High school student serves up help for homeless

Emerson Leonaitis, a senior at North Atlanta High School with dreams of becoming a screenwriter, has discovered a way for Georgia’s film industry to help women in need.


“A few years ago, location scouts for the USA Network show “Satisfaction” came to our house and asked if they could film there,” Emerson says.  “Each day after lunch I noticed how much food the caterers threw away.  I suggested they give it to the homeless, but they told me legal restrictions prohibited that.  I said, give me the food and I’ll give it to the homeless.”

So she did.  The show, starring Matt Passmore and Stephanie Szostak, filmed in the Leonaitis home for two seasons. That’s a lot food.

“I did some research and found that individuals who gave food to charities don’t have the liability that a catering or film-production company would have,” Emerson says.  “I bought about 100 pans of all sizes and started going around to various filming locations to pick up leftovers.”  She named her charity “Hollywood Helping Hands.”

The beneficiary of Emerson’s work is My Sister’s House, a shelter for women and children run by the Atlanta Mission.

Some days she needs help, so her mom, Lorri Leonaitis, pitches in, often recruiting friends to join her.  Emerson pays all her own expenses for the project.  She earns that money from “I’d Eat That,” the catering company she started when she was 14.  She has also worked with the pastry chef at Umi, a popular Japanese restaurant in Buckhead, an opportunity she called “a dream come true” for a passionate foodie.

But her long-range dream is a role in the film industry.  During the filming in her home, Emerson was able to participate in the television making process, standing in for the actors and actresses, “clapping the clapperboard for a few takes,” and interacting with the cast and crew.

That was fun, but her real goal is screenwriting.  She’s not yet written a full script, but has practiced on short stories and individual scenes.

A 4.0 student in the International Baccalaureate program, she is awaiting word on admission to the film program at the University of Southern California.  If admitted, she is already thinking about continuing the “Hollywood Helping Hands” in Hollywood.  With her record of charity and achievement, it’s a sure thing.


Empowering the next generation of storytellers

Susanna Spiccia has a simple question: As Georgia’s workforce embraces opportunity in the state’s film industry, are we training our kids for these new jobs?

Susanna Spiccia

As founder and executive director of re:imagine/ATL, a non-profit organization that connects Georgia’s youth to film and television experiences, she’s laser-focused on answering that question.

“Our biggest goal is to support teen storytellers, and let them create and produce their own stories,” says Susanna. “We want to help them learn to write, use a camera, edit and more.”

Susanna has lined up some high-profile support for her efforts. Announced today, Georgia Studio & Infrastructure Alliance joins The Arthur Blank Foundation and more than 20 other companies to create the re:imagine/ATL Alliance, a group that will focus on creating pipeline for mentoring and jobs to train the next generation for film and digital jobs right here in Georgia. Led by a three-year commitment from The Arthur M. Blank Foundation of $285,000, companies have committed a total investment of $450,000. These companies have also committed to mentor students, create internships and provide job-shadowing opportunities. 

The re:imagine/ATL Alliance is a major milestone for the organization Susanna founded in 2014.

reimagineATL Photo on Sixthman Cruise

“I had never been a part of film or media before re:imagine/ATL,” says Susanna.  “I wanted a way to bring kids together from different backgrounds, and as I met more and more people in the industry, I saw what tremendous opportunities there could be for our young people.”

Opportunity comes through re:imagine/ATL events and programs such as “No Comment,” “re:imagine/COMMUNITY,” “The Green Room” and “Currents.” Each program focuses on a specific set of skills students need to get involved in the film industry. The re:imagine/ATL team, supported by a cadre of volunteers, has spent the last four years building bridges that connect students and professionals in the industry.

“We’re going into schools across metro Atlanta to give kids with limited film-study exposure some real opportunity,” says Susanna. “We’re creating a teen network focused on highlighting the stories and issues that impact young adults across the globe.”

Film industry veteran spreads the wealth in Macon

Alan Rawlins has 42 years of experience in the film industry, mostly in Georgia with a brief detour to California. His best job so far? Providing opportunity to his hometown of Macon.Gentlemen Grips

“I’ve kept a lot of local people busy during lean times. When my business is flourishing, I’m able to hand off business to others,” says Rawlins, who has worked on more than 100 productions. “Lord knows how much lumber, metal and tools I’ve purchased. I keep as much business local as possible.”

Rawlins started as a driver on the set of “Future World” in 1975. He packed up his home and brought his wife and children to California for two years.

It didn’t work out.

Not for lack of work in California, but because he and his family missed Georgia. Back in Macon, Rawlins worked as a driver and eventually as a grip on commercials, music videos and movies of the week.

“The movies of the week were our bread and butter, but those dried up around 1996,” says Rawlins. “Work could be scarce in those days, it was a struggle.”

Rawlins spent most of the next 10 years as a key grip in California living as a nomad. He kept his home in Macon but drove his motor home back and forth to California or wherever the work took him across the United States.

In 1988, Rawlins started his own company, Gentlemen Grips, that supplies trucks and grip equipment to a select group of key grips. He started with one five-ton truck. In 2000, work started to pick up and Alan built his first 40-foot trailer. Then in 2008, the Georgia legislature passed lucrative film tax incentives, and Alan’s business really took off. Now he has six 40-foot trucks and five truckloads of grip equipment, support and rigging.

Gentlemen Grips_2

“I was forced to grow my company to keep up with demand and keep my team of grips supplied with equipment,” says Rawlins. “I was one of the holdouts who wouldn’t move to Los Angeles. I stuck it out in Georgia and, lo and behold, the movie business came to us. It’s paid off.”

Rawlins acknowledges that the film industry has been a blessing and the business has been good to him. But he’s not the kind of person to keep good fortune for himself. He’s committed to spreading it to his neighbors and local businesses.

A neighbor who is a welder and fabricator builds carts for Rawlins. Another local tradesman maintains his trailers, ensuring the brakes, airlines, wheel hubs, interiors and shelving are in good shape. One Macon fabricator was in danger of losing his home, and Rawlins gave him an advance to do work on trailers. The man was able to save his home from foreclosure.

Rawlins’ father-in-law, J.L Parker, took a job driving a motor home for an up and coming young actor (Burt Reynolds — who happened to be a friend) on the movie “Gator” filmed in Savannah, GA. He met and impressed the right people and helped Alan get his start in the film industry. Now Rawlins’ son and nephews are getting their start. Three generations are working in the film industry.

“I had a bunch of young’uns come through the ranks in my shop. They’re thrilled with this opportunity,” says Rawlins. “Stepping into the film industry has been a blessing. The business has been good to me, my family and my entire community.”

New program offers film job training for Veterans

Georgia’s film industry is helping those who served our country find opportunity here at home.

VGIFT 1That’s the goal of VGIFT, Veterans of Georgia in Film and Television, an Atlanta Veterans Association program. The relationships it is creating with production companies and studios are helping VGIFT educate, train and place veterans into jobs in Georgia’s film industry.

Fueling the organization’s early success is Terrell Sandefur, a long-time member of the industry. His work in casting, producing and scouting, as well as his work on a number of film festivals, helped him recognize opportunities here for veterans.

Terrell has spent more than a decade working in the Macon film scene. His work as chairman of the Macon Film Commission, as well as work with the Macon Film Festival, has sparked relationships and friendships with many people in the industry.


(Left to right) Intern Kent Roland, Beth Talbert of Eagle Rock Studios, Terrell Sandefur, intern Anita Williams

“Relationships lead to opportunity, and I want to share that opportunity with veterans,” says Terrell, who is expanding his work to Atlanta. “It’s my goal to get veterans into all the major studios.”

VGIFT offers training programs and screenings that help veterans transition from the demanding military into the production work. Free training programs through its partnership with Georgia Entertainment Institute’s PACT (Production Assistant Certification Training) has helped VGIFT place veteran graduates in productions such as “I, Tonya” and “Mine 9,” as well as TV shows “MacGyver” and “Dynasty.” Training includes areas such as set etiquette and terminology, set safety, set call outs, lockouts and wrangling.

But the real learning comes on set.

“You can only learn so much in a classroom,” Terrell says. “Through internships, our goal is to enhance their learning right there on set. Most of the time this leads to full-time hires.”

“The Georgia film industry, along with VGIFT, is doing something amazing for veterans in our state,” says Terrell. “The best part is, we are just getting started.”

Learn more about VGIFT at http://www.atlantaveteransassociation.org/VGIFT.html

Life-long love of the water translates into film, TV opportunities

Mike Neal grew up on the water.  As a kid in Maine he was always outdoors fishing and boating.  Many years later he’s still out on the water, only now he works there as a marine coordinator for Georgia-based film and TV productions.  Mike Neal 3

After a peripatetic career as an advisor to armed forces around the world, a dive instructor on cruise ships and a student at the Maine Maritime Academy, he settled in Savannah to run a small marina.  He now operates Bull River Cruises, an collection of explorations of coastal Georgia that have become popular with locals and tourists.

Unlike thousands of Georgians who got jobs and new careers when the movie studios came to town, Mike got his start in 2008 in Costa Rica, where he was a contestant/talent on “The Catch,” a one-season reality series about a fishing competition.  “I learned a lot during the filming of the show on that job, especially about all the skills needed to make a tv show,” Mike says. “I also recognized the need for greater safety on the water in these productions.”

His next production was “The Town,” starring Ben Affleck, which helped him gain valuable experience on working in the film industry. His aspiration was to become a film’s marine coordinator, a job that included scouting locations, working on pre-production planning, and recruiting and managing crews on the water during production.

Mike Neal 2

Mike’s big break came on the production of  “Savannah,” featuring Jim Caviezel, who starred in the TV series “Person of Interest,” and Chitwetel Ejiofor, an Academy Award nominee for “12 Years a Slave.”  Mike had eight men on his crew for that film, a step up on his management ladder.  More importantly, he was coached on the job of marine coordinator by an experienced assistant director.

Filming a scene on the water involves the close coordination of at least three vessels: A camera boat, its supply boats and a “picture” boat being filmed.  Mike himself has a fleet of boats, kayaks and paddleboards, and can charter other boats as needed.

Currently waiting release is “Peanut Butter Falcon,” featuring Dakota Johnson, Shia LaBeouf and Bruce Dern.  The film tells the story of a child with Down Syndrome in a Huck-Finn-like adventure.  “We filmed off Georgia’s barrier islands, marshes and black-water creeks,” Mike says. “We didn’t have to create many sets; the natural splendor of the Georgia coastline was our theater.”

Mike is also in production in Savannah for “Gemini Man,” with Will Smith.

The impact of film-making on his excursion business has been significant. Film and TV work now accounts for 50 percent of his business, and that share is growing.  Mike attributes that growth to the Georgia tax credit for film production.

“It’s produced thousands of jobs and built up existing businesses all over the state— everybody benefits,” Mike says. “Georgians and the state itself are getting back far more revenue than the tax break gives up.  It’s a great deal for everyone.”

When he looks at his own bottom line, Mike sees the impact of film and TV on his family, too. “It allows my family to make decisions we didn’t know would be available to us.”

Georgia film industry helps turn one-man operation into expanding business

JunkItGA 1.jpg

Most Georgians welcome the occasional snow day when the weather forces them to shelter at home and the day’s biggest accomplishment is the miniature snowman built in the yard. Rusty Brown, owner of JUNKitGEORGIA, is not one of them.

This Georgia native does not like to be held up by the weather. His ever-expanding company, based in Fayetteville, picks up trash and recycling from productions filmed around the state.

“At the busiest time of the year, we’ll work on 30 productions at one time,” says Rusty. “The Georgia film industry continues to grow and it will keep you on your toes.”

Over the past 10 years, Rusty has expanded from a one-man operation to three full-time employees, one part-time employee and four trucks. The team has worked on nearly 400 productions.

A serial-entrepreneur, Rusty decided to start a junk removal business in 2007 while recovering from heart surgery. He had a life-long interest in scrap and flea markets, aptly renaming himself ”Rusty” as a precocious six-year-old because he felt his given name, Harry Dennis, didn’t suit.  JunkItGA 3.jpg

JUNKitGEORGIA started out as a junk removal service for residential homes. In 2008, Rusty got a call from the location manager on the set of “My Fake Fiancé.” He jumped at the opportunity to expand into the film industry. Rusty designed and built sturdy, portable dumpsters for trash and recycling that he installed at the production’s base camp, craft services and catering areas.

Rusty set up a system that worked well for the productions. Film crews appreciate the multiple dump sites so they don’t have far to walk.  JUNKitGEORGIA stays out of the way of filming, too, coming late at night or early in the morning to set up or remove trash and recycling.

Rusty credits his business for making a difference in the life of one Atlanta man down on his luck. While picking up trash at a downtown Atlanta set, a homeless man asked if he needed any help. Rusty hired him for the day. It turned out to be the start of a long, mutually beneficial relationship. The man is a hard worker and he has worked for Rusty on and off over the past decade. Now he’s off the street and doing well, Rusty says.

“Trash removal is a tough business, no one wants to pick up trash,” says Rusty. “He turned out to be industrious and dependable. We helped each other out.”

The film industry has kept Rusty so busy that he’s ready to expand again — this time returning to where he started, business and residential junk removal.

“This year we hope to continue to grow,” says Rusty. “More studios are being built and more productions are being filmed in Georgia. It’s a great state to do business in, and it’s given me the opportunity to provide work for other Georgians.”

HBO series provides opportunity for middle Georgia artist

Andrew Henry has always had a passion for the arts.  An accomplished artist, his work is featured around Barnesville, the middle Georgia town he now calls home, and beyond. His work includes a train mural in downtown Forsyth, chalk drawings in Macon, and a painting on the side of a brewery in Greensboro.

His impressive artistic resume now incudes murals for the fictional town of Wind Gap, Missouri, the town in the upcoming HBO series “Sharp Objects,” starring Amy Adams.  The production was filmed in Barnesville, which doubled as the town of Wind Gap.

Andrew worked on set creating murals for the show, enlisting the help of additional artists for other details, such as lettering.

“Working on this project gave me the opportunity to work with other artists, and I really liked that — I’m just not cut out to be in an office,” says Andrew. “This is a perfect fit for me.”

As a young adult, Andrew worked his way through art school as a fast food employee, and then decided to take the leap to turn his passion into a profession.

Barnesville has always been an important part of Andrew’s life. While he was born and raised in Griffin, his grandfather was the Barnesville town doctor for many years.  Some of Andrew’s other projects around Barnesville include murals at Gordon State College, sculptures for local business, and recently partnered with a local brewery to send craft beer and his murals into space.



SCAD grad sees the set as her canvas

Chelsea Lockhart came to Georgia to fulfill a dream: Combine her vision of becoming an interior designer with her passion for the entertainment industry.IMG_0458

It was a dream unlikely to be fulfilled in her home state of Kentucky, but there was a real shot at it thanks to Georgia’s booming film industry.

Following her graduation from University of Louisville, Chelsea’s dream led her to Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). There she earned her Masters in Production Design and gained a true understanding of the ins and outs of the film industry. Chelsea began reaching out to any film that was looking for a production assistant.

“I knew Atlanta’s film industry was booming, but I hadn’t explored it yet,” Chelsea says. “I took any show that was looking for PA work just to get my feet wet.”

Her persistence paid off as she landed a couple of jobs early on that really gave her a deeper knowledge of the work she had always wanted to do. Now as a set dresser, the set is her canvas.


“We can take a room and literally turn it into anything,” Chelsea says. “Everything except for the actors, we put there — and everything means everything.”

No two jobs are the same. One day’s work might be turning a hotel ballroom into an old-school class reunion for “The Do Over,” and the next could be setting up obstacles on the beach for “Baywatch.”

It is easy to go to the movies and see a great film and not think twice about the details of the set. Creative minds turn the gears of set design, and Chelsea has been turning the gears in amazing ways.

From Kentucky to Savannah, then Savannah to Atlanta, Chelsea has followed a path of opportunity. What comes next will be even bigger, she hopes.

“Good things are happening in Georgia, and I am happy to be here.”

Georgia film industry helps Lawrenceville man find a new career

Luke Welden got more than cake at a birthday party he attended in 2014. He found a second career in the booming Georgia film industry.

He managed his family’s construction business in Lawrenceville for his first career. But the financial crisis in 2008 slowed down work and Luke was searching for something new.Luke Welden 1

“At a birthday party, I was complaining to a friend of mine that the construction business was slow,” says Luke. “He worked as a locations manager and needed an experienced manager to work for him. That was my first step into the film industry.”

Luke didn’t know much about the film industry, but he knew how to plan. “People working in locations are essentially big event planners,” says Luke. “We need to get a herd of people to where they need to be, every day, on set.”

He began his career on the set of an indie film called “Phenom.” He learned the responsibilities of each department and what was required of him. He worked hard, made mistakes and learned from them. Luke figured out that locations is a check-list business. Every location is different, but the tasks remain the same.

Locations turned out to be a good fit for Luke. His past experience, work ethic and meeting the right people opened up more jobs for him. His biggest film was “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” partially filmed at the Georgia Dome. The name of the film was apropos. It was the most he ever walked, walking more than 30 miles a day. He wore two pedometers because he couldn’t believe the distances he was tracking. He walked six miles just knocking on every actor’s door. The most he walked was an epic 47-mile day.

Luke Welden 2.jpg

Luke has been working steadily for the past three years in Georgia’s thriving film industry, and he always remembers the struggles of being a small business.

“I’m a Georgia guy so I try to use local vendors for trash, trailers, HVAC, tenting, lighting, and security,” says Luke. “It touches my community so I want keep the money in Georgia where I feed my family. I sleep better at night knowing I can help other Georgians.”

His Georgia roots show in other ways, too, like his Southern manners and courteousness. Even though he’s not selling windows to homeowners any longer, he’s still going into their homes and neighborhoods to film. “It’s the Southern way, how I was brought up,” says Luke.

Luke’s favorite show to work on so far has been the Golden Globe-nominated “Stranger Things.” All of the effort seems worthwhile on a show that so many people love. His only problem?

“When my wife mentions my work on ‘Stranger Things’ at parties, that’s all people want to talk about. It’s a fandom business, but it feels great to work on a well-loved show,” says Luke.

Film industry creates path to stability

For 32-year-old Dwight Abercrombie, life is good — newly engaged, four beautiful daughters and a paycheck solid enough to provide for a family. And he credits Georgia’s film industry for injecting stability into what, for him and some of his friends, has been an unstable world.

Dwight and Robin

Dwight and his fiancé Robin Duncan

“Opportunity created by Georgia productions has turned my life around,” says Dwight, who lives in College Park and attended Albany State. “Before I landed film industry work, I was in a dead-end job at a fast-food restaurant. This is really working out in my favor.”

Dwight is a rental agent at Manhattan Beach Studios Equipment Co., a global production equipment provider with a regional location in Atlanta. He’s part of a seven-person team working in the local warehouse fulfilling orders for productions such as Passengers, both seasons of Stranger Things, Barber Shop 3, Divergence, and Hunger Games.

His opportunity at MBS Equipment followed experience gained at EUE Screen Gems Atlanta. Every opportunity in the film industry as brought more responsibility and bigger paychecks, he says.

“Working at Screen Gems gave me a great start, and I’ve been able to keep building on that,” Dwight says. “I’ve really learned how to carry myself in this business.”

Dwight says he’s helped family members and friends find work in Georgia’s film industry, jobs that for some friends provide a path from street life to stability.

“Georgia’s film industry is changing lives,” Dwight says. “That’s true for me, and that’s true for my friends. I’m able to provide a good life for my family now.”