A moment in history led to Georgia’s billion-dollar film, TV industry

Carla and Josh_Film Exhibit.JPGGeorgia’s film industry has roots in a movie about a prison football team. In the early 1970s the producers of “The Longest Yard” were searching for a prison in which to shoot their film but needed the governor’s permission.

When then-governor Jimmy Carter heard about it, he made actor Burt Reynolds and his producers a deal they couldn’t refuse. If you build a football field inside the state prison at Reidsville and leave it there when you’re finished, you can film the movie there.

The rest, as they say, is history.

From that collaboration has grown a multi-billion-dollar industry that employs more than 92,000 people in Georgia. Appropriately enough, that industry is on display until the end of the year in “Georgia on My Screen: Jimmy Carter and the Rise of the Film Industry” at The Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum.

“It was incredible foresight by President Carter to recognize what was possible,” says Joshua Montanari, Education Specialist at the Museum. “With this exhibit, we are highlight the economic benefit and jobs that moment in history created.”

The catalyst for the exhibit was a news item from the Smithsonian Institution that it had acquired props from Georgia-produced “The Walking Dead,” according to Museum Specialist Carla Ledgerwood. “It made us wonder whether anyone here was collecting Georgia-related artifacts,” she says. “That’s when we decided to mount the exhibit ourselves.”

Walking through the exhibit is like experiencing the timeline of Georgia film and television productions. There’s a tribute to “Deliverance,” which first brought Reynolds to Georgia in the early 1970s, launching a long-time friendship between the actor and President Carter.

The exhibit contains only original artifacts (no replicas) including Joe Pesci’s boots and Marisa Tomei’s witness-stand dress from “My Cousin Vinny,” Joyce Byer’s living room in “Stranger Things,” two of Daryl’s motorcycles from “The Walking Dead,” Captain America’s costume, and the Oscar won by “Driving Miss Daisy” as the best picture in 1989. There are wardrobe and props from recent blockbusters like “Black Panther” and Dr. Randolph Bell’s white jacket from “The Resident.”

Also featured are tributes to the many Georgians who worked behind the cameras as set directors, sound mixers and even specialists in prosthetics and special makeup effects, thus recognizing and honoring the thousands of Georgians in every business imaginable who have benefited from the spectacular growth of the film and television industry since Jimmy Carter opened the door.

Gathering such an impressive set of costumes, props and memorabilia wasn’t easy.

“We had to do a lot of research because we had zero sources in the industry until the Reagan Presidential Library provided our first contacts,” says Carla. “What’s more, because we had nothing to call a collection, everything in the exhibit would have to be on loan for about nine months. That’s a hard sell in the museum world.”

But sell they did, reaching out to local film offices in Georgia and practically every studio and production company working in the state. “Everyone in this very competitive industry was wonderfully accommodating,” Carla says.

Another problem was that there have been more than 1,500 film or television productions in Georgia since 1972 — far more than what could be represented in one exhibit. Entries were limited to those nominated for major awards or box-office hits, trimming the list to the more than 65 productions highlighted in the exhibit.

This extraordinary growth all began because of the interest and energy of Jimmy Carter, who believed that film profoundly influences the way we see ourselves and our country, Carla says.

“The exhibit draws deserving attention to that heritage and the economic impact of the industry on Georgia,” Carla says.

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Local knowledge links small business with film, TV opportunities

Game Night Day 36Ariel Kaplan, a native Atlantan, got her first job as a prop master because of her knowledge of the city’s geography and businesses.

It also helped that she worked for free.

But that first unpaid gig on the independent film “Grantham and Rose” turned into a lucrative career as a member of the art department in property and set decoration.

“For many people, it’s just a job — a great job that pays well,” says Ariel. “For me, it’s more than that. I’ve always loved the art of film making.”

Ariel is devoted to the art of film making but also to helping Georgia businesses thrive in the industry. Her mother, Ronnie Kaplan, is the owner of The Touchstone Collection, a small business focusing on unique items like antique textiles. With the rise of the Georgia film and television industry, Ariel’s mother turned her business into a fulltime prop store that sells exclusively to productions.

Game Night Day 07Through watching her mother’s struggles working with the industry, Ariel learned how to navigate working with small businesses. Ariel says that film production schedules are “nuts” and that needs change rapidly and constantly. When buying props or set decorations from a new small business contact, she always starts out with an apology for the hectic pace of their process and then helps them to understand how the film industry works.

“When the film industry first started in Georgia, we got everything from New York and California. Now we’re getting so much from local businesses,” says Ariel. “We gave these companies a chance to meet our needs and they’ve met the challenge wholeheartedly.”

Biggars, an antique store in Chamblee, is a great example. It was an antique store that focused on antiques and memorabilia from the 1950s and 1960s. Now that antique store is a thriving prop house and rental business.

As a prop master and set decorator, Ariel finds joy in researching the era the film is set in and ensuring the decorations and props are historically accurate. She’s currently working on HBO’s new series, “Lovecraft Country,” a horror story created by Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams, set in America in the 1950s.

“I especially like working on period films because everyone puts so much emphasis on getting the details right,” says Ariel. “I want to make sure everything is appropriate for the year, from the glassware to the stapler.”

Ariel’s recent work also includes “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” “Queen America,” “Insatiable,” and “Black Panther.”

Enterprise builds team of Georgians to focus on film and TV

For Lishers Mahone, the movie “Hall Pass” presented an issue that could only be resolved Georgian to Georgian.

Lishers_Enterprise 1.jpgFilmed around metro Atlanta in 2010, the romantic comedy was an early experience with keeping a film production crew — especially a VIP — satisfied with service and vehicles.

For this particular VIP member of the “Hall Pass” team, a Chevy HHR just wasn’t going to cut it.

“I went right to the Unit Production Manager to try to make it right,” says Lishers, then branch manager of Enterprise Rent-a-Car’s Buckhead location. “She was a Georgian, too. So Georgian to Georgian, I was able to convince her to give us another chance to make this person — and the full crew — happy with what we could do. That personal connection made all the difference.”

This “Aha!” moment prompted Lishers to pitch the idea of a Georgia-based Enterprise Entertainment division to company leadership. While up until this time there had been occasional opportunities to provide vehicles to film and television productions, business in Atlanta was picking up. It was time to hone the focus on Georgia.

Lishers_Enterprise 2.jpgIt was a winning idea that has put Enterprise and Lishers at the heart of Georgia’s film and production television opportunities.

Nine years later, Enterprise Entertainment has provided vehicles to a long list of Georgia-based productions that includes “Stranger Things,” “Hunger Games,” “Fast & Furious 7,” “Baby Driver,” and “Avengers: Endgame.”

Now with three locations in metro Atlanta — including a truck division that focuses on purpose-build production trucks and passenger vans — Enterprise Entertainment has grown from Lishers and a four-person team to employ 30 people. All serve Georgia productions, and all are Georgians.

“We are all about creating opportunities,” says Lishers. “Everybody on our team here is a Georgian — that matters.”

Film industry opportunities lead back to Georgia

When Scott Nickelson graduated from high school in New Mexico in the 1990s, he came straight to Georgia. It was a state he always wanted to live in, and he was determined to build a life here.

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Scott Nickelson and his wife, Laura.

But big dreams hit harsh reality, and Scott returned to New Mexico to spend the next decade or so working in a series of jobs. It was one of those jobs — as a technician with Exchange Communications — that led him back to Georgia and landed him in the middle of the state’s ever-growing film and television industry.

“I thought I’d never get back to Georgia, but that didn’t turn out to be true,” says Scott, who returned to Georgia in 2007 and now lives in Rome, GA, with his wife and son. “It was the film industry that brought me back, and the film industry that keeps me here.”

Exchange Communications, founded in 1996 in Santa Fe, NM, creates custom IT and communications services for remote locations. The company also has offices in Albuquerque, NM; New Orleans, LA; Los Angeles; New York; and Honolulu.

In Georgia alone, Exchange Communications has created custom solutions for hundreds of film and television production sets across the state.

Scott was once the lone Exchange Communication’s employee based in Georgia. Business here has grown to support five full-time employees and additional contractors. Early work in Georgia included “Drop Dead Diva” and “Vampire Diaries,” and the company’s list of recent projects include “Avengers End Game,” “Venom,” “Gemini Man,” and “Godzilla.”

“When I first returned to Georgia, I was still jumping on airplanes to head to work at our projects around the country,” says Scott. “That’s certainly not the case now — I’m busy right here in Georgia, and that’s great for me, and great for my family.”

Entrepreneur spots opportunity in Georgia’s production industry

23319003_1575612945851310_7631709093193656318_nIt’s an old story: An enterprising person spots a need, musters the energy to meet it, and presto — a successful business is launched.

Four years ago Georgia native Nick Adams was a teamster making deliveries to, among other places, movie sets around Georgia. He noticed that the bathroom facilities at the film production sites were, shall we say, not up to standards.

That’s when the lightbulb of invention came on and Crew Thrones was born.

Nick started with three restroom trailers, one truck and one part-time helper. The staff has grown to six full-timers and a fleet of 28 trailers, five pump trucks and 80 porta-potties.

“I have a new trailer on the way and just purchased a new truck — the future looks bright,” says Nick.

Among the productions Crew Thrones has serviced are “Baby Driver,” two “Spiderman” movies, “The Outsider” TV series, “Ozark,” “Bad Boys 3” and “The Fate of the Furious,” aka “Fast and Furious 8.”

Nick gets involved at the very beginning by supplying porta-potties for the construction crews. As the production gets more elaborate, he brings in the luxury restroom trailers. While luxury is not a word usually associated with portable toilets, his trailers range from two units up to 10 units –– spanking clean and comfortable. One four-room unit can service an onsite crew of 50 to 75 people.

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One of his biggest challenges is moving the units to keep pace with the crews as they change locations, Nick says. One production required shuttling the units between Macon and Norcross.

Based in Stockbridge, Crew Thrones is a good example of the beneficial effect of Georgia’s growing film industry on home-grown Georgia businesses.

“Building the business has enabled me to have a family, a home and savings for college educations,” says Nick, who grew up in Locust Grove and now lives in Williamson, south of Atlanta near Griffin. “The state’s tax credit for the film industry means I can look forward to a bright future.”

Producer’s assistant pays it forward to fellow Georgians

Karen Felix, a producer’s assistant who spent 15 years as a property master on Georgia film and TV productions, understands how difficult it can be to break into the film industry. After she found herself in a position to pay it forward, she made sure to extend the courtesy to other dreamers.Karen Felix 1

“As a department head, it feels good to give someone their first chance in the industry, the same way others gave me my first shot. I always hire local people and do my best to keep them working,” says Karen. “I believe in paying it forward to other Georgians and spreading the wealth.”

In 2004, Karen worked in Atlanta’s restaurant industry but desperately wanted to get into the behind-the-scenes work on films. After many asks and rejections, she finally nabbed one day of work as a set dresser on the HBO movie “Warm Springs.” She took the opportunity and ran with it.

Karen was determined to make her day count. She worked hard and was asked back for three days on set. Karen says she was so passionate about the work, she quit her steady job to take the three-day opportunity.

It paid off.

“Quitting my restaurant job was the best decision I made. The first day on set I saw the cameras and gear and how everything comes to life. It blew my mind,” says Karen. “I knew I had to figure out how to make this my permanent career.”

A producer noticed her hustle and asked if she could stay on for the rest of the show as an additional on-set dresser. A property master position soon came open for another production, and Karen was offered that job.

“Not only did I get lucky to get the position of property master so quickly, but I had someone who believed in me,” says Karen. “I worked weekends, stayed late, and did everything I could to do the best job possible.”Karen Felix 3

Karen has been working steadily in the industry ever since — especially since the 2007 tax incentives brought an explosion of work to the area. Karen says she enjoys seeing the crew base grow and to see the growth of the communities and businesses that the support the studios, too.

“It makes me proud to help local businesses,” says Karen. “I think it’s wonderful that we’re able to spread the money we get from the studios across Georgia to small and large local businesses.”

As a prop master, Karen is in charge of anything the actors use or manipulate on screen. Like on “Insatiable,” Karen needed tiaras and sashes. She worked with family-owned Premier Crowns in Monroe and found everything she needed.

After 15 years in the business, Karen has moved on from the prop department. She has recently changed to the production side and is a producer’s assistant and is working towards eventually becoming a producer.

“I love this industry and I’m so thankful film and TV production is in Georgia,” says Karen. “I love my home in Pine Lake and I’ve only had to travel twice in all my years working in the film industry. I feel blessed that I’ve been able to keep it that way.”

Former Miss Cobb County is crowned a winner with opportunities in Georgia film

When the Georgia film industry started to heat up with several shows featuring pageant story lines, Lace Larrabee knew she had the experience to make her a perfect fit.

Lace Larrabee 2As a former Miss Cobb County, Lace harnessed her talent for performing comedic dialogues into winning more than $26,000 in scholarships. She made it to the Miss Georgia pageant four times.

“I did pageants until I aged out, and I felt like all of that experience could pay off,” says Lace.

And it did.

Lace got her chance on “Queen America,” Facebook Watch’s dark comedy about pageants. Lace said performing in two scenes with Catherine Zeta-Jones will always be a highlight of her career and can’t believe she hugged an Oscar winner.

“I think all of the filming in Georgia validates us as an entertainment community,” says Lace. “Now those of us in the performing arts don’t have to act like it’s just a hobby. You can have a lucrative career right here. That’s huge, I don’t have to uproot my life and move across the country.”

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After graduating from college — mostly paid for by her pageant winnings — Lace went on to become a nationally known standup comedian. When not touring, Lace lives in Atlanta, where she created and runs an all-female comedy class called the Laugh Lab Comedy Class.

Whether it’s her comedy classes that are filling up with actors working on their comedy skills or the local bakery in Atlanta where she filmed scenes for “Queen America,” “the Georgia film industry is boosting all of us,” says Lace.

Family-owned Crafty Apes puts ‘boots on the ground’ in Georgia

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The LeDoux Brothers: Chris, Tim, Mark and David

In 2014, Crafty Apes opened its Atlanta location with a staff of two: Chris LeDoux and Joshua Stevens. It didn’t take long to expand to employ dozens, move most of the rest of the family to Georgia, and emerge as one of the top visual effects companies in the industry.

Founded in 2011 in Los Angeles, Crafty Apes had worked on a number of Georgia-based film and television productions, parachuting in for the duration while keeping the company’s base on the West Coast. But even then the potential in Georgia was clear.

“We decided we wanted to be the boots on the ground here,” says Chris, cofounder of Crafty Apes. “We didn’t want to just send random people out here to work, but get here ourselves. We saw the opportunity in Georgia and were eager to get a foot in the door.”

Fast-forward to today. Crafty Apes is one of the industry’s premier visual effects companies, with a production resume that includes Oscar-nominated films “A Star Is Born,” “Hidden Figures” and “If Beale Street Could Talk.” Georgia-based productions include “Stranger Things,” “The Front Runner,” “The Hate U Give,” and “Hidden Figures.”

While the company maintains offices in LA and New York, the Atlanta location has emerged as Craft Apes’ largest office — and Atlanta has become the family’s home.

Chris LeDoux and Genevieve DeMars

Chris LeDoux and his wife Genevieve DeMars

Chris and his wife Genevieve DeMars, an Emmy-winning producer, just bought a home in Atlanta. Also based in Atlanta are brothers Mark LeDoux, senior VFX supervisor, and David LeDoux, director of IT. Tim runs the operation in LA along with co-founder Jason Sanford.

“I wasn’t completely sold when Chris wanted to make the move to Atlanta,” says Genevieve, whose work includes projects with Disney, Warner Brothers and Amazon. “But I’ve made great connections in the business right here in Georgia. This is now my hub.”

Invested in Atlanta

Since making the move to the South, Chris and his team have spent much of their time training local talent to help develop what are becoming some of the top crew around. Through workshops and on-the-job training, Crafty Apes has trained about 30 people in special visual effects over the last five years.

Now with about 65 full-time employees in Georgia, the company quickly outgrew its original location and relocated to a 6,500-square-foot facility in west Atlanta complete with a ping-pong table and vintage pinball machine.

“Among the tables full of little gadgets and games, you see some great creative work getting done,” says Mark. “At any given time there are 40-50 people sitting at their desk working extremely hard.”

As the company has grown significantly, so has its ability to do more. From rotoscoping to creating full-on creatures for films, the team does it all.

“To do all levels of sophisticated work, we had to outsource in the beginning, but now we are at the point where we can do everything in-house,” says Chris, adding that the Atlanta office even pulls in work from other states where the Georgia tax credit doesn’t apply. “That’s a good sign for post-production as a whole, that the quality of the work has crossed that threshold.”

While it’s hard to pick a favorite project, Chris counts “Hidden Figures,” “La La Land,” and “12 Years a Slave” among the most meaningful projects the team has worked with.

“I’m a sucker for a good story,” Chris says. “Ultimately at the end of the day, we love being part of a great story that will last for generations. That’s what we do best.”

Incentives, talented crew recipe for success in Georgia, says ‘Raising Dion’ producer

Bob Phillips 3Walking around EUE/Screen Gems Studios’ Atlanta lot, Bob Phillips sees the past — and the future.

As a Georgia native, his memories of the 11-stage, 33-acre studio complex range from exploring what was then Lakewood Fairgrounds as a boy to his first production job in the basement of what is now Stage 1.

And as the line producer for the upcoming Netflix series “Raising Dion,” hosted at EUE/Screen Gems in Atlanta, he knows why productions will be coming to Georgia for years to come.

“Atlanta is one of those places where you can show up and find just about anything you need,” says Bob, who spent months in Atlanta for the nine-episode series about a young boy with multiple superpower abilities. “The crew and team you need are right here in Atlanta. There’s so many really, highly skilled and experienced department heads, and the grip and electric crews were among the best I’ve ever worked with anywhere.

“There’s world-class crew right here in Georgia.”

Bob Phillips 2Born in south Georgia, Bob began his production career in the 1980s, and has worked on locations around the world.  In addition to “Raising Dion,” Bob’s recent projects include Amazon’s “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan” and “Banshee,” the Cinemax crime series. He also worked as a line producer for “Valkrie,” the 2008 Tom Cruise movie about the assassination attempt on Hitler.

Currently living in Topanga, CA, Bob has watched Georgia’s film and television production industry mature during his decades of work.

“We’re big fans of filming in Georgia,” says Bob. “The tax incentive draws work here, and that combined with first class crew and infrastructure is a recipe for success.”

Forsyth native builds full-time career in Georgia’s film industry

Eric White grew up with a love for writing and storytelling, but knew that might not be a particularly reasonable career path.

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He graduated from high school in Forsyth, GA, and followed a common path to the local college to try and figure out what he wanted to do with his life. He soon discovered this path wasn’t for him and dropped out, beginning a stint as a server in restaurants around Forsyth.

“I was looking for my opportunity, and not finding it,” says Eric.

For Eric, the path to opportunity began with creating a comic with a friend, a venture that motivated him to stick with his creative side and enter film school in Florida. Today, Eric works in a variety of crew positions in Georgia’s film and television production industry, including set decorating, lighting and set construction.  Projects include “Summer Nights,” a coming-of-age story filmed in Atlanta and Newnan, and, most recently, the CW television series “Black Lightning.”

IMG_20170709_211857_799Over the years, Eric has moved from supplementing his income with landscaping and construction work to creating a full-time career in Georgia’s film industry.  He balances his time between working as set decorator and his passion, screenwriting. He recently wrote and produced a short film, “Colorblind,” which won the Audience Award at the Atlanta Film Festival in 2018. Since he started in the film industry he’s moved from from independent film and music videos to larger union productions

“The people I’ve met working in this industry have become lifelong friends,” Eric says. “I’m excited to be surrounded by like-minded people who are able to work together to create great work.”