Success in 'Y'allywood' inspiration for Pennsylvania, officials say
ATLANTA — A decade ago, Dawn Keezer, director of the Pittsburgh Film Office, flew to Atlanta to discuss ways Georgia officials could better market their state to filmmakers who were increasingly abandoning Hollywood.
Today, some refer to the Peach State as “Hollywood South” and “Y'allywood.” Georgia trails only California and New York in movie productions.
“We have 30 shows going on right now,” said Lee Thomas, director of Georgia's Film, Music and Digital Entertainment Division in the state Department of Economic Development.
That's equivalent to the amount of film and television work done in Western Pennsylvania over the past four years combined, when Pittsburgh attracted blockbusters such as “The Dark Knight Rises” and “Jack Reacher.”
Georgia's success is the direct result of lawmakers uncapping its tax incentive program for studios, industry insiders say.
The Tribune-Review visited Georgia this month to see first-hand the impact of its burgeoning television and movie industry.
“This is the stuff that could happen in Pittsburgh with an uncapped or much-increased tax credit program,” Keezer said. “The growth they've seen is exactly what we would see, if not more. But we keep limiting ourselves.”
State Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Brookline, has offered legislation to increase Pennsylvania's film tax credit program from $60 million to $100 million annually. Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware County, introduced a bill to remove the cap.
“The film industry likes Pennsylvania, and we need to capitalize on that,” Fontana said.
But the state faces a projected deficit of $1.2 billion in next year's budget, and Fontana said he isn't certain funding will increase for the income tax credits.
“In Harrisburg, there's a lot more attention and a lot more acceptability that the program works,” he said.
Film tax credits in Georgia totaled $142 million in 2012, the latest figures available. That was up threefold since 2009.
“It's so vibrant down here now,” said Karl Hortsmann, who 25 years ago founded Triple Horse Studios outside Atlanta and is planning a $100 million expansion. “It's like L.A. used to be. Some days, you can find crews shooting on every other corner, it seems.”
During the Trib's visit, British actress Kate Winslet and a film crew worked late into the night in a north Atlanta neighborhood on “Triple Nine,” a heist-thriller. It is one of two movies the Oscar-winning actress is making here.
Inside a downtown high-rise, a production team shot parts of the action-thriller “Insurgent,” Winslet's other film. A few blocks away, a crew filmed “Satisfaction,” a new USA Network series, in a popular sports bar.
In a shopping mall in suburban Dunwoody, a crew for the movie “The D.U.F.F.” filmed actress Mae Whitman, while 15 miles away in Decatur, work started on the film “Drumline 2” at a private women's college. Oprah Winfrey's “Selma” continued in Marietta, and AMC's popular series “The Walking Dead” shot its fifth season in Senoia.
“Georgia is fascinating to me in how much it has grown in the past several years, especially when it comes to television series,” said Greg Nicotero, a McCandless native and executive producer of “The Walking Dead.”
Tax credits are key to attracting productions, said Greg Torre, the former director of Georgia's film office.
“But you can't just have a great incentive,” he said.
Among Georgia's other advantages, Torre noted, are Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport — the world's busiest — a crew base big enough to film 11 productions at once, diverse locations, favorable weather, an affordable cost-of-living and the fact that Georgia had Turner Broadcasting, CNN, Tyler Perry's studios and others before the entertainment surge.
“We feel like we have always had a good package,” Torre said. “We have a great one now.”
When actor Jamie Foxx, portraying Albany, Ga.-native Ray Charles, hoisted a framed proclamation over his head in the state capitol in the 2004 movie “Ray,” officials in Georgia winced.
That's because the scene was shot in Louisiana, which had approved the country's first uncapped film tax credit two years earlier.
“That kind of hit home with everybody. It was a wake-up call,” said Torre, a deputy commissioner in the Georgia Department of Economic Development.
In 2005, lawmakers established the Georgia Entertainment Industry Investment Act. In 2008, they uncapped it — allowing companies that spend at least $500,000 on production and post-production expenses to receive a break of as much as 30 percent on their income taxes.
The film office estimates that the financial impact of the industry, which employs about 30,000 people, has grown from $200 million in 2007, when Georgia hosted 29 films and television series, to $3.5 billion in 2013, when Georgia landed 142.
More than 80 companies have relocated to or opened offices in Georgia to provide lighting, catering, trucks, casting and other services. About a dozen studios have opened or announced plans to build since 2010, the year EUE/Screen Gems signed a 50-year lease with Atlanta for a dilapidated former fairgrounds property.
“We've been all but completely full for four years,” said Kris Bagwell, executive vice president of the studio that recently hosted the two-part “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay.”
Georgia's film tax credit program has its detractors.
Christine Ries, an economics professor at Georgia Tech, questions whether lawmakers backed the right industry.
“Who's to say if we would have let some other industry, say biomedical, in with a tax credit that it would not have done better?” Ries said. “I don't favor any kind of tax credit. You are not giving a credit to everyone, so by definition you are picking winners and losers.
“It's crony capitalism.”
Yet it is a model that has been repeated across the country.
In 2004, Pennsylvania became the third state to offer a film tax incentive, allotting $10 million a year.
Now, 39 states have similar programs.
“You can debate all day long whether these things should ever exist in the first place,” Bagwell said. “The only question is: Are you going to play or not?”
Jason Cato is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7936 or firstname.lastname@example.org.