Entrepreneur puts ideas to work in GA film, TV production after job contract ends

When one door closes, another opens.

That’s the lesson Yvonne Lawson learned, and the path that led her to opportunities in Georgia’s film and television production industry.

Zen Rising

Yvonne spent 30 years working as the chief of staff in a career that catered to high profile clients. She traveled the world working with everyone from A-list celebrities to royal families.  As the main point of contact for her clients, she spent her career managing everything from bodyguards and personal chefs to maids and yoga instructors.

When her last contract ended, Yvonne needed a new plan.

“I was at the pinnacle of my career when it fell flat. Moving to the film industry was a natural next step for me,” says Yvonne.

Yvonne wanted a way to incorporate her 30 years of experience, and also take advantage of all the opportunities available to her in her new home, Atlanta. While working as a private chef for a popular celebrity, the idea for Zen Rising Enterprises came to her. In her observations, it was exactly what the film industry was missing.

Zen Rising Enterprises, a luxury accommodation and boutique style concierge service, is a combination of Yvonne’s years of expertise and observation of what she felt was missing in the film and TV production industry. Much as she did in her previous career, Yvonne and her team handle production needs such as securing luxury accommodation for “A” list clients, hiring security guards, chauffeurs, personal chefs, household staff, personal trainers, event planning, and making reservations.

Zen Rising Enterprises also covers private estates available for rent to the movie productions.

“I’m excited to have the opportunity to build a new career right here in Georgia,” says Yvonne.

For water scenes, TV and film productions call the pool guy

A single drop of water can contain millions of microbes. Most don’t bother humans, but some can be harmful. TV and film productions who shoot water scenes proceed with extra caution.

Dewey Wright, co-owner of Aquatic Environments, takes sanitation of water seriously and uses his decades of experience in the pool and spa business to ensure the safety of actors and crew members who film in water.

The film industry has been a great opportunity for Dewey’s company. He and his team have worked on more than 70 productions since 2010.

“The Georgia film industry has been a great revenue stream for our business,” says Dewey. “We’ve added almost 20 percent to our bottom line. The film work is demanding and challenging and so we’re able to increase our profit margin on those projects.”

Aquatic Environments, a family-owned Jonesboro company started in 1984, got its start in the film business from a former client who was the special effects coordinator on the horror film “The Crazies.” Dewey fixed a pool that wouldn’t hold water and brought in temporary equipment for the shoot.

After that first production came “The Vampire Diaries” during filming in a watery cave system. Dewey helped rig equipment around the underground rivers and stalactites and ensured the water was warm and balanced so the crew wouldn’t get cold and sick. For another scene, Dewey figured out a way to get fake blood in a hot tub that looked real and was sanitary.

The extra work from the film industry has helped create more hours for Aquatic Environment’s employees. The company has increased its workforce, many of them highly skilled technicians to clean and repair equipment. Dewey also brings in vendors to supply specialized equipment and products like large heaters from Atlanta Boiler and special chemicals from Momar, a chemical manufacturer.

And the work doesn’t stop at the productions. Aquatic Environments is getting more clients for its pool work from people working in the film industry who have moved to Atlanta and purchased homes with pools. Dewey’s teams maintain many high-end pools used in productions or rented to people in the industry. Its clientele has grown from 250 weekly customers to 400.

“We thoroughly enjoy working with the amazing special effects people,” says Dewey. “This work is interesting. It’s fun. And it’s profitable.”

Family-run lumber business doubles in growth stimulated by the film industry

Carl E Smith 2During 10 seasons of “The Walking Dead” viewers from across the world have become familiar with the sets and Georgia landscapes featured in the riveting series. From the village of Alexandria to the giant windmill, the sets are massive, detailed and built to last.

That’s where Carl E. Smith & Sons Building Materials, based in Turin near Senoia, found an opportunity. The company caters to the special-order market and since 2011, it has provided hard-to-find custom building materials for “The Walking Dead” and many other productions.

“Since 2012, we’ve doubled in growth, due to film industry accounts,” says Alex McDonald, vice president of Carl E. Smith & Sons Building Materials. “We had about 23 employees and now we have 44 full-time employees, all from Coweta and Fayette counties.”

About 25 percent of the company’s business comes from the film industry. And it’s not just productions. The people who work on them need homes. They need clinics, grocery stores and gas stations. Alex says building the infrastructure is a large part of their business.

Carl E Smith 1The revenue from the film industry has been a great way to diversify Carl E. Smith & Sons’ business and even out what can be a seasonal industry.

“During the economic downturn of the housing bust, other people were shutting their doors, but South Atlanta was experiencing a boom from the film industry that helped us greatly,” says Alex. “It has been a consistent revenue stream to provide materials to housing developments that cater to the film industry’s workforce, like Serenbe and Pinewood Forest.”

Alex says his team has developed a tight-knit relationship with set designers and purchasers. For “The Walking Dead,” Carl E. Smith & Sons provided the bulk of the material for the walled city of Alexandria and worked hand-in-hand with the team that built the 65-feet tall windmill that towers over Senoia.

“The film industry has been great for people in commercial and residential construction. Film people are wonderful to work with and the productions employ a ton of locals,” says Alex. “Look at all of these homes and infrastructure that have been built for the them, all of those projects would not have existed without the influx of the Georgia film industry.”

‘Georgia can be the place of what’s new and what’s next’

Some people have a vision for Georgia’s expanding role in film, television and digital entertainment. Others actively make their vision happen. Paul Jenkins is one of those others.

His work goes beyond film and television to include the creation and production of graphic novels and video games. This is the world of cross-media development filled with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and comic characters like Spider-Man, Batman, the Incredible Hulk and Wolverine. He has been nominated for two BAFTA awards for his video game work, and also wrote and directed “Axanar,” a notable Star Trek film project.

Because Paul believes in Georgia as a growing center of entertainment production, his mantra is simple: “If not here, where? If not me, who?”

Paul is firmly committed to continuing to create these opportunities in Georgia.

Paul Jenkins

“Georgia can be the place of what’s new and what’s next,” says Paul, an industry catalyst who has helped educate Georgia lawmakers on the evolution of digital and interactive technologies. “The Georgia film office is doing a great job attracting larger film projects, but we must build on that by teaching people to move across different creative disciplines.”

Paul brought the same message to the advisory board of the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) and as an instructor at Kennesaw State University.

Born in the West County of the United Kingdom, Jenkins came to the United States in 1987 as an instructor in music and drama for learning-disabled children. He now lives in rural Forsyth County.

He started his company, META Studios, in 2014. In Greek, “meta” signifies a change or alteration, but Jenkins used the word to stand for Media Education Technology Advancement.

“My objective is to move things forward for the community we live in, to provide opportunities to younger people,” he says. “I’m encouraging people who have been told they can’t do something by showing them how they can.”

For example, Paul is currently developing a YouTube channel that allows people to “look behind the curtain” to learn how products are made.

Paul has seen the talent and infrastructure develop in Georgia, and he recognizes that demand for talent is expanding faster than the supply. That growing demand reinforces his mission to pursue the development of professional excellence in local talent.

“I’ve watched the quality of the crews in Georgia get better through a constant pursuit of excellence,” he says.

Georgian happy to work in the film industry, but even happier to do it so close to home.

If you Google search “stage manager,” the Internet will tell you it’s the person responsible for the lighting and other technical arrangements for a stage play. For Sean Watkins, the definition is a little different. Sort of.

As stage manager at Eagle Rock Studios Atlanta, “lighting and other technical arrangements” is barely the tip of the iceberg of Sean’s job.

“We have 11 acres of roofs on our property and my job is to make sure that every single thing is set up and running smoothly underneath them,” he says.

It’s a dream job for Sean, who grew up in Roswell and is currently living in Tucker with his wife and daughter.

The studio is 470,000 sq. ft., with four stages totaling more than 119,000 sq. ft., and well over 30,000 sq. ft. in office space. It’s easy to get lost in the day, but Sean has his routine down. Early mornings reviewing call sheets. Tracking personnel and permits for specific shows. Making sure everyone has what they need and be ready to adjust on the fly.

Each show is unique and often times requires something a little off the wall, through the roof, or in some cases under the floor. “We always try to say yes,” Sean says. “Even if it means reconstructing one of our stages, we will get it done.”

That was the case for a recent production that needed an exterior shot of a large staircase. They had to get the angle right, and since the roof wasn’t high enough, they had to dig a pit around the staircase in the middle of the stage. It was quite an effort coordinating the speedy construction, but that comes with the territory. (If you’re wondering where you may have seen that spectacular staircase shot, you haven’t. It never even made the final cut. Go figure.)

While the day-to-day work can be tedious, it was always a goal of Sean’s to work in the entertainment industry. From dabbling in stand-up comedy in college at UGA to serving tables and writing on the side, Sean was looking for a way in. Fortunately, he teamed up with a friend with directing experience and they were able to get some traction with Turner’s online comedy network “Super Deluxe” and some other gigs with Adult Swim. But after a writer’s strike and the recession, nothing really panned out.

Looking for a new way to provide for himself, Sean took a job with a friend selling janitorial services and paper products, and that provided the connections he needed. With one client being EUE/Screen Gems Studios, Sean believed that more big studios would follow. And he was right — Sean began to serve more Atlanta-based studios, and his connections with Georgia’s film and TV production industry grew.

Those connections paid off — when the job for stage manager at Eagle Rock Studios Atlanta became available, Sean tapped his connections for an interview.

He got the job, and he hasn’t looked back.

“Being able to stay in Atlanta and be a part of the industry I’ve always loved is a gigantic perk,” Sean says. “I wouldn’t be able to do that without the tax incentives.”

Legislative Resolutions Honor Georgians Working in State’s Film/TV Industry

Studio Alliance logo _long_ (1)Honor timed with #WeAreGaFilm, a book highlighting stories about Georgians

ATLANTA (Monday, Feb. 24, 2020) — The Georgia General Assembly today issued Resolutions praising Georgians working in the state’s film and television industry, an honor that marks the release of a new book #WeAreGaFilm.

Produced by The Georgia Studio & Infrastructure Alliance (GSIA), which represents local investment in Georgia’s film and television production industry, the book #WeAreGaFilm includes dozens of stories about Georgians across the state who support the industry through jobs ranging from catering and transportation to location management and special effects.

Senate Resolution 755 and House Resolution 1193 recognize “the tens of thousands of hard-working citizens in the State of Georgia’s film and television industry” and the leadership role of GSIA in supporting Georgians who work in the industry.

#WeAreGaFilm includes 60 stories, with regional spotlights on Barnesville, Covington, Metro Atlanta, Rome and Savannah. Georgians from towns like Sharpsburg, Thomasville and Lawrenceville are featured in the book, which emphasizes the real-person impact the industry has on the state.

“We live here, we work here, our families are growing up here,” says Beth Talbert, head of the GSIA and Vice President of Studio Operations, Eagle Rock Studios Atlanta. “The Alliance has made it a priority to tell the stories of Georgians working in the film and television industry, and building lives and families around these careers. We’re proud to share a collection of these stories in our book, #WeAreGaFilm.”

Founded in 2014, GSIA is anchored by a core group of studios that includes Atlanta Filmworks, Eagle Rock Studios, EUE/Screen Gems Studios, Mailing Avenue Stageworks, and Triple Horse Studios. Infrastructure members — companies that provide support services to production studios and their clients — include Cofer Bros., Cinelease, Crafty Apes, Enterprise Entertainment and Production Rentals, Herc Entertainment Rentals, Lightnin’ Production Rentals, Moonshine Post-Production, PC&E, and Sim Digital Inc.

Members of GSIA serve the film and television industry in a variety of ways, including providing studio space, camera equipment, visual effects and post-production services, HVAC, power equipment, truck and car rentals and building materials — and all have invested in the long-term success of the state’s growing production business.

About #WeAreGaFilm: The book is sponsored by Fulton Films, The MBS Group, Explore Gwinnett, IATSE 479, Newton/Covington Economic Development, Entertainment Partners, City National Bank, Panavision, and Film Rockdale. The book was produced by Georgia Studio & Infrastructure Alliance, with support from Cindy Miller Communications and Canterbury Press.

About Georgia Studio & Infrastructure Alliance: GSIA is a unified voice representing studios and other companies essential to the industry’s infrastructure to the Georgia General Assembly, the Georgia Department of Economic Development, and any other state entities dealing with the regulation of the entertainment industry. A key initiative of the organizations is its on-going sharing of stories about Georgians building careers and changing their lives through employment and opportunity in the state’s film and television industry. Read those stories on its blog page and Facebook page.

Georgia Tech grads find their niche

Christmas_2019Georgia’s film and TV production industry is the benefactor of a Georgia Tech math student’s epiphany that he really didn’t like doing calculus after all.

“When I realized I needed a new direction, I thought about what I loved to do,” says Ben Lambeth, co-owner of Cinder Lighting & Grip. “I turned to a hobby of mine –– filmmaking.”

So long math department, hello business major.

Active in the film club at Georgia Tech, Ben met Gabe Pippas, an engineering major also drifting toward film. They owned their own equipment to do their film projects, but discovered people wanted to rent it for their own work.

IMG_6381“That was our first step to becoming a business,” says Ben. “We worked for six months before we came up with the name Cinder. Our clients were those we met at Tech and friends we made as freelancers. Along the way we also met a lot of producers who needed our equipment.”

“Within a few months they were bringing on a staff to help with the workload, and rented a warehouse to store their expanding inventory”

By 2014, the industry starting to take off in Georgia, and the company grew as well. It now has 10 employees and has supplied equipment for television series like “Love and Hip Hop Atlanta,” “Your Worst Nightmare” and “Dead Silent.” The bulk of the company’s rentals are for commercials and music videos.

Although most productions are months or years in the planning, a producer’s need for extra equipment can pop up overnight. “We’re very used to day-before or day-of orders,” says Ben. “We react as we go.”

The growth of the industry has been a big boost to Ben and Gabe.

IMG_0262“While we’re in competition with everyone else renting lighting equipment, the market is big enough to support many companies,” Ben says. “Everyone is growing and there’s plenty of work to go around.”

Although the movie and television production is spread across the state, most of the major suppliers of equipment are concentrated in Metro Atlanta. Because Cinder will pack all the equipment in a truck and let the production crews drive it to their own locations, statewide distribution is simplified.

Ben and Gabe have kept up their own work as independent filmmakers and share a keen drive to help other independents by providing affordable ways to rent equipment.

“We want to encourage more locally produced content,” Ben says. “We want to encourage more Georgia-based production, not just filming.”

Searching for a creative outlet, law student switches to a career as a set decorator

How does a creative mind trapped in law school escape? For Jess Royal, it was taking a huge leap of faith in herself and working hard to break into the burgeoning Georgia film industry in 2008.

Jess says she learned about set decoration from a behind-the-scenes show about the film “Revolutionary Road.”

“The set decorator described how she dressed out the room so that every item would be from the correct period and in character, even if it would go unseen in a drawer,” says Jess. “As a history freak, I found it absolutely fascinating. I knew right then I wanted to be a set decorator and I felt so lucky to live in Georgia where it might be possible.”

Now Jess is able to let her creative mind free as the set decorator responsible for nailing the peak ‘80s vibe on the Netflix series “Stranger Things.”

One of the breakout stars on Netflix’s “Stranger Things: Season 3” wasn’t a person. It was a place: Starcourt Mall. Fans were swooning over the perfectly retro set complete with vintage clothing, signs and furniture.

The set was built around the unused food court of the Gwinnett Place Mall in Duluth. In order to transform the mall’s modern décor, Jess used her skills as a historian, sleuth, and artist. She found photos of the mall from its opening in 1984 and researched photos of other malls to make the set decorations correct for the period.

In “Stranger Things,” Eleven and Max’s montage makeover and shopping spree was a pivotal scene. The original script called for the girls to shop in a large department store, but logistics forced Jess to suggest The Gap instead. And it worked perfectly. Jess used a Gap catalog from 1985 to get the look right. She hunted for vintage Gap clothing and supplemented with new clothing she found on Amazon to fill up the store.

While at the hotel her family owns in Madison, Jess ran into a production designer on “Halloween II.” From that chance encounter, Jess started her film and TV production career as a location scout for the show, helping to procure odd items like large cable spools from Georgia Power.

Her next gig was a location scout for the “Vampire Diaries” TV series filmed in Covington, GA, where she leaned on her relationships with locals to get the show what it needed.

“Ring of Fire” was her first opportunity as a set decorator — a job that tested her creativity and her dedication to achieving her goals. The movie follows June Carter’s life from the 1920s to the 2000s. For Jess, it was a dream come true because she got to decorate homes, recording studios and radio stations in every decade, what she calls “a feast for period design.”

“My jam is Americana. At estate sales I collect period pieces for future productions and they’re also a great place for research, to see what people keep and what’s important to them,” says Jess. “It makes me feel good to give people’s stuff a second life on film.”

Macon native hooked on production career

Catina Jones 2 (1)Catina Jones wanted to be a television newscaster in the 1990s when she was enrolled in Clark Atlanta’s radio, film and journalism program. Then A.B. Cooper of the Georgia Film Office came to a class to talk about making films.

“The industry then was only a glimpse of what it is now,” Catina says. “But I was hooked by Cooper’s enthusiasm. I wanted to be a part of making movies.”

The path forward for the native of Macon and graduate of Mary Persons High School in Forsyth wasn’t clear, so she made her own way. “I was just annoying and aggressive about meeting people and learning new things because I desperately wanted to get experience, to learn more about the business and the players,” she says. And she hasn’t stopped learning.

Her “next big thing” was during the Olympics when she worked on the crew videotaping the boxing at the Georgia Tech venue. That experience helped prepare her for a seven-year run making music videos.

Catine Jones 1What followed was her first feature film experience in 2002 working on “Drumline.” Two principal bands appeared in that film –– the Southwest DeKalb High School Band and the Clark Atlanta Band. Catina’s job was to coordinate the activities of both, making sure they were where they needed to be doing what the producers needed them to do. It was her first experience in a scripted production.

By 2007 Catina was studying film production at UCLA — and getting calls from Georgia as the state’s film industry was building momentum and attracting production talent to the state. She came back to work as a production coordinator and supervisor for various studios and independent companies. Her “annoying and aggressive” drive for experience was paying off in her ability to fashion a make-it-yourself career.

“I love what I do helping producers manage everything from costumes and props to tracking the spending,” says Catina. “I learn something new on every single show.”

Film/TV production created opportunity across the state in 2019

As we look ahead to 2020, take a minute and reflect on the impact film TV production has on those of us working in the industry:

  • The Georgia Department of Economic Development reports that the film industry had a $9.5 billion impact on the state’s economy in 2018, the latest figures available.
  • The Motion Picture Association of America reports that the motion picture and television industry is responsible for more than 92,000 jobs in Georgia.
  • And, according to MPAA, that’s $4.6 billion in wages generated.
Film Overview 2019

Top: Ben Patel, Samone Lett; Bottom: Ariel Kaplan, Allen Cheney

That’s great news around the state, where 29 shows are currently in production.


The industry creates jobs in Madison, where entrepreneur Ben Patel helps support his community and the film/TV industry through his transportation company B.I. Production Works.

“We’re bringing dreams to families who couldn’t ever envision this type of success,” says Ben, 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.”

Across metro Atlanta, Georgians like prop master Ariel Kaplan are building careers in the industry — and helping small businesses profit, too.

“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.”

Allen Cheney is leading industry influencers to his hometown of Thomasville, and the film “Tiger Rising,” starring Queen Latifah, Dennis Quaid and Katherine McPhee, is expected to have an economic impact of more than $1 million in the community.

Across the state, the future looks bright.

“The tremendous opportunities and people here make me truly feel that I’ve come home,” says Samone Lett, who relocated to Georgia to build Wishful Concepts, a catering and event-management business. “I was just overwhelmed by the warm and helpful reception I got here.”