did decades ago. “It’s an art form, a challenge,” he says of the attraction to film work, which he acknowledges is becoming even more diverse and appealing as the industry grows. “Every movie has something different to it. It’s very interesting to do that and not just go in and punch a clock and push the same paper across a desk or go to some subdivision where you’re building 200 houses in seven variations.”
“Naturally you’re going to have crew expansion. You’re naturally going to have people want to move to Savannah. You’re naturally going to have students wanting to stay after graduation and participate in the jobs they’re trained for,” Rosin states of the perks for the workers. But the incentives alone wouldn’t have been enough. “Jobs create crew. You can’t build your crew base without a job. If I had to promise somebody a job that isn’t there, that’s ridiculous.”
To keep production in Savannah going and to maintain consistent jobs for the crew base, the Film Office—with help from SEDA—markets the area’s diversity at location shows in Los Angeles. It also holds workshops and forums in town designed to attract and foster businesses that can benefit from film shoots or from the general boost to the economy and in turn cater to a production’s needs.
“When a film crew comes in, it’s really like a small army,” Nelson states. “They need everything that a community needs. They’re utilizing yoga studios and shops and restaurants and really any kind of business you can think of. We’ve really seen our local businesses step up to the plate and want to learn what they can do to attract this business.”
Regarding the outward expansion of interest, she affirms, “We have so much more here than the historic district. There are a lot of things that are different. We have every era of neighborhood. We also have farmland, we have a lot of swamps, and we obviously have the beach and the marshes. That’s the message we’re trying to get out now.”
“A production that was here in the fall, they were so impressed with the diversity of Savannah,” Nelson adds. “For the show they were doing, Savannah was London, Philadelphia, Ohio, and rural Georgia. They were able to get all of those looks, which was very beneficial to them. And it helps us to sell it to the community that film is not just impacting one area.”
Not everyone in Savannah realizes the advantages, but there are efforts to educate them. “I don’t think a lot of people understand how it benefits the whole community,” says Nelson. “There was a tiny little florist who was upset about a production coming in. She said, ‘We don’t benefit.’ She had never really thought about how a production needs flowers. So, we connected the production company with her, and they bought a bunch of flowers from her. Because, of course, a lot of sets use flowers, they send flowers to some of their talent. So a little florist can benefit.”
Investing in the Biz
Most importantly, Savannah is listening and learning. Shawn A. Kachmar, a partner at the law firm HunterMaclean, has seen more business with the increase in production, but he’s also invested in the growth of the local infrastructure by helping to facilitate relationships between productions and vendors as well as sponsor forums where people from the film industry discuss their needs and make requests for improvements. Some of the issues addressed through those constructive meetings have been the shortages of sound studios and qualified vendors. “The feedback is, they’re willing to pay for it,” Kachmar says. “They’ll pay for good service.”
And such forums lead to results. “There are now vendors out there providing the services that we heard three, four, five years ago Savannah needed. We’re actively trying to learn with every production and make it even easier and more efficient for companies to do business here,” Kachmar professes. “We know several people in town who have gone out and invested in production facilities, sound stages, etc. We’ve helped open people’s eyes to the possibilities. It’s a little bit of an ‘if you build it, they will come’ mentality, but we’ve seen people come.”
Not all experiences have been positive: the making of Forrest Gump reportedly hurt some businesses back in 1993. Twenty years later, The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water was notorious for issues regarding poor planning and coordination on the part of the city. And nearby, in 2014, there was the tragic death of camera assistant Sarah Jones during the making of the canceled Gregg Allman biopic Midnight Rider. But all have led to changes for the better.
“This market has been through hell and come back,” Rosin recognizes while citing the temporary negative impact of the Midnight Rider incident on the Savannah area crew base. “And it’s come back stronger. The crew are stronger. They’re better trained. They’re more interested in safety. They’ve learned from the mistakes of the past.”
Focusing on the Bigger Picture
Nelson admits there are times when the people of Savannah are going to be inconvenienced. “You’ve got to sometimes block traffic and that kind of thing. But we’re mainly trying to make it a good experience for everybody.” Her office is regularly in communication with the people of Savannah and working to improve any issues they have. “It’s really working with the neighborhoods and letting them know what is going on. Giving them advance notice. Keeping them updated on what’s happening. Answering questions, and listening to them and what their issues are. If people know what’s going to come, it’s not such a negative impact. That is the secret to success.”
Communication is key. Educating people on what short-term inconveniences mean for the long term economic growth is important. “As often as we can, and as many ways as we can, we’re telling that story, the benefits of this industry,” assures Grant. “We’re speaking to Rotary clubs and Kiwanis clubs and every chance we have an opportunity through emails or events. We’re doing our best to have people know that they’re contributing to our economy when they allow that inconvenience. It is a cost of commerce, and that commerce contributes economically to our community, which increases the quality of life and standard of living.”
“Having movie and television productions in town can present some challenges for locals,” adds Joseph Marinelli, President of Visit Savannah, the marketing organization for the city’s tourism industry. “Road closures, late hours, traffic tie-ups can be frustrating at times, but the reality is most are only temporary and people tend to be very understanding— especially if they get to meet a movie star!”
The success of the Savannah film industry also helps the growth of the city’s other industries, such as the higher education sector and most notably the tourism trade. “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and Forrest Gump are what really changed Savannah and made it a tourist destination,” claims Dawn Martin, the General Manager of Savannah Movie Tours. She acknowledges that it’s specifically the Downtown Historic District that has been of interest because of those famous films, alleging it has an aura that beckons people. “Most people who come, that’s where they want to go. They want to hear the stories. And of course Bonaventure Cemetery was also made famous not just by Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil but also Now and Then.”
"It’s the tourists who are keeping the downtown historic district going.”
When there is pushback from the residents of that part of Savannah regarding the invasion of privacy that tourism brings, they are constantly reminded that there’s a system in place that contributes favorably to their lives. Tourists see the historic squares in the movies, they visit Savannah, go on tours, and proceeds from those tours go toward preservation, according to Martin. “It’s a cycle that we have to feed,” she says. “It’s the tourists who are keeping the downtown historic district going.”
Martin also stresses the synergy of tourism by way of the movies, how people are turned on to learning more about Savannah’s past as well as its reputation as a haunted city by way of historical films including Glory and reality TV programs such as Ghost Hunters. “The movies have brought in and carried over into not just the Civil War and the history and the glamor but the paranormal side of Savannah that people seek out,” she says. Basically, every sort of tour of Savannah has been served by its representation on the big and small screen.
Newer movies continue the symbiosis, even if they’re not direct representations of Savannah as a setting. This year’s Gifted, for instance, takes place in Tampa, Florida, but still shows off the sights of Savannah and Tybee Island in a positive way. “Gorgeous! Beautiful!” Grant exclaims of that film’s depiction of the area. “Even the locals here look at a film like that and say, ‘Gosh, we live in a gorgeous place.’ The Last Song, which was filmed on Tybee Island? Beautiful. I think the synergy and tourism is perfect, especially when the productions are so well done.”
As for data aligning the movies and TV with tourism success, Marinelli can’t confirm there’s any hard proof but does think there’s a connection. “We have visitors every day asking about specific movie scene locations,” he explains, “but it is hard to know how many visitors come for that reason or just want to explore while they are here. However, having said that, the numbers of hotel rooms sold was up last year almost 2% and visitor spending was up another 4.5%, so I’m sure that productions play a role in these positive numbers.”
How much Savannah’s film industry will grow and how long it will last is still an unknown, but those invested in its success are more than optimistic. “How could you not have a positive outlook?” Rosin asks. “By the end of the year, Savannah’s going to have two stage/studio complexes. By the end of the year, Savannah is potentially going to have provided jobs to women and men in four or five television series. Optimistic? That’s an understatement. I just don’t know a word to explain how positive I think it’s going to be moving forward.”
Still, he’s also realistic and recognizes that there’s always a chance the tax breaks could go away or that production heads might stop chasing financial incentives that have made Wilmington and Louisiana and Vancouver and now Georgia the latest film hotspot. “The industry is about ups and downs,” Rosin states. “The industry is about getting the dream job and then not getting the dream job. There is a process that women and men go through when they commit themselves to this industry. They know to prepare for the lean times when they’re in the good times, and they know in the lean times there’s a good time just around the corner.”
Fortunately, there have been consistent good times of late and that will continue to be the case for the foreseeable future and could endure even if something happened to the tax breaks. Because of the incentive, businesses have started or relocated or expanded into Georgia that are supportive of the industry, Grant points out. “At some point we will reach a sweet spot for capacity for a region of our size,” she says. “It will be an interesting evolution, and it’s something we’re really excited to watch happen.”
“But we’ve been excited about the numbers so far,” she adds, “and we’re working really hard to make sure we can sustain that, and we’re continuing to do all the things we need to do to put the infrastructure in place to really serve the productions when they come here. That infrastructure in and of itself, that expertise, those people who have chosen to live here because it’s a great place to live, that is going to drive business to some extent. So the future is bright for Georgia and for Savannah.”