Lights, camera, Atlanta, action
Landmarks of the Hollywood of the South
The city is on fire.
Atlanta, left in ashes 150 years ago by the Civil War, has recently survived a hoard of both fictional catastrophes — zombies, werewolves, anchormen, Vin Diesel's friends — and fictional heroics from the likes of Captain America, Ant-Man and Katniss Everdeen (whose friends once repelled down the inside of the Marriott Marquis).
The metro area is widely known as the star of the state's film and TV boom — and like any good success story, this one has places the plot is magnetized to, according to government officials, tour directors, local crew members and more.
Since 2008, Atlanta has played backdrop to more than 140 films and TV shows, according to the Georgia Department of Economic Development.
Everywhere, it seems, stories are being built.
"It's really nice to be prepared to take advantage of the opportunities presented to you. You have to be ready," said Craig Miller, chair of the Georgia Film, Music and Digital Entertainment Advisory Commission.
“And now, Atlanta is ready."
Before we begin
The story of the growing production industry is one about taxes, legislation and politicking, told with words like “highly desirable financial incentives.”
To hear some state officials tell it, the story really began in 2004 when "Ray," a biopic of beloved Georgia musician Ray Charles starring Jamie Foxx, choose instead to film in Louisiana, a state with its own incentives.
At the time, Georgia's film "heyday" was considered the '70s and '80s, after then-Gov. Jimmy Carter created in 1973 Georgia's state film commission — the first of its kind outside of California. "The Dukes of Hazzard" filmed its earliest episodes in Covington in 1978. But the industry later wilted as Canadian tax credits lured major productions away.
By 2008 Georgia began offering 20 percent tax credits to productions with at least a $500,000 production budget. If producers showed the Georgia logo at the end of the credits, the state would up its offer to 30 percent.
The money multiplied, and in fiscal year 2015, production companies spent $1.7 billion on 248 projects, an increase from the $1.3 billion spent in fiscal year 2014 which was already a more than 500 percent increase from 2008.
In a 2014, Film L.A. surveyed primary filming locations. Georgia was the third U.S. state to top the list, coming in at No. 5 overall behind California, New York and two international locations. Decades after "Dukes," Covington was host again to a network TV show, The CW's "Vampire Diaries."
Programs like Georgia’s are not new, and they’re not without controversy. Any money divvied out in tax credits is revenue the state is giving up, and critics say there may not be an even return. Some argue the credits, which have faced fraud allegations elsewhere, amount to a too-pricey giveaway, returning mostly low-wage local jobs.
They argue that the industry's rapid growth is directly tied to the credits themselves, and would end just as quickly if the program did.
"It's a very expensive subsidy that is based on glamour and glitz and not creating jobs," Nick Johnson of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, told the AJC in 2013.
State officials say Georgia is attractive for its diversity, and the tax credits are simply an appetizer. Productions can find coastlines, leafy neighborhoods, farmland and a sprawl of skyscrapers and interstates, all reachable within hours.
"Whatever sacrifice we make in revenue on the tax credit, we more than make up for through the multiplier effect of economic development," Gov. Nathan Deal said in 2013.
The state recently claimed production spending in fiscal year 2015 amounted to $6 billion economic impact. The AJC's Politifact team rated this as "half true." Georgia's economic multiplier was far too high, experts said, a more realistic economic impact was estimated at $3.1 billion for the year.
Georgia’s earliest competitors are cutting back — or just cutting — their tax credit programs. Louisiana, which offers 30 percent tax credits to productions that spend at least $300,000 and 10 percent more for crews that use in-state labor, recently passed an aggregate cap on claims of $180 million.
North Carolina, among the first to offer similar tax credits, bowed out last year, opting for a $10 million grant program in lieu of the $61 million it paid out in tax credits in 2013, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Months later, Fox announced its supernatural series "Sleepy Hollow" would be renewed for a third season, but would leave North Carolina. Sources said it would move to metro Atlanta. In summer 2015, the series started shooting in Rockdale County.
Atlanta’s Office of Entertainment estimates that 75 percent of filming takes place in the city, meaning Atlanta keeps 75 percent of the 77,900 jobs and $3.8 billion in wages the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) attributes to the new business.
Much of the filming takes place in what the office calls "Zone 5."
The area is better known as Midtown and downtown, north from I-20 toward the Downtown Connector’s split and east from Northside Drive toward Piedmont Park.
It includes Woodruff Park, dressed up like New York for "Anchorman 2"; and city hall, where Kerry Washington walked the halls as Anita Hill for HBO’s "Confirmation."
But you’ll probably recognize it for this:
In October 2010, in the pilot for a show called "The Walking Dead," a man named Rick Grimes rode his horse down what looked to any local like Freedom Parkway.
More than 5 million people tuned in to watch that unsettling, iconic take on the horizon from the Jackson Street Bridge — the same viewpoint captured in selfies and Snapchats.
"TWD" has become incredibly popular, smashing cable TV records, and fertilizing a pocket tourism industry around town. It's a staple offering for Atlanta Movie Tours, started by Carrie Sagel Burns and Patti Davis, which has drawn 10,000 customers in the past year, many of whom shambled in line for tickets to the company's zombie-themed options.
As in-town locations continued to attract interest, city officials sought ways to organize filming efforts and minimize the disruption. In 2013, the city's Office of Entertainment was born.
With the assistance of city officials, in November 2013 filmmakers from "Furious 7" were able to execute an explosive action scene, with a flaming ambulance plummeting onto Spring Street.
Helping pull off one of the film’s stunts “signaled to the rest of the industry what Georgia and the city of Atlanta could pull that off within the city limits," said LaRonda Sutton, director of the city's office of entertainment.
Filmmakers later flocked to the Peachtree Street business block for "The Divergent Series: Insurgent," struck by the design work of Atlanta architect John Portman.
As The Atlantic explained in March, "Insurgent" production designer Alec Hammond "came to Atlanta looking for a location that could be manipulated into a post-apocalyptic megatropolis."
In late July, crews returned to film scenes for "Allegiant – Part 1." The franchise is also fond of the High Museum of Art, as was Fox’s short-lived "Red Band Society," which featured the museum's Stent Atrium spotlight.
"Hunger Games" installments "Catching Fire" and "Mockingjay – Part 1" also filmed at the Portman-designed Marriott Marquis, at one point engineering a fictional rescue mission by air, with a drop through the hotel's distinctive tower.
Productions grouped around the Statehouse: "Kill the Messenger," "Ride Along 2" and "Selma" filmed there in the last two years, as did "The Lost Valentine," starring Betty White, all variously using the space as a nightclub, courthouse and more.
"Revolution," a no-one-has-electricity apocalyptic series on NBC, even shot part of its pilot in the office of Gov. Nathan Deal.
(Indeed, the requests were so numerous that the Georgia Building Authority quintupled its asking price for a filming license there, from $5,000 to $25,000.)
In 2014, Marvel Studios, perhaps the biggest and certainly the most interconnected ongoing production in America, came South.
"Ant-Man" recast the state's Archives Building, already used as a news bureau in "Kill the Messenger," as the headquarters of Pym Technologies, the place that teaches grown men how to shrink.
"Ant-Man" also became the first movie filmed at the new Pinewood Studios in Fayetteville.
After that was done, “Captain America: Civil War" began.
Next up is "Guardians of the Galaxy 2."
Marvel's films, released in dizzying rapidity (12 since 2008), have made the company wildly successful: Their revenue generating power increased parent company Disney’s profits by 22 percent in 2013, according to The New York Times.
"The size of the movie that comes into the city has changed," Sutton said. "Now we're getting those big mega action movies."
Studios and the Atlanta Motor Speedway
Johnny Crawford/AJC 2010
Metro Atlanta now features more than 12 production companies, providing facilities for filming or storage.
South of Midtown, right next to Lakewood Amphitheatre, sits EUE/Screen Gems Studios, whose many thousands of square footage began as the latest in a series of schemes to reinvent the old Lakewood Fairgrounds. But this one stuck.
In Fayetteville, Pinewood Studios has embarked on a planned expansion encompassing some 2 million additional square feet of studio space as well as more than 1,300 other facilities — homes, hotels, offices and more. It has been the exclusive site for Marvel's films since it opened.
Atlanta Film Studios in Paulding County offers two 20,000-square-foot sound stages, and plenty more room for film crews to construct scenes. Jackie Robinson biopic "42" and, more recently, the "Vacation" sequel both filmed there.
In Gwinnett County, Jim Jacoby, the man behind the development of Atlantic Station, is shifting an old fiber optic cable plant into a 5 million-square-foot complex, replete with six sound stages and housing units. (It won't be far from Eagle Rock Studios, housed in a former Kraft building, which opened in April.)
"It will have a huge economic impact," Jacoby told the AJC in 2014. "Hollywood comes in and puts a little gold glitter into the whole area."
And in Union City last year, they began demolishing the former Union Station Mall as part of a larger redevelopment plan — which also includes a studio.
"Infrastructure has followed the business (to Georgia)," Miller said. "... The impact has also affected other businesses such as lumber, hotels and catering. Pinewood Studios had such a need for materials, that they opened up a Home Depot in the middle of their lot."
And then there is the Atlanta Motor Speedway, which has become a notable resource for filmmakers since 2008, assistant general manager Brandon Hutchison said.
Crews rent its facilities, on average, about 30 days a year, he said. They're rented not for scenes, but as a place to put gear and park cars while crews work on obtaining shots on nearby roadways.
"Flight," "Need for Speed" and "Necessary Roughness" have all used the speedway's space en route to some remote road.
Nearby Highway 20 set the tone for the second season of "The Walking Dead" as a clogged exit valve, filled with walkers. And the speedway's grandstand is barely visible in the background during the RV flip scene in "Anchorman 2."
When crews tire of the open road, they can always come back to Castleberry Hill.
Castleberry is a part of Zone 5, but stands out for its malleability. Since 1989, the neighborhood — which stretches from Northside Drive to Spring Street, Martin Luther King Jr. Drive to I-20 — has been a little bit of everything for more than 40 productions.
Local theatergoers in 1989 may have recognized Dan Aykroyd's office in "Driving Miss Daisy" as the Fulton Supply Company Building. More recently, crews with MTV's "Teen Wolf" filmed there for two years.
Even during Georgia's screen drought in the '90s, Castleberry Hill attracted music video projects — though not many films or TV shows.
"Sweet Home Alabama" broke a nine-year dry spell for the neighborhood, which had last hosted a film when director Dominic Sena came to town for 1993's "Kalifornia."
But once the tax credits were in place, requests started flooding in, Burns said. That meant increased traffic and more organization along with all the attention. Before the mayor created the Office of Entertainment, it could be a nightmare to tackle.
"Now, they trickle down automatically," Burns said. "We get the notification without having to ask, and then we can send our rules to the production companies."
Tyler Perry's "Tyler Perry's Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor" filmed in a 12,000-square-foot Castleberry loft in 2012.
Burns said private lots lower stress for both film crews and residents. The upcoming TV show "Born Again Virgin" filmed extensively there without attracting much notice.
"They're in a private location for the base camp and have a private location for their trucks, so it's like they're not even here," Burns said.
And then there's The Gulch — a long strip of paved space and old railways under the Nelson Street Bridge — which has become a sequestered space for crews to massage into a number of settings.
In 2014, Lionsgate used the area’s abandoned buildings and extensive land for "Mockingjay – Part 1." And in 2015, as Marvel came to town, "Captain America: Civil War," transformed it into a Nigerian marketplace. Crews filled the lots with stalls covered by tin roofs, crowded with taxis flocked by merchants and market-goers.
In the middle of it, onlookers could spot Captain America's stunt double, passing out water bottles to stave off the Atlanta heat.
The "Hunger Games" franchise most visibly uses one local landmark: Atlanta's historic Swan House, which appears at least twice as large and thrice as menacing as the home of the velvet-voiced villain President Snow.
The home is first seen when the heroes attend a party in "Catching Fire." Those scenes required about 300 extras, Historic House Manager Jessica VanLanduyt said, some of them as outlandishly styled as individually wrapped pieces of candy.
Most of the filming took place at about 2 a.m. It's the kind of production that may have seemed impossible a few years ago, but all the right ingredients are now available.
Extras are ready and eager (casting call notices are catnip for local social media), and the city is full of film school graduates who no longer have to fly to California to start their careers.
The Swan House, on West Paces Ferry Road, is small but resplendent. A 12,000-square-foot mansion, it was constructed in 1928 for Edward Inman and his wife, Emily. Inman — a well-known politician and cotton broker — partly used the Swan House to conduct business. But primarily, he built it as a place for he and his wife to retire.
Filmmakers in the "The Hunger Games" used CGI and elaborate props to magnify the standout design features: Crews accented both party scenes and somber, suspense-filled interior shots with meticulously placed white roses.
Those accents, VanLanduyt said, arrived by the thousands.
Though the Atlanta History Center has used Swan House as a popular museum since the 1960s, and it served as the finish line for the 19th season of "The Amazing Race" in 2011, the spotlight swiveled near after the start of the tax credit program.
In 2012, Lionsgate location scouts sought out Swan House, and said the mansion was being considered for a sci-fi film, though they kept mum on the titles.
"We all kind of giggled about that because we didn't understand how a historic home could fit into a science-fiction film," VanLanduyt said.
The Swan House never used to receive requests for filming — and now gets them two or three times a month.
"It’s funny because now no matter what the script says, they'll say, 'We'll make it work,' " Thomas previously told the AJC. "Back when we had no incentives the script could be written for Georgia and they would say, 'Oh you're not quite right.' "
These stories knit themselves into the fabric of Atlanta, leaving everyone with many more tales to tell. When someone writes about the Swan House's next 87 years, Ms. Everdeen may appear as a footnote.
When director Francis Lawrence returned with his crew for "Mockingjay – Part 1," he toured the museum, including the exhibits that featured his work.
"They thought it was the coolest thing," said Brandi Wigley, director of tourism for the Atlanta History Center, "that we had married the history of the house to some of the filming in Georgia — that the house has created its own history."
Presentation: Adam Carlson
Additional reporting: Adam Carlson, William McFadden
Interactive: Fiza Pirani
Photos, from top where not credited: Hyosub Shin/AJC; contributed by David Tulis; contributed by AMC; contributed by the Atlanta History Center