Entrepreneur committed to building opportunity in Madison

At the age of 18, Ben Patel traveled from Madison, GA, to India, where he was born. The extreme poverty he witnessed during his month in India changed the trajectory of his life, and in the process, the lives of many who live in the rural Georgia town he’s called home since he was seven years old.

As the owner of B.I. Production Works, a transportation company that serves film and television productions throughout Georgia, Ben is committed to creating long-term, stable jobs in Madison. In the last U.S. Census, the population of the town barely hit 4,000.

“We’re bringing dreams to families who couldn’t ever envision this type of success,” says Ben, now a 33-year-old father of two. “There are certainly jobs in Madison, but many of those jobs have been taken for years. We’re creating new opportunities that make dreams come true.”

Ben credits his introduction to Georgia’s film and TV production industry — and his entrepreneurial spirit — to his long-time mentor, Paul Paschal, who owned a dry-cleaning business in Madison that employed Ben’s parents. As a teen, Ben also worked there, and witnessed the dry cleaner’s business boom with wardrobe cleaning for productions such as “Driving Miss Daisy,” “In the Heat of the Night,” and “We Are Marshall.”

It was while delivering wardrobe to EUE/Screen Gems Atlanta studio, then hosting “Hunger Games,” that Ben looked around and saw the opportunity for a transportation company serving productions. Today, his dry-cleaning days are behind him, and he’s staked his future on B.I. Productions. It’s a move that pushed his family out of poverty, and allowed him to more than triple his business income.

And it allowed him to hire even more residents of Madison.

“This small rural town is full of tradesman,” says Ben, who employees about 25 Madison residents. “I’m putting the vision on the table, and they are bringing the skills together to make it work.

“I took the idea of the America dream, and I made it possible for me. And I’m committed to making it real for others, too.”

Thomasville native instrumental in town’s starring role

Allen Cheney has always seen the potential in his hometown of Thomasville, GA. Now, he’s proud to say, the film industry sees it, too.

Allen, a graduate of Thomasville’s Brookwood High School and LaGrange College, is a producer of “Tiger Rising,” filming in the south Georgia town. Starring Queen Latifah, Dennis Quaid and Katherine McPhee, the film is expected to generate more than $1 million in economic benefits to the town. Those working with the production have filled nearly every hotel room in Thomasville, and nearly 100 local residents are involved as extras.Allen Cheney 1

“It’s great to be doing what I love in a place that I love,” says Allen, now a producer based in Los Angeles. “It is a dream for me to marry these two worlds together.”

Allen’s family has deep roots in Thomasville. He grew up there with his two brothers, and his father is a CEO of a Thomasville-based company. Both grandfathers were civic leaders, one as a physician, another as contributor to the performing arts.

After graduating from college, Allen moved to Nashville to pursue music, and made extra money working on music videos. That led to a friendship and partnership with producer Ryan Smith, and the two produced the 2016 independent film “Some Freaks,” starring Thomas Mann.

Since that time, Allen has worked to encourage well-known producers and influencers to see Thomasville in a starring role. He’s flown people to Atlanta, driven them around Thomasville, and pitched the potential of the town.

“I know this town and this community so well, and I knew I could make this work,” says Allen. “This is my opportunity to give back to Thomasville. My goal is for this to be the first of many, and to spend as much of the production budget locally as possible.”

Prop house provides hard-to-find authentic props from around the world to Georgia film industry

In Georgia’s booming film industry, where does a busy prop master find an authentic South American blowgun? Or a prayer container from Afghanistan? Or pottery from Morocco?

Ronnie KaplanThey go to Touchstone Props in Sandy Springs where owner Ronnie Kaplan rents and sells antiques, folk art, jewelry, textiles and a diverse array of handcrafted objects from around the world.

“For more than 35 years I’ve imported hand crafted items from small communities in Central and South America, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa,” says Ronnie. “I have great respect for the people who still produce products by hand using locally sourced materials. Most of them live in remote areas and sell through cooperatives that I support.”

Ronnie opened her store, Folk Art Imports (now Touchstone Collection), in 1986 on Bennett Street in Atlanta, a hot spot for antique stores. She made her first connections to people in the film industry on Bennett Street. She was excited to find a new market for her collection and started Touchstone Props. Now Ronnie runs her businesses from a showroom in Sandy Springs.

In the movie “Zombieland,” Woody Harrelson’s character wore necklaces from Touchstone Props. One necklace was an Afghanistan prayer container and the other was made of Tibetan stone set in silver.

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For the TV series, “Lovecraft Country,” Ronnie provided an array of items from the South American Arawak culture and African cultures including blowguns, baskets and textiles. She also designs and creates replicas. She created four elaborate head dresses, feather earrings and armbands for “Lovecraft Country” based on the original Arawak items.
Ronnie is also a resource for the film industry with the knowledge she can provide of cultures around the world. Recently, a prop master needed a replica of a sword. They sent Ronnie a photo. She recognized it was from Toledo, Spain, and they were able to get an authentic copy made.

“We live in a global community. Set decorators, prop masters and costume designers can’t fake the cultures they’re portraying, they’ll be found out,” says Ronnie. “The film industry is a boon to my business and to the craftsmen who provide these culturally authentic items.”

Items from Touchstone Props have been featured in productions such as “Furious 7;” “The Fate of the Furious;” “Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri;” and the TV series “Constantine” and “Necessary Roughness.”

Here comes the WaterMan!

“Hey, the water man is here!”

The “water man” sounded pretty catchy to Greg Reece. So catchy, it stuck with him to this day and has now been passed on to his company WaterMan Spring Water in Athens, a company that has been providing water to everyone from film crews to local businesses for decades.

He’s delivered thousands of gallons of water to productions around the state, including “The Mule” Augusta and “Richard Jewell” in Atlanta. Water coolers and dispensers. Five- and three-gallon dispensers. And hundreds of water bottles, often recycled by production crews, a week.

“One production will typically order at least 120 cases, plus rent coolers with 5-gallon bottles,” Greg says. “It fills the truck up.”

For some productions, especially those filming in Georgia’s summer heat, it’s up to 300 gallons of water each week.

Before Greg Reece was the go-to source for on-site hydration, he was punching the clock every day working for the city of Athens.

“It was steady pay, but I’ve always believed that to be financially secure you should have more than one source of income,” Greg says.

That other source of income would come in the form of a friend with a water delivery business. Greg began delivering water with his friend in between shifts and learning the in’s and out’s of the work.

Business was good — at his frequent stops he’d hear “Here comes the water man!” What started as a nickname became a thriving business. One that delivers to homes, businesses and productions alike.

“Productions provide us a chance to do something different,” Greg said. “They drop in for a couple months and we deliver water to them each week. Then just as quick as they come along, they’re gone.”   

The WaterMan Spring Water has been providing water to Georgians since 2000, and has no plans of slowing down.

“Our growth has been all through word of mouth,” he says. “We appreciate every customer, from the small businesses to the big productions.”

 

Production work provides life-saving benefits to Savannah family

Mike Neal, a former dive instructor and advisor to armed forces around the world, has created a new career for himself as a marine coordinator for Georgia-based film and TV productions.

The impact of the film and television production industry has been significant on Mike’s business and his family. Mike, a Savannah resident and owner of Bull River Cruises, attributes 50 percent of his business to film and TV work, and that share is growing. Most importantly to Mike and his family is the impact on the healthcare benefits that he receives as a union member.

Mike’s wife was recently diagnosed with liver cancer. She’s gone through treatment at the Mayo Clinic and is waiting for a life-saving liver transplant — none of which they can afford without the healthcare coverage he gets through his film industry union benefits, Mike says.

“My wife is able to have a transplant that would have been economically devastating before I had union benefits,” says Mike. “Our coverage is accepted by major hospitals and clinics, like the Mayo Clinic, whereas before our options were limited.”

Through these hard times, the film community has been very supportive to him and his family. “Savannah has a very tight film community,” Mike says. “The film industry is more like a family than people just working together. They’ve been checking in on us and helping.”

Mike has worked on a steady stream of productions since 2010 like “The Walking Dead,” “Baywatch,” “Ozark,” “Gemini Man,” and “Peanut Butter Falcon.”

As a marine coordinator, Mike scouts locations, works on pre-production planning, and recruits and manages crews on the water during filming.

On a production like “Ozark,” Mike works for the marine department which is in charge of everything on the water. “Ozark is one of the bigger water shows filmed in Georgia. That crew is always a pleasure to work with,” says Mike. “Season 3 was especially exciting working with river boats.”

Mike says the union benefits allow him and those in his industry to work for multiple productions in a year.

“I’m only one of many, many people to whom the film industry is crucial to their futures. I’m a strong proponent of keeping film in Georgia,” says Mike. “A large swath of Georgians who work directly on productions and the businesses who support them would be devastated without the film industry.”

Real estate careers turn into small business helping film, TV productions

Amy Fuchs was working on Wall Street when she came to Atlanta for a wedding and fell in love with the city, infatuated enough to move South and take a job in finance. A single mom, she soon fell in love with her now husband of 13 years and added to their family with a daughter. She also started a second career in real estate.

It wasn’t long after that her life intersected with the film industry.

“ In our real estate business we were was getting a lot of calls about short-term housing for people coming here to work on film or TV productions,” says Amy. “It didn’t take long for us realize there was a gap we could fill.”

So began InFocusGa, a company owned by Amy and her business partner Jen Falk that makes connections that help solve housing and on-location issues for film and television productions.

One easy problem for two Realtors to solve was short-term housing needs for crew members and production teams. But then producers started asking about properties that could be used as locations.

“Since finding properties for someone to live in was our business, we could easily find properties for someone to film in,” says Amy.

They were alert to other opportunities as well. Most communities like to attract filmmakers; it’s good for business. But with filming can come disruption, especially traffic and parking. So Amy and Jen developed what they call “audience engagement.” By networking in a community where filming was taking place, they could reduce the friction by solving problems for the filmmakers and the community.

“In Atlanta, parking for crew members is always a problem,” Amy says, “so we approached neighbors and asked them if we could park cars in their driveway –– for a fee, of course. This helped solve the parking on location and made the neighbors feel they were a part of the production.”

To further cement community relations with filmmakers, InFocusGa can arrange local screenings when a film or television show is complete.

Currently filming in Madison is the Netflix production “Charming the Hearts of Men” starring Kelsey Grammer and Anna Friel. To help grease the community-relations skids for that production, InFocusGa went door-to-door explaining what was coming and how locals could engage with the production.

Their company is something of a barometer for the industry’s economic impact. Its real-estate rental arm is expanding as productions multiple, and its sales of homes are going up as well. “We’re noticing more and more people are giving up the commute from L.A. and settling in Georgia,” Amy says.

Two more opportunities are ahead for InFocusGa:

  • The company is planning an expansion in Savannah, already a hot spot for filming.
  • Also in the works is a partnership with American Real Estate University in Covington to teach Georgia real estate agents more about how to work with the film industry.

“The exciting part of working with film and TV production is the expanding opportunity for Georgia’s existing businesses,” says Amy. “It’s all right here.”

Film, TV productions provided lifeline to Cofer Brothers

In 1919, two Cofer brothers borrowed $500 to open a small country store in what was then rural downtown Tucker, GA. That investment grew into a thriving enterprise that included one of the busiest building supply companies in metro Atlanta, one that held its own against corporate giants like Home Depot, Lowe’s and the many other independent lumber yards around metro Atlanta.

Cofer’s Studio team includes (from left) Kenny Wiggins, Katie Cofer-Scott and Steve Young

The home building industry — which had become the core of Cofer Brothers — hit a screeching halt in 2009 as the country fell into a recession. Company leader Chip Cofer was determined not to become a statistic — he was committed to keeping the family business alive.

And as the saying goes, when one door closes another one opens.

“My dad had one hobby outside of our business and helping raise five children — collecting cars,” says Chip Cofer, today the CEO of the 100-year-old Cofer Brothers. “That hobby turned out to be just what we needed at the right time.”

Through that hobby came a friendship with local businessman who provided cars to movies, and like many thriving in Georgia’s film and television production industry, one introduction leads to many opportunities. For Chip, that was an introduction to the person buying the materials for a local set in Tucker.

“I saw the set, and thought, wow, this takes a lot of material. We can do this — this is what we do,” Chip says.

It was the beginning of Cofer Studio Supply, the division of Cofer Brothers that supplies materials to film and television productions around Georgia. Still based in Tucker, Cofer Brothers today employees about 50 people, including fourth-generation members of the Cofer family. The company’s sales manager, Steve Young, has worked for Cofer Brothers for nearly 50 years. The average length of employment for the team is 15 years. Katie Cofer-Scott, Chip’s daughter, and Kenny Wiggins handle the Cofer Studio Supply sales side of the business.

Six members of the Cofer family currently work at the company. From left, Jamey Wilson, John Wilson, Jim Wilson, Chip Cofer, Charlie Cofer and Katie Cofer-Scott

Film and television productions make up about a third of Cofer Brothers’ business, Chip says. The company is currently servicing about 35 production, and counts among its satisfied customers “Black Panther,” “Ozark,” and “Stranger Things.”

“The movie and TV business roared into Georgia like a freight train,” says Chip, who says he’s been a big fan of the business since he rode in a Cofer Brothers truck in scenes in “Smokey and the Bandit” as a teenager. “It’s a huge part of our story, and gave us the new life we needed to pull through a tough time in our history.

“A hundred years later, Cofer Brothers is still going strong.”

Recycled materials from productions contribute to construction of one-of-a-kind building

It was a perfect match of supply and demand. Georgia Tech needed reclaimed materials to build its environmentally pioneering Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design. Georgia moviemakers had an abundance of lightly used materials that could be repurposed.

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Shannon Goodman, Lifecycle’s executive director, (left) tells the story about how a film site breaks down to Georgia Box Office host Sheena Wiley. Photo credit: Georgia Box Office

The Kendeda Building, expected to become the most environmentally advanced education and research building ever constructed in the Southeast, will open this fall thanks in part to the contributions of Georgia’s film and television production industry.

This partnership has been going on since 2011 through the efforts of Atlanta’s Lifecycle Building Center, a nonprofit that collects reusable materials and in turn makes them available at low cost to small companies, nonprofits and homeowners.

When the filming of “Last Vegas” was complete the studio had enough leftover materials in the sets, especially lumber, to turn over more than 75 tons for resale and reuse. About the same time the producers of “Walking Dead” followed the same path of reuse.

“This was the start of a productive and valuable relationship with the film industry that has benefited more than 190 Atlanta organizations,” says Shannon Goodman, Lifecycle’s executive director.

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Georgia’s film and TV production industry has contributed more than 384 tons of materials. Photo credit: Georgia Box Office

The reuse partnership is a good deal for everyone. Tons of still-usable materials are kept out of the landfills and put into a low-cost market for reuse. Most of the leftovers can be sold from 50-80 percent off retail prices.

Since 2012, 25 productions in Georgia’s booming film and TV production industry have contributed more than 384 tons of materials, including lumber, bricks, plumbing, flooring, tiles, light fixtures, doors, hardware, and even cast-iron bathtubs.

And the industry contributes more than building materials. After the filming of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” the studio passed along food, diapers, baby formula and cribs to the United Way of Greater Atlanta. Another studio contributed three whole production sets that totaled more than 82 tons.

Overall, the Lifecycle Building Center has collected for repurposing more than five million pounds of materials in seven years.

At the Kendeda Building, for example, architects estimated a need for 25,000 two-by-fours that didn’t have to meet structural ratings. Eventually, most of those boards came from salvaged movie and TV sets.

The Lifecycle Building Center estimates that about 25 percent of its incoming materials come from film and TV productions. Through grants, Lifecycle has helped more than 190 Georgia nonprofits get materials through its Nonprofit Material MATCH program.

“It’s an incredible opportunity for charitable organizations throughout Georgia,” says Shannon. “The film and TV industry is a huge part of this program. Repurposing materials from productions is a continuing benefit from having the film and TV industry here.”

Growing up in Covington provides inspiration to young filmmaker

What happens when something big unveils itself, the latest trend or the hot new buzz? People notice, and people want in. And it’s not just the people who want to keep up with the Jones’ or someone looking for work — even the kids are noticing.JW_IMG_1526034210915 (002)

That’s what happened with the film and television production industry right here in Georgia, and Jantzen Winnig, a Covington native, was watching.

When Jantzen was young, his mother recognized his interest in the industry, and she helped as she could. When she saw a movie directed by Alex Winter shooting in Old-Town Conyers, she had to let Jantzen know.

“My mom took me out of school, and we spent the day hanging out on set,” says Jantzen. “I was 14 at the time and I remember talking to every single crew member I could and soaking it all in.”

While Alex Winter may not remember talking to him on set, his kind words inspired Jantzen to follow his dream and work to perfect his craft.

“In high school I took broadcasting and theater and that helped me break out of my shell,” he said. “I didn’t like being in front of everyone so broadcasting really spoke to me.”

Throughout high school he and his friends would work on small videos mostly meant to entertain themselves. But as they got older those blooper reels evolved into more serious short films that kept improving. With the advance in film quality came the need for better equipment, but as anyone in the industry knows, it ain’t cheap.

Jantzen has taken many jobs in and around his hometown of Covington, and from Day 1 he has been saving to afford the equipment he needs to take his work to the next level. Since those days of filming around the backyard, Jantzen has built quite an impressive arsenal of equipment.

7pa2Scl (2)“In just a few years I’ve compiled a high-end camera, lights, sound equipment, sliders, tripods, drones and a plethora of other film equipment that help me get my work done,” he says.

These days Jantzen and his group of filming friends have formed a group they call “Silent Frame.” They focus on short films and have been nominated for 25 different awards at film festivals around the United States, bringing home twelve of them. Jantzen also helps small businesses with promotional videos.

“My family thought I would have to move to California if I wanted to get into this business, but I’m so happy that I am able to live in my home town and still do what I love,” Jantzen says.

“Stranger Things” publicist has front-row seat to industry growth in Georgia

Like many people drawn to the film and television industry, Denise Godoy Gregarek felt the itch early.Denise Godoy 2

“I always knew I wanted to work behind the scenes in the film industry,” says Denise, who graduated from the University of Texas with a major in radio, TV and film communications. Post-college, a move to Hawaii helped open the door to her dream. “I worked in Honolulu for Hilton Hotels, and part of my job was to help scout locations and solve problems. I was hooked.”

Today, 23 years later, Denise is a fixture of the Georgia film and television production industry as the unit publicist for “Stranger Things,” the popular Netflix series that premiered its third season this month.

An opportunity as a publicist at the TNT headquarters in Atlanta brought Denise from Hawaii to Georgia, and gave her a front-row seat to a lot of changes in the industry.

“When I started, the business was a difficult one for women, but fortunately I’ve seen a significant shift in the tolerance and opportunity for everyone in the culture,” says Denise, who describes the job of publicist as a behind-the-scenes translator or jungle guide for fans.

Denise has also been in the middle of the phenomenal growth of the industry in Georgia.

denise-godoy-1.jpeg“It’s like a giant arrow pointing upward,” she says. “You can see how companies are deciding to be based here, not just move in temporarily for a production. You can see infrastructure like sound stages being built and local actors getting feature roles.  It’s exciting to watch people who came here as transplants become rooted in the place and its culture.”

She attributes success in large part of the culture of Georgians taking care of each other. “When people ask me what’s on my highlight reel I always talk about the relationships I’ve made with filmmakers and crews, especially the gifted people behind the cameras who make the magic possible.”

Denise believes the future of the industry in Georgia is strong.

“There are wide choices in locations, well-trained crews and abundant studio space. Filmmakers like being here because they prefer having access to people who know what they’re doing. All that adds up to job security for the people who depend on the industry, and for the industry itself.”