Boots On the Ground
Building Georgia into a Creative Force
Georgia is on Hollywood’s mind these days, but Georgia has a lot of minds of its own creating content for movies, television and more. These talented people conceive projects right here, dispelling the notion that Georgia is merely a production arm servicing an entertainment industry centered elsewhere. There is no tax incentive for this part of the process, like those for filming and for post production in the state, but there are benefits to being based here.
Some creators, like Michael Lucker, are Georgia natives who have returned after making a name for themselves in the industry. “I got sick of L.A.,” admits the former assistant to Steven Spielberg and co-writer of such features as Disney’s Mulan II and Home on the Range. “I came back home to the green trees and the rolling hills and the friendly people and Lynyrd Skynyrd on the radio— things that made me feel healthy and whole.”
Also initially attracted to the opportunities to do more directing and producing, Lucker worked on unscripted content for a while, but found it creatively unfulfilling. He started teaching screenwriting workshops and college courses in the area and published a book on how to write action movies (Crash! Boom! Bang!), finding it more rewarding to instruct and inspire Georgia’s content creators of tomorrow.
Lucker also recently shot a short film in Cedartown titled Black Mountain that he hopes to turn into a feature, one that will hopefully compensate the “wonderful community and wonderful folks who were very supportive, helping me with the cast and crew and locations and resources that I needed to do the pilot project on a shoestring.
”Staying local has personal benefits as well. “It's always nice when you can film in a location where the crew lives,” he adds. “It reduces your overhead, and also, frankly, it's safer. Beyond that, I think Georgia offers so much in terms of the hospitality of the people, the diversity of the landscape and the production resources that grow exponentially every day, making shooting here easier and ultimately more successful.”
Matt Ackerman, who is originally from Marietta, came back to Georgia to set up the East Coast offices of UNHEARD/ OF, a sister company to the Seattle-based post production house World Famous. As a content creator specializing in ad spots, social media and music videos, UNHEARD/OF tends to go wherever the client wants to film, but Ackerman tries to drive business in Georgia when he can because of “the tight-knit film community” here.
He sees a lot of talent in Georgia segue to commercial gigs in between jobs on features, and he recognizes the hardworking crews and great resources.“I like the camaraderie I see on the set any time I’m working here,” Ackerman says, noting also that people from out of town definitely take notice. “I tell people, ‘Look over here, good stuff is happening.’” UNHEARD/OF, which created Wendy’s first ever Super Bowl spot this year, also works with local Atlanta clients in need of content, offering their services as a director-driven company. “I think a lot of people are looking for the one-stop shop,” he explains. “As budgets are in a steady decline, sometimes it’s the only way to go.”
"We're the weird guys from Atlanta who come up with crazy ideas they don't normally see."
School of Humans, known for the series Stuff You Should Know and Adult Swim’s Daytime Fighting League, recognizes that there’s a particular benefit for outliers like them residing outside Hollywood. “It helps us to cut through the clutter,” claims co-founding producer/ director Brandon Barr. “We’re the weird guys from Atlanta who come up with crazy ideas they don’t normally see. They don’t get sick of us the way they would if we had an office in Santa Monica.”
Plus, they just love shooting in Atlanta. “The community is extremely close-knit, and the production crew is on par with what we’d expect in California. It’s just a really friendly production environment. We rarely have any issues or problems with the local municipalities,” says L.C. Crowley, another co-founding producer and director who is originally from Georgia. “There are strategic advantages in competing with production companies from other places. We can streamline the whole thing and there’s an efficiency and effectiveness as we can make a series work at a more competitive cost. As post continues to grow, as editors continue to move out here, you'll see a growth in people like us who are making stuff from soup to nuts.”
Another fairly new company, Reel Cool Entertainment, is creating content on a variety of platforms, starting with the popular steampunk web series Archangel from the Winter’s End Chronicles, which is being set up for a feature adaptation. Founder Dave Di Pietro is not from the area. He moved to Georgia 15 years ago following a long stint with the home video division of Paramount Pictures and “just watched the film industry grow around me.” Di Pietro says people are starved for product, and he is excited to be able to supply it from here. “You don’t need to go to L.A. unless you want an L.A. name,” he argues. “There so many talented people here, and it’s growing by leaps and bounds.”
Di Pietro, who is also director of new props at Museum Replicas, believes that if you’ve got good content, it doesn’t matter where you are. But he recognizes a particular need in Georgia: With more and more studios and resources trying to cater to the big Hollywood productions, they may look to local product to fill in the gaps. “Original content is the way to go,” he says of what the industry is after. “Everyone’s looking for that next Stranger Things, those cool shows that are going to be popular and stay for three or four or even seven years."
Another word the industry loves right now, he says: franchise. “If they see something that’s not a single movie, that can possibly be turned into a TV series, or a series of movies, or a comic book series, a video game, have merchandising potential… That makes the ears pop up. And all of these areas can be done here in the state. If they can also be shot here in Georgia, I think we’re going to be golden for another decade, at least.” As they say, a rising tide lifts all boats, and the growth of Georgia’s industry isn’t just creating more demand for content; it’s also bringing more potential content creators. “A lot of people have moved to Atlanta to work for studio productions and also want to create their own content,” explains Brantly Jackson Watts, a filmmaker in residence with the Atlanta Film Society who also leads a program supporting women in the industry above and below the line. “The indie scene is being fed through the production that’s coming through.”
Jackson Watts has a narrative short on the festival circuit this year titled Birthday Cake, which she plans to adapt as a feature. She’s not alone in wanting to see the scene grow and thrive, and she champions the way independent filmmakers help each other. “That’s one great thing about the Atlanta indie scene, there are a lot of people willing to work really hard for others to see something get made,” she says of the talent, including film students “who want to work on something they feel strongly about.”
Education is one of the keys to building a greater content creator presence in Georgia, but people also need to establish relationships and network in order to have a better understanding of cinema and build a local film culture, according to Jackson Watts. She admits that Atlanta is lacking in those areas associated with “film community,” rather than those just associated with the film industry. “We’re a great production town, but are we a film town?” she wonders, acknowledging that there are shifts moving in that direction toward the development of above-the-line talent.
"You can’t tell me it can’t be done outside Los Angeles, because I’ve done it my entire career."
Others are pushing hard for this shift. “Don’t tell me you can’t do it,” says Paul Jenkins on building Georgia’s opportunities for success. One of the original trio who built the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles property into a gigantic enterprise, Jenkins is mostly known for his work in comic books and video games, and as a major advocate for creators’ rights. He also chaired an advisory committee for Governor Nathan Deal on the future of the industry. “I cut my teeth on creator-owned material. You can’t tell me it can’t be done outside Los Angeles, because I’ve done it my entire career. I’m here to remind everyone I’ve already done it. You don’t need to be in Los Angeles to succeed.”
Jenkins originally came to Georgia from the northeast when an injury required a move to warmer weather. But he wasn’t about to go out to Hollywood. “I lived there for six months, and it was somewhat hellish for a person like me,” he admits. “I love it here.” His META Studios, located at the Atlanta Media Campus in Norcross, works with outside content creators but is primarily interested in local independent intellectual property creation “not just to make it, but to teach people how to do it.” Currently they are also raising funds for a slate of independent productions, "cross-collateralizing the content so we can provide investors with a more robust investment that's not reliant on one film.”
META is an acronym for Media, Education, Technology and Advancement, with the last word being stressed by Jenkins. He says Georgia needs more mentoring, more “leveling up” of talent. He wants to see more training for producers, directors and all-media creators. Jenkins also wants Georgia to stand out with all-media projects, which isn’t L.A. or New York’s strong suit. “Don’t just compete with L.A.,” he says. “You won’t win. Don’t compete with New York. Instead, complement and supplement what they do, and then you’ll compete.”
While it’s not necessary to be based in Los Angeles, most content creators still have to travel out west and to New York for meetings and to pitch their ideas. Most of these Georgia companies have an office in L.A. because they are there all the time. That’s true for School of Humans’ Crowley and Barr, who were surprised to find even Atlanta-based companies like TBS and truTV required a trip to New York. “You have to have meetings where the buyers are,” says Barr, who says having an L.A. office is “increasingly an advantage.” He believes that as more editorial moves to Atlanta for the new post production tax incentives, more showrunners will relocate because it’s just easier. However, “I don’t foresee development teams ever moving,” he says. “Traveling to New York and L.A. for pitches is always going to be a part of our business life.
"Everybody wants to know how they can write movies and not be in Los Angeles, including the screenwriters who are in Los Angeles."
"The biggest challenge is having to get to Los Angeles to pitch in the rooms to the buyers, without a doubt,” agrees Lucker. “There's no lack of talent here. It's just that we all have to go through Hartsfield to California in order to pitch our wares—ironically, so they can get sold and funded and brought back to Georgia, a half-hour from where we wrote them.” You’d think that with communications technologies what they are today that you could do more of this from anywhere, but Jackson Watts stresses that “for development you’ve got to be in the room, and unfortunately the room is in L.A.”
Lucker explains, "Everybody wants to know how they can write movies and not be in Los Angeles, including the screenwriters who are in Los Angeles. But the fact is it's a lot easier in Los Angeles. Even if you can type at your kitchen table in Chamblee, you've still got to get it sold. And if you are fortunate enough to get it sold, people are going to want to work with you developing the project. And if you don't get it sold, they might like your writing and want to work with you. Either way, you need to be in the room. You can obviously jump on a plane or you can jump on Skype, but it's not the same, and it's not as easy. It's more challenging to build your career when you're across the country from all the guys who are having breakfasts, lunches and dinners every day developing ideas in Los Angeles. You can create content here, but it's easier to break out there. Hopefully more independent studios or larger studios will consider setting up content creation bases in Georgia."
And it’s not just movie and television that requires personal interaction. “A lot of people who are in the sales world will kind of phone it in,” says Ackerman, “but I’m a little more old school in that I love to meet with people and chat with people, and get to know people on a personal and professional level. I love face time. I love to take people out to lunch and see what they've been working on. It's important in this business because really, at the end of the day, it's about relationships when it comes to your company’s growth and longevity.”
Jackson Watts is optimistic that development will come as the film scene continues to grow. As more talent is developed here, more money will follow. “We won’t need to depend on L.A. to get things off the ground. As a community, we’re all responsible for helping each other grow. With our own growth, money and development will come here.” Otherwise, in five years she thinks Atlanta is going to lose a lot of its currently growing talent pool.
Lucker also believes the post production incentive will bring more creatives to Georgia. “I think the agents and the funding will follow,” he says, optimistically. “As soon as one of the big talent agencies like ICM or William Morris sets up shop in Atlanta, that's when things will change in an instant."
As a member of the Georgia Production Partnership, Di Pietro says he has the opportunity to work with investment companies such as the Ritz Group, which holds an annual summit for creatives and investors at Eagle Rock Studios. “There’s going to be other groups like that moving into the motion picture industry,” he says. “There’s money to be made here, even on these smaller productions. They need to see that if they shoot here, the money stays here.”
“People are starting to understand that investing in entertainment can be just as lucrative as real estate,” adds Jenkins, “but they’re not familiar with it. So the challenge is explaining and getting them to understand it.” He admits this part of the Georgia industry has been slower than he hoped, acknowledging that writing that check is an emotional decision. “People are worried that they don’t understand entertainment.” But as long as Georgia gets traditional film financing from California, it’s always going to be a part of the California production system.
Jackson Watts realizes another challenge for content creation in Georgia is that while people are used to paying big money for training in New York and L.A., that’s not the case here. “Training is expensive, and Atlanta is just not at a point where people are willing to pay that much or are able to pay that much. There are no writers’ rooms here. There is no training for writers’ rooms here. How to be a writer. How to work with a full group of people in a room.”
For Di Pietro, the biggest challenge remains the mentality of the industry as a whole. “They still, because of the buddy system, want to feed a lot of stuff back to L.A.,” he claims, calling such who-you-know allegiances that still give the work to California-based actors and post facilities “very silly and very sad.” He works directly with actors all the time because he also directs theatre here, and he witnesses local casting calls for movies and television that never end up filling roles. “There is talent here up the wazoo, but it’s just a thing. If they can’t give it to an L.A. actor, they’ll give it to a New York actor.”
Ackerman agrees that the mentality of Hollywood traditionalists is a huge challenge: “Trying to overcome the consensus that L.A. is the only place you can go for good content creation, how do you overthrow that reputations and say ‘look over here’?" he asks.
People in L.A. still look at Georgia as just another “runaway production” state, even though it’s no longer just the latest place with attractive tax credits. “We don’t have the expectation of excellence in what we do,” says Jenkins, who also sees an issue in the mindset here. “We’re still in the environment of ‘hey, we’re happy to make a film!’ But you should be happy to make a film that makes money and gets distribution. The primary goal in sustaining a business is to make money repeatedly so you can do it again and again and again.”
“I’m not willing to give up on Atlanta yet,” says Jackson Watts, who has discussed moving elsewhere with her filmmaker husband, AKA Blondie director Jon Watts. “I want to see it succeed and I want to be a part of that. It’s better to be a big fish in a small pond than a tiny minnow in a large ocean. But I also just like Atlanta.”
“I have great hope for Atlanta becoming a hub for content creators,” Lucker says. “Then I think things will come full circle, where we're not only making things here 30 percent cheaper than they can in California, and not only posting content here 30 percent cheaper than in California, but also creating content here at 30 percent cheaper than California. Then our business will be selfsustaining and ultimately generate more and more opportunities for Georgians for many years to come."