How Georgia Toppled Louisiana in Attracting TV Productions

 Mark Nerys

A version of this story first appeared in the April 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Call it the Civil War of the South. In 2002, Louisiana became the first state to offer film and television production tax incentives. By 2009, several dozen other states and countries had incentive programs, so the Bayou State raised the ante: Rebates rose from 10 percent of expenditures on everything from star salaries to props to as much as 35 percent (plus local breaks). The move paid off spectacularly: Spending by productions in Louisiana rocketed 55 percent between 2008 and 2012, making it the most popular state for film and TV outside of California and New York.

But as the industry gathers for the AFCI Locations Show in Century City from March 27 to 29, the landscape is changing: In 2013, Louisiana was not No. 1 in production spend, a key measure by which legislators approve breaks. Instead, Georgia, which has benefited from a boom in TV shoots, led in certified spend with $979 million, according to Lee Thomas, head of the state's film office. Louisiana, by contrast, boasted more than $800 million in spending, according to state film commission head Chris Stelly. (California and New York remain higher despite steep declines in the Golden State.)

"Louisiana is still the king in terms of attracting movies," says Kevin Klowden, a managing economist at the Milken Institute. "But Georgia has several things going for it. Besides incentives, there is significant infrastructure: studios, crews and, increasingly, investors."

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Since 2010, 11 studios have opened, expanded or announced plans to operate in Georgia, including Pinewood, which established its first presence outside the U.K. It joins Tyler Perry's studio, Raleigh and others. Tax rebates as high as 30 percent helped lure 76 series, specials and TV movies in 2012, the most recent year for which detailed figures are available. AMC's The Walking Dead, Lifetime's Drop Dead Diva and BET's original series now call Georgia home. Only California hosted more TV in 2012 with 215 projects, though it has lost most of the lucrative hourlong dramas that shoot (and spend) nine months a year.

Aside from crew and infrastructure, producers say they like the 26 daily flights from Atlanta to Los Angeles. "You don't want actors stuck in airports changing planes -- you're usually paying them to sit there," says Kris Bagwell, executive vp at EUE/Screen Gems Studios in Atlanta, which opened 10 soundstages in 2010.

That city's air hub was an attraction for L.A.-based producer Mark Johnson (the Narnia movies, AMC's Breaking Bad), who is shooting two TV series there. "Some states have an A and a B crew base, and after that you are in trouble," he says. "Georgia has real depth to its crew base."

That's in part because the state has benefited from the presence of Turner Entertainment in Atlanta, where generations of camera operators, editors, set designers and others have trained. "Georgia actually has had more people employed in the industry sector permanently in production than even Louisiana," says Klowden.

Productions also are drawn by Georgia's reputation as a favorable business climate. There are fewer hoops to jump through before the state will grant incentives, according to Adrian McDonald, lead researcher for Film L.A., who wrote in a March report that Georgia "is perhaps the worst offender in terms of reporting and transparency. … Of the top 10 states … Georgia is the only state lacking an audit requirement."

Georgia does require a tax return, which is scrutinized. But as of last year, even that process was streamlined -- lowering the payout time in most cases from over a year to a few months.

There also is less regulation, which some cite as a factor in the Feb. 20 death of camera assistant Sarah Jones during an apparently unauthorized shoot on Georgia train tracks for Midnight Rider. "When there isn't much oversight coming from the state, it makes it easier to pull off something like that," says Klowden.

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Others maintain that Georgia is as cautious as other states. "You have a safety office; you go through procedures. I haven't seen anything that says they are more lax than anywhere else," says Johnson.

New York, Florida, New Mexico, North Carolina, Illinois and Massachusetts also have stepped up their efforts to lure productions during recent years. That lends itself to shopping around. It isn't unusual for a producer to model 12 or 15 different budgets before determining a location, says Joseph Chianese, senior vp at Entertainment Partners in L.A., "to see which jurisdiction is going to give them the best answers."

As California works to stop the outflow of productions, some can't wait and are following the work. Mario Gonzales, who has run Mario's Catering in California for 31 years, has also been sending five-man crews, usually led by his three sons, on the road with catering trucks for the past six years to work movies like Dolphin Tale 2 in Florida, The Blind Side in Georgia and TV shows such as Chicago Fire in Illinois.

"We had no choice," says Mario's son Christian Gonzales. "There was no longer enough work in California to sustain our business." But while five years ago a steady stream of industry professionals was moving to New Orleans or Baton Rouge, Ed Gutentag, a cinematographer, director and producer (True Lies, Heat), says he is moving his family to Atlanta.

"I can't make the kind of living I need to make in California anymore," he says. "There seems to be a lot of work there. I'm going to declare myself a Georgia local because producers want to hire as many local people as possible -- that's another way they can get a [financial] break."

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