Can Augusta Cash in on Georgia’s Multibillion-Dollar Film Industry?
In 2016, more top-100 box office films were shot in Georgia (17) than in any other state, including California (13), according to a report from Film L.A. Inc., the official film office for the greater Los Angeles area.
That trend won’t end anytime soon. The program that started bringing filmmakers to Atlanta — the Entertainment Industry Investment Act, which was signed into law in 2005 — allows filmmakers to reduce production costs through a series of robust tax incentives. Films shot in Georgia that cost $500,000 or more receive a 20 percent tax credit, and films that include promotion for the state add another 10 percent. Savannah has gone even further.
That legislation has brought big bucks that historically have been spent on the West Coast to the Peach State at a rapid pace. The film and television industry spent $2.7 billion in Georgia in 2017 and created a whopping 9.5-billion dollar economic impact during that fiscal year.
Almost all of that money was and will continue to be spent in Atlanta. Brad Owens, co-founder of the Augusta Film Office, just wants Augusta to get a little piece of the pie.
Even just 1 percent of that huge figure would be significant. The AFO doesn’t think that’s too much to ask of the second-largest city in a state that has become the new Hollywood of the East Coast.
“We are the only city of our size that isn’t just scooping it up right now,” said Rick Kelly, Owens’ founding partner of the film office and the CEO of indiegrip.com, an Augusta-based film and video production equipment company that funds AFO. “But we’re getting there.”
That much, at least, is undeniable. Owens confirmed that Augusta is being scouted as a possible location for the upcoming film “The Mule,” which Clint Eastwood will produce and star in. If the film is shot in Augusta, that would certainly symbolize a new step for a local film community that has been gaining momentum since 2015.
“This is an economic engine,” Owens said. “This is a job creation engine. And right now, (Georgia is) seeing a boom that has not been seen in the United States anywhere in this business probably since the ’30s or ’40s in L.A.”
Augusta lies roughly two hours away from two cities where feature filmmaking and celebrity sightings have become the norm. While Atlanta remains the state’s undisputed leader as it hosts the filming of blockbusters like “Black Panther” and “Avengers: Infinity War” (not to mention TV favorites “The Walking Dead” and “Stranger Things”), Savannah brought its fair share of big productions to town last year, including “The Front Runner,” starring Hugh Jackman, and “Killerman,” starring Liam Hemsworth (both are set to release this year). Last year’s comedy hit “Baywatch” was filmed on Tybee Island.
Augusta is simply not of that caliber. It doesn’t have the necessary infrastructure or personnel. But its location could turn out to be perfect. As Kelly puts it, there comes a point when you just can’t shoot your romantic comedy with the same backdrop used in last week’s episode of “The Walking Dead.” As sites are worn out and production bubbles expand from both the east and west, filmmakers are finding their way to Augusta.
While Owens and Kelly have fond memories of making local films like “The Battle of Aiken” years ago, they didn’t create the AFO to make movies. Their goal is to attract the film business to the Augusta area to boost its economy. Despite slow film industry growth compared to Atlanta and Savannah, the nonprofit has already had a much larger impact in bringing productions to Augusta than Owens and Kelly anticipated when they founded it in 2015; Owens estimates the group has helped bring $5-$6 million into the local economy over the last three years. They expected it would take around five years to bring a feature film to Augusta.
It only took six months. Owens said filmmaker Paul Salamoff “really put us on the map” after scouting locations for a film in 2015. That same year, producer Richard Clark, Jr., came to town to shoot the road-trip comedy “Savannah Sunrise,” which was filmed almost entirely in Augusta after Clark was priced out of the Savannah market. Two years later, Salamoff came back to Augusta to shoot sci-fi drama “Encounter” (starring Luke Hemsworth of “WESTWORLD”), which recently completed post-production, according to Salamoff. Several more feature films have been shot in Augusta over the last couple years, including “Hollywood Dirt” (directed by Tosca Musk, sister of Elon Musk), faith-based film “The Reason” (starring Oscar-winning actor Louis Gossett, Jr.) and Indian action thriller “Detroit Crossing,” among others.
“It’s just networking from that point on,” said Mark Crump, an Augusta-based producer and AFO board member. “Every movie that you do, you meet new people, and you have another chance to sell the city the a whole brand new crowd.”
The film office’s strategy, at least in theory, has always been fairly simple: start small, give local talent opportunities to grow on professional yet accessible, low-budget productions (Owens defines these as films with budgets of roughly $500,000 to $5 million), and the city will become an increasingly attractive location for filmmakers who know they will have access to resources and skilled personnel when they come to town. But making that actually happen is far more difficult.
Crump spends his time either making movies (he’s worked on almost every major film that has been shot in Augusta, including “Encounter” and “Savannah Sunrise”) or chasing down leads to bring filmmakers to the Garden City. That’s not an easy task, for multiple reasons.
“While there is variety of locations….there are some movies that just won’t be shot here,” Crump said. “Is it perfect for every movie? No. But for a lot of movies, yes. What we’re missing is a large soundstage. Because to attract a feature television show that is going to be running for six months, they’re going to want to build sets of their interiors that they can come back to time and time and time again.”
But Crump also sees Augusta as a place that is “on the map” in the film industry thanks to Georgia’s tax incentives. It doesn’t have beaches or skyscrapers, and it doesn’t have the infrastructure to start bringing in $50 million movies. But it does boast a diverse array of locations, from schools to empty jails to run-down factories. Those aren’t things you can build on set. The city has almost no red tape, unlike Atlanta and Savannah, and doesn’t charge daily fees.
“I’ve never called a city department where I didn’t get 100 percent cooperation, and immediate,” Owens said.
There’s also a growing base of local talent that wants to get better. When local film casting company Momma Bear Consulting held a casting call for “Savannah Sunrise,” more than three hundred people showed up.
“As a city, we’re at a pretty fine place where we have enough people with experience…to put us on the map at least, to get noticed,” Crump said. “I think in time, this could be…I’m not going to say Atlanta…but it could be one of the destinations that producers look to as their production hub,” Crump said.
If Augusta wants to compete in Georgia, it needs skilled local crews ready to work. That’s one of the city’s biggest challenges right now, and it’s a catch-22. It’s very difficult to develop local talent without movies being made here. And without talented local crews, the prospects of bringing movies to Augusta are slim, because production companies want local crews who can work for them.
One of the AFO’s primary missions is to develop what is known in the film industry as “crew depth,” which is the maximum number of feature film crews a city can contain at any one time (an average crew for a low-budget feature film can run anywhere from 50 to 100 people). Owens said Augusta isn’t even one crew deep right now, but he remains optimistic about the future. Each of the professional productions that has come to Augusta over the last few years has allowed local crew members to hone their skills.
“The real reason we founded (the film office) was because we wanted to create jobs for all of the people that we had been doing independent movies with for a lot of years that wanted to make a living at this,” Owens said.
As low-budget films are pushed out of Atlanta and Savannah, the film office has also created a facility and fostered a system of workers ideal for a movie that costs $5 million or less. The new facility, which opened on Gordon Highway in March, has a small soundstage, dressing rooms, green room, kitchen, editing suite, grip electric equipment, parking, catering resources, an art department and even police cars. When “Detroit Crossing” was in production, the crew rented the entire office for six weeks. The film office wasn’t the only one putting money in the bank.
“Film is great business for the business community,” Bowen said. “They will lease space…property owners make money…there’s direct spending in the business community.”
Never underestimate the power of film industry to economically impact the small, previously unconsidered businesses that can provide resources on the fly. When the drama “Saving Zoe” was filmed in Augusta last year, local duck owners were able to fill a last-minute need to populate a duck pond. Bowen laughed and sincerely apologized up front before adding that there had been no shortage of similar “quacky stories” that have come out of local productions. Small business participation in production hasn’t just put money in their pockets. It’s one more element that shows filmmakers that Augusta is ready for them.
“This city is one hundred percent open for business for movies and they want them here,” Owens said.
For a group like the AFO focused on job creation, a giant studio space would be a home run. If an occasional $3 million movie in town is low-hanging fruit, Owens’ dream is for the Regency Mall site to become a mega-studio that would attract filmmakers from not only Georgia but around the country, even if that turned the AFO’s current location into a mere storage space. If a majority of voters support locating the new arena at the Regency Mall site, the AFO will support the move. But if they don’t, the AFO “want to be sure that film production studio space is their next option we push,” Owens wrote in a text.
Owens estimates that a professional-caliber studio of that size (800,000 square feet on 70 acres) would create 400-500 full-time, high-paying jobs and catapult Augusta into position as a major player in an industry that pumped nearly $10 billion into the state economy last year. Should that happen, Augusta would become more than an occasional destination for filmmakers. It would be a job-creation machine where filmmakers would be located full-time.
For a dream, Owens is pretty confident about it.
“Here’s what I’m going to tell you: It’s going to happen,” he said. “It’s going to happen. There’s no doubt about it.”
Contact Witt Wells at (901) 319-8877 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.