Savannah Film Commission – The Gateway to Filmmaking in Georgia

During the colonial period, a gentleman by the name of James Oglethorpe came to the United States with a small group of settlers and developed a colony near present-day Savannah, Georgia; thus beginning the history and heritage of this great state.  He is often referred to as the founder of Georgia and his work in this state revolved around providing settlers from Britain a place to rebuild and re-establish themselves after being devastated financially by Britain’s harsh rules surrounding debt and taxes, especially before the Declaration of Independence was signed and officiated in 1776.  He was a social reformer who grew Georgia from the shores of Savannah and became an emblem of growth and development in this state.

Aside from Oglethorpe’s legacy which can be seen across the state through architectural edifices, statues, and other things remaining in his namesake, there is another legacy that is being created as we speak that represents potential for growth and development in Georgia.  It is a film legacy that has been laid by the Savannah Film Commission, which I believe, will play an integral role in film production in this state.  Savannah has been a key player in the film industry here in Georgia for many years, dating as far back as 1962.

Key films that we have seen played out on Hollywood’s big screen that have been filmed on location in Savannah are as follows:

The SpongeBob Movie 2
Paramount Pictures

Cap Fear (The Original – 1962)
Universal

Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies
The Asylum

American Idol
FOX/Fremantle Media

The Fugitive
Warner Bros. Television

The Legend of Bagger Vance
Dreamworks

Forest Gump
Paramount Pictures

Glory
Tri-Star Pictures

In order to tell us more about this film commission and its important role it will play in the future of film here in Georgia, I have teamed up with William Hammargren, Film Services Director at the Savannah Film Commission.

William, I really appreciate this opportunity to showcase you and the Savannah Film Commission in this blog.  Many great things are unfolding in the world of film in this state and this is great news for us who are developing careers in this industry.  First, tell us what the Savannah Film Commission is and its purpose.

The Savannah Film Commission is a 19 member board charged with advising and assisting the Savannah Film Office and Savannah City Council on media production related issues and activities. Most people are referring to the Film Office when the reference the Commission and they can be used somewhat interchangeably but it is good to note that they are technically two separate things. The Savannah Film Office is a department of the Savannah City Government and its mission is to weave the film and television industry into the fabric of Savannah’s social, economic and professional profile. This involves a number of activities, including marketing, and outreach, production recruitment, permitting, project management, and connecting producers with local resources and locations. Thus we serve both Savannah’s citizens and media production clients.

As film continues to grow around the state, do you anticipate that Savannah’s Film Commission will be the leading commission for any film making within the state?

The Savannah Film Commission and Film Office serve (and are funded by) the citizens of the City of Savannah and thus this is our primary area of focus; however, we work to promote and enable media production throughout southeast Georgia. We also work very closely with the Georgia State Film Office and Department of Economic Development whom I would consider to be the leaders in this area. We obviously have a keen interest in the statewide health of this industry and any policies or developments pertaining to it. Members of the Savannah Film Commission and a number of other local Savannahians have been critical in establishing the states successful programs to date and continue their involvement at many levels, locally, throughout the state, and beyond.

As you may know, the South is rising in importance in film production with Louisiana being the top location for film making, outranking California and our neighboring state of Florida.  What do you think it will take for us to get to the number one spot that Louisiana now holds?

Our current rate of growth is aggressive. In selecting where to film, producers look for a number of things. Key among these is a strong, stable and accessible incentive program, and the availability of skilled local crew, diverse locations, and infrastructure such as stages and equipment. We have all of these things and are continuing to develop them. Taking the top spot will require and ongoing commitment to all of those things and the support of a broad range of Georgia citizens and stakeholders.

There are criticisms about how film tax incentives are only disrupting economies by simply taking from them and not helping in the development of the local economies of places outside of California and New York.  Do you think that Georgia will be a victim of this trend of new “robber barons” who simply profit from this industry without developing it; or is this an important economic development within the state that is here to stay?

This is an extremely complicated issue but if you look at how much this industry has grown in Georgia since the incentive was enacted I think it is clear development is happening at that it has a positive economic impact. There have been multiple independent studies of the state’s entertainment tax incentive program and at worst they found the program to be revenue neutral, however the large majority of them found it to be revenue positive. This means that for every dollar of tax money spent funding the states entertainment tax credit, the state is making that dollar back plus some, in tax revenue.

So I would ask: what do we lose by continuing this successful program? All industries receive sizable tax incentives from states in order to attract their business. There are any number of recent stories of states offering generous incentives to attract major manufactures and the jobs they bring to their area. The film incentive in Georgia is no different. Many naysayers make the argument that manufactures provide long-term employment opportunities and that movie production companies come and go quickly. It’s true, an individual production only spends a limited amount of time in the state but that doesn’t mean the film incentive isn’t creating long-term employment. Productions are coming in record numbers and bringing more and more jobs with them. They are also supporting thousands of businesses which cater to not just the movies themselves but their employees as well. One of the biggest names in movie studios, Pinewood, is building its first studio in the US here in Georgia. Many major production studios already have facilities here.

The development is happening. The incentive is important and we are benefiting from it. Georgia has shown a strong commitment to the incentive and that is a big part of its success. In fact Georgia is even looking at ways to expand it now. Going back to the previous question, the reason Louisiana currently has the number one spot is because they were among the first to implement an incentive program and they have stuck with it through the years. Other states, such as South Carolina, which have reduced or eliminated their film incentives, have seen the industry there suffer because of it. If Georgia continues its commitment to the tax credit the film business will continue to grow here and become more and more instrumental to our economy. I believe that we are on track to do that and that the entertainment industry will be one of Georgia’s largest and most important sectors in the years to come.

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Ric Reitz On Strengthening Georgia’s Positioning in the Film Industry

Ric Reitz

 

In 2008, Ric Reitz said this in response to the new film legislation:

“House Bill 1100 is a key piece to the puzzle in sustaining Georgia’s entertainment industry for the long haul. It will provide many new jobs for Georgians, improve the state’s entertainment infrastructure, and grow Georgia’s indigenous companies.”  

Reading these words should send chills through all of Georgia’s film professionals considering how far the film industry has come since 2008. His prediction rings true because as a result of this bill, Georgia has surpassed all of its competition outside of New York and California.

Georgia is on top now but many skeptics are waiting for the moment when this trend will pass, leaving the dreams of local film professionals dashed and the economy of Georgia broken. Some skeptics believe that just like North Carolina, film production in the South will not last. They believe that all of the film production taking place here will eventually come to a halt and the only thing that will remain will be the popular film tour companies.

Of course, not everyone is as pessimistic.  There certainly is an aura of pride and hope uniting many film professionals in the state of Georgia.  There is also a deep passion for making the film industry more than just a short-term anomaly. Continued success will take more than just the passion of local film talent and wishful thinking, however.

HB 1100 was a step in the right direction several years ago but just a little more effort is necessary to stabilize this industry enough to compete effectively with the bigwigs of the industry and even woo them to support the efforts taking place here.

Everyone within the industry who is keeping a very close eye on the developments here, know that California and Georgia have more in common than just the wildfires that were blazing here a few months ago.   Film is becoming a large chunk of Georgia’s economy as it has been in California for many decades.  Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is definitely watching Georgia’s progress and wants California to recover its losses due to runaway production; but, in a recent interview with NPR he insists that “It’s not necessarily us declaring war on Georgia, but it’s us fighting back.” 

Nine years after its inception, Georgia’s film production incentives are facing some fierce competition from outsiders which begs the question “Is it strong enough to compete with and sustain a fair share of the market as it stands?” Or, “Can it be strengthened to make the tax credits even sweeter than those recently introduced in California. 

Georgia presently holds a strong place in the overall entertainment industry. Not to mention, it has recently held down the number one spot in America for business development for several years now.  Most astonishing of all is the recent ranking as one of National Geographic Traveler magazine’s 21 “Best of the World” destinations for 2017.  Evidently, Georgia has a lot of hype supporting it being a great place to be but just what could strengthen its position in the film industry?

This week on Reel Focus, Ric Reitz will answer questions on how Georgia can continue its successful run and how the current incentives can be strengthened to give Georgia the competitive edge it needs to stay on top. 

Ric it is a great honor to have you on our blog and I want to thank you for not only your wonderful achievements in Hollywood but also for your magnificent work in helping to grow the film industry here in Georgia.  I want to begin by asking why do you think Georgia toppled all of its competition and became the number one state for film production outside of California and New York?

Thank you, it is my pleasure to respond.

Georgia’s recent success with entertainment production was the result of a “perfect storm.” When the cost basis of the industry shifted and opportunity space opened, we were able to move quickly and professionally with a focused grassroots effort, which was already organized.  Whereas other U.S. states outside of California and New York have their pluses and minuses when it comes to fostering growth and employment within the entertainment industry vis-à-vis tax incentives, Georgia had and has many extra advantages.  Georgia had a pre-existing production base.  Few remember that prior to tax incentives Georgia had a great deal of production, right up to the Olympics; from Film/TV projects to commercials to corporate films, and therefore, post-incentives, we did not have to start from scratch on a cast, crew or infrastructure basis.  We have a temperate climate with four distinct weather seasons and diverse topography, which is ideal for broad storytelling and doubling locations.  We have the world’s busiest airport, which allows direct and inexpensive access to the world, which can’t be underestimated.  When it came to politically expediency, much of our production was and is generated around the state capitol of Atlanta, so it was easier to tell our story.  

Thankfully, we have received great political support from both sides of the aisle right up to the Governor’s office since Day One.  We are not geographically close to the other major centers of production, which means we have not suffered from what I call the “black hole effect” of having resources being drawn into the top pre-existing markets by proximity.  The cost of living is favorable.  Our incentive currently has no sunset clauses, no maximum budget thresholds or residency requirements.  And, Southern Hospitality does go a long way.  Simply, Georgia has created a great opportunity to save money for producers and provided a friendly place for production people to live and work.  It can be argued that other markets offer higher incentives, but I believe Georgia’s overall value is the best. 

 

Clearly, your prediction 9 years ago was prophetic.  Do you still think that your prediction is relevant in Georgia’s current film market?

Absolutely.  Soundstage, studio, vendor, talent and crew infrastructure has skyrocketed.  You’ll find that most other states outside of California and New York have not dug their roots deep enough to sustain large-scale production long-term.  Georgia has, and a lot of that is not even directly incentivized.  A quick chat with the Georgia Film Office and you will discover that the number of permanent industry residents, fixed location vendors and suppliers has jumped over 500% in less than ten years.  Criticism of all new and evolving markets has been largely based on not having a deep enough bench of experienced professionals for the volume of new production.  That is changing rapidly in Georgia, but it still takes time.  So, we encourage a measure of patience.  Keep in mind, it was never our goal to topple LA or NYC, but to become partners in the industry and ground as much international production in the states as possible. We are not about heavy-handed competition with other U.S. markets.  We’ve simply created great options and an open mind.  And I believe this environment has benefited not only the studios and indie producers, but national talent and crew as well.

 

When film was booming throughout the entire South a few years ago, there were critics who wondered how long this fad would last, particularly in Louisiana, because critics see the film incentives as a means for outsiders to come in and take advantage of the incentive; however, this doesn’t benefit the economy over the long-term.  In some ways, these critiques were right and we do see that some production throughout the South has fizzled.  In order for Georgia’s production to avoid becoming a part of this fizzle, tell us what ways do you think that the current incentive can be improved to not only grow the industry but sustain it within Georgia.

Whenever and wherever new industries are developed you will find criticism.  Outside competition needs to criticize and, internally, people in unrelated industries want the same type of attention for their own agendas, so beware of the source. 

New industries take time to develop, and this is an important new industry.  One only needs to read a Georgia study on key industries of the future to know that Media is one of those industries upon which economies of the future are built.  Of course, we need outside resources to kick-start the next phase of our development, because the process of training people to the level of professional ability required to pull off great entertainment production is slow.  Yes, we have imported people, at first on a temporary basis, but many have stayed, which was always one of our goals. Get ‘em in.  Get ‘em to stay.  Believe it or not, competition improves our indigenous talent, which eventually gets them more work.

As for the long-term, the migration of experienced talent and crew will continue.  The Georgia University and Technical College System, and the Georgia Film Academy will churn out our own next generation professionals, and we want them to stay.  We want to attract and retain great young minds that may eventually start their own businesses, or develop new technologies that will generate new economies.  When a creative vacuum is filled, you never know what you’re going to get, but history has shown that jobs in the creative industries create their own special synergy.  Action leads to more action.  This is not wishful thinking.  It is already happening.  Further, large, in-state investments have already begun with associated businesses that are not directly incentivized.  Hardscrabble communities are being reborn, and new brick-and-mortar developments are springing up, including a 350-home residential and mixed-use community near Pinewood Studios Georgia.  All predicted.  And all within the scope of our business plan.

Beyond the occasional incentive tweak to streamline the efficiency of the Georgia program, it is neither time to restrict the migration of outside talent, nor place quotas on production for the hire of inexperienced local talent.  The organic growth of our local industry and free market competition will handle the rest.  You will also find that LA and NYC are not restrictive in this sense, which is how their talent pools have grown so deep over time.  There is a lesson to be learned there.  I understand some locals feel they are being left out, but this is more about developing reliable and bankable skill sets than entitlement.  One can’t say that the opportunities aren’t here, so we have to up our game.

To sum things up, Georgia is on track.  Elements are in place to sustain the Georgia business model into the future.  Still, but we can’t take anything for granted. That is the nature of all things.  If anything, let’s find ways for this market to develop its own signature, its own stories, and its own technologies.   If anything, that is where new strategies need to be targeted.

 


 

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