Athens part of booming entertainment business in Georgia

By JACOB DEMMITT

Justin Timberlake rounds an empty street corner and leers at Amy Adams with googly puppy-dog eyes. As far as moviegoers are concerned — they’re in their own world.

But look past the tight shots, bright lights and movie magic — and the scene looked a little different.

A Kappa Alpha Theta sorority member stands on a chair at Flanagan’s Bar and Grill in downtown Athens, using one hand to stabilize herself on the shoulder of the person in front of her and the other to zoom in as far as she can on her iPhone camera.

Timberlake walks out from behind equipment and the crowd of more than 20 onlookers lets off a small gasp as crew members waive their arms to remind everyone that cameras are rolling.

“[Athens is] cool, a tough place to shoot though,” said an Assistant Director who agreed to speak without giving her name due to nondisclosure agreements. “College students everywhere. … We usually film in small towns, so we don’t have to deal with the crowds.”

Timberlake, Adams and Clint Eastwood visited downtown for two nights this month while they filmed “Trouble with the Curve” — a movie about baseball scouts expected to come out in September.

News of the visitors circulated quickly and celebrity spottings started showing up on social media sites.

“It’s really exciting for people to see those kinds of people in town who they don’t get to see very often,” said Stefanie Paupeck, a communication specialist for the Georgia Department of Economic Development.

But despite their gawkers, it’s no surprise Timberlake and others gave Athens a taste of Hollywood — it’s happening all around the state.

Georgia’s entertainment business has boomed ever since legislators passed tax incentives for film production in 2008 — growing it from an $800 million industry in 2008 to $2.4 billion in 2011, according to Paupeck.

“A lot of production companies are going outside of the metro Atlanta area,” she said. “People think that’s where they all go, but they’re going all around the state. … On the ground today, there are three feature films, 16 television series and two pilots being filmed in Georgia.”

And another TV show, movie of the week, pilot and three feature films are already in the works to come to Georgia in the near future.

“We have a lot of activity,” Paupeck said. “They’re coming here, having a great experience and coming back.”

 “Camera ready”

Georgia started looking a little more like Hollywood in 2008 after the passage of the Entertainment Industry Investment Act.

The legislation offered up to 30 percent tax credits to production companies who spend at least $500,000 in the state. It also gave a sales tax exemption on Georgia products, saving producers an additional 8 percent.

As the economy continues to slump, Paupeck said more and more production companies are choosing to take advantage of these incentives. 

But she said that’s not all Georgia has to offer.

Besides good weather, blooming plants, easy access to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and an increasing amount of filming-friendly infrastructure, Paupeck said the state began the Camera Ready program in 2010 to make things even easier for production companies.

The program, which 136 counties are now apart of, aims to simplify the often chaotic task of filming by designating a community liaison to help production companies by coordinating local efforts.

Jeff Montgomery, an ACC public information media analyst and one of Athens’ local liaisons for the Camera Ready program, said he acts as a point of contact for production companies so they know who to go to for things like road closures, lodging and talent scouting.

“When a production company decides — for financial reasons — that it makes sense to film in Georgia — that’s step one,” Montgomery said. “Once they come to Georgia and start looking for places, I think Athens becomes one of the places that quickly gets considered.”

He said the city has a little bit of everything, with old buildings, a downtown, which can be made to look like New York, and even rural farmlands nearby.

“There’s a wide variety of locations here,” he said. “That’s appealing for folks to be able to come and shoot in locations and have urban and rural nearby. I think the more films that come here and find that it’s an easy [place to shoot], the people are easy to work with, then it will only encourage the continuation of that.”

“Trouble with the Curve”

But the production companies aren’t the only ones who benefit when they film in Georgia.

When the “Trouble with the Curve” crew came to Athens, they brought a crew of 600, according to an assistant director. Montgomery said that alone has a significant economic impact.

“Even ones who are here for a short period of time bring money into the community and it’s usually outside money,” he said. “[It’s] the idea of economic development. When a production company comes to town it can have a significant impact on providing business opportunities to, not only crew and staff, but businesses, craft services, folks who live in the area, hotels, extras, all kinds of things.”

Paupeck said the entertainment business employed 20,000 Georgians in 2011 and had an economic impact of about $2.4 billion.

“There are construction crews who had to cut back because of the economy but now they’re building movie sets,” she said. “A lot of crews, a lot of companies have moved here because there’s so much activity.”

Montgomery said this is one reason he would like to see more filming around Clarke County.

“There’s already a strong film community here in Athens,” he said. “There’s a lot of crew members, editors, location scouts — things like that — who have to go outside of Athens to find work. … We can find opportunities for them to be able to work closer to home, opportunities to build up a resume, that’s one aspect of it. [We want] to put people to work in the area and use their talents here.”

Though Montgomery admits this month marked the first major filming done in Athens since the “Road Trip” crew came to town in 2000, he said this is far from Athens’ first time on the big screen.

The 1980 television show “Breaking Away” was shot in Athens each week, often using the University of Georgia’s North Campus.

Fewer movies chose to come to Athens in the 90s, but Montgomery said the city has enjoyed quite a bit of attention since then.

“Not Since You” was filmed in Athens in 2009, according to The Internet Movie Database, “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” in 2008, “Somebodies” in 2006 and “Darius Goes West” in 2005.

In addition to “Trouble with the Curve,” USA Network’s major television show “Necessary Roughness” has also filmed in Athens this year.

“We’ve had films shot here in the past, but it’s been a while since we’ve had more major stuff,” Montgomery said. “I think we’ve always had a little bit going on with it. Now, with more things coming to the state, there’s more opportunity for things to shoot here then there has been in the past.”

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