‘Stranger Things’ production brings new life to suburban mall built in the 1980s

Gwinnett Place Mall opened in the 1980s, the days of big hair, “Back to the Future” and mega-mall culture. But since its heyday, the shopping center has seen changing economic trends that left much of it permanently closed.Screen Shot 2018-07-26 at 2.51.18 PM

Now it’s getting an economic boost from a TV phenomenon set back in the ’80s. Netflix’s “Stranger Things” has been filming its third season there all summer.

That has meant plenty of work for extras willing to undergo an ’80s hair and style transformation. More importantly, it has brought financial support for the mall.

Georgia’s multibillion-dollar filming boom has been great for businesses and governments in rural communities as well as the state’s bigger cities. With examples like this mall makeover, it’s also providing new uses, and revenue, for places that have drifted out of the spotlight.

In this case, it’s unknown exactly how much money is being generated. The mall’s owners have declined to discuss details of the production, and Gwinnett County is trying to assess the broader impact.

“Stranger Things” is at least the third production to use the mall in recent years, since Georgia began its tax incentive program for film and TV productions. “I, Tonya” and “Den of Thieves” with Gerard Butler filmed there, as well. Gwinnett has issued more than 100 filming permits throughout the county in recent years, said Lisa Anders, executive director of Explore Gwinnett.

Screen Shot 2018-07-26 at 2.50.44 PMMuch of the mall remains empty. The lack of use adds to its attractiveness for productions, along with it being an indoor, controllable space, Anders said.

The “Stranger Things” crew started moving into the mall around April, and shooting has been going on since June.

The production has taken up a wing of the mall that is permanently empty, so no businesses have been displaced. The crew has taken it back in time, with signs identifying Gwinnett Place as Starcourt Mall. Inside are ’80s era storefronts for Radio Shack, The Gap, Chess King, Waldenbooks and more. (Remember Spencer’s Gifts?)

The cinema has a Coming Soon poster for “Back to the Future,” which came out in the summer of 1985, giving a knowing ironic wink to the “Stranger Things” series. It is set in a fictional Midwestern town in the 1980s where a group of ’tween pals battle supernatural monsters.


Film Industry calls, and a business moves to Georgia

Chef Robert Smith recalls the “aha!” moment he had just a few years ago.

He was wrapping up a long, grueling shoot of the “Baywatch” movie in Savannah – exhausted and missing his wife and son back in New York, where the family was based. After 18 months of constant catering work on Georgia film and TV sets, Smith was tired of shuttling back and forth.

ChefRobSmithSo, he proposed the family move here. They settled in Johns Creek two years ago, and his business is booming: Catering by Chef Rob, based in Doraville.

“As soon as I put up my placard, it’s been through the roof, insanely busy,” Smith says.

He’d been in the business for years, with top-tier titles on his lengthy resume, like “The Americans” and “Blue Bloods.” Plus, he cooks privately for star performers and athletes.

By bringing his business here, Smith created four permanent jobs for Georgians, and hopes to double that by the end of 2018. This year, he expects to triple his revenue from last year.

Plus, he says, productions mean jobs for a half-dozen more people through a months-long shoot. The trickle effect is enormous – in Georgia, film and TV production generates some $10 billion in revenue.

That’s because of a lucrative tax cut the state provides, and losing that would be devastating to countless businesses, Smith says. “We’ve already seen it in other states. We always say there’s a reason everything’s on wheels. It’s not a joke. They’ll just roll out of town.”

Georgians are learning all kinds of new trades and building careers for themselves, he has found.

“If you work hard in this business, you’ll always find work,” Smith says. “If you’re out there and you’re busting it every day, you’re going to go from job to job to job.”

He does all the cooking, even when feeding several hundred people on a set. Smith makes healthy food, with lunch buffets that include salads, vegan and vegetarian choices, chicken and fish, plus a nice spread of desserts.

“And of course, sweet tea,” he says. “I’ve learned you can’t have an event here in Georgia without sweet tea.”

With premiere approaching, Barnesville is still celebrating HBO’s ‘Sharp Objects’


It was Christmas in July last year for the town of Barnesville, Georgia.

Candy StoreThat’s when A-list actress Amy Adams and dozens of crewmembers came to film the HBO series “Sharp Objects,” which premieres this Sunday, July 8.

“The crew went up and down the streets and bought whatever they needed, so everybody in town was happy with that,” said Kathy Oxford, executive director of the Barnesville-Lamar County Industrial Development Authority. “It’s money in the bank – a nice, clean industry.”

The production meant millions for the state, she said, although figures haven’t been tabulated for just the local impact. The county’s sales tax revenue that month, though, was 10 percent higher than in the previous July, usually a slow month in the mid-Georgia town just south of metro Atlanta.

The production rented multiple spaces and paid local folks as extras. Buildings, signs, windows and storefronts downtown got a Hollywood makeover to serve as the fictional location of Wind Gap.

Muralist Andrew Henry got a lot of work out of it. Oxford said Barnesville kept one of the wall paintings with Wind Gap on it.

“We knew we needed a selfie spot,” she said.

Also, antiques shops, local gas stations, stores, restaurants and more saw boosts to their bottom lines.

At least one of those, The Pizzeria and Such, will throw a viewing party Sunday to see Barnesville’s debut as Wind Gap.

“This was our first time being involved in something like this,” Oxford said. “It was a really good experience.”

Town sees a boost in spending over months-long construction of sets

WayneDasherGlennvilleWhat happens when about 100 movie workers spend four or five months in a town with fewer than 4,000 people?

For one thing, the Hollywood visitors spend a lot of money.

That’s what happened earlier this year, when crewmembers descended upon Glennville, GA, according to Wayne Dasher, chairman of the Tattnall County Development Authority, about an hour west of Savannah.

The workers on the upcoming Will Smith movie “Gemini Man” spent weeks building structures downtown, putting new facades on others, turning a bank into and school, and more.

“They did quite a bit of stuff,” Dasher said. “They spent thousands of dollars at stores, restaurants and our two hotels.”

Downtown, the production team rented more spaces for storage, and one of Dasher’s vacant buildings for the location office.

Filming this spring took about a week. And then the movie crew put everything back the way it was.

With at least one exception.

Dasher left the set dressing on one of his downtown locations, just in case the movie becomes a blockbuster.

“People might want to come stand in front of this and have their picture made,” he said.

IndieGrip helps build a niche market in ‘the space in between’

With movie and TV locations more and more commonly used in Atlanta and Savannah, a company in Augusta is finding a niche in the space between. It’s been the site of numerous small films, and Clint Eastwood is currently shooting “The Mule” there.

terrenceAll that activity has been great for Terrence Williams, an Augusta native who had been working on theater and local public access TV until about three years ago.

“Somebody said I was doing a good job and asked if I’d like to try my hand at movies,” said Williams, now manager and one of three full-time employees at IndieGrip. He said the company, which provides equipment and crew to productions, has tripled its business. “They gave me the opportunity to try my hand on that, and it went from there.”

That first movie was called “The Reason,” with Louis Gossett Jr. IndieGrip has supported productions including “Detroit Crossing” and “Hollywood Dirt.”  Williams, who works as a key grip arranging equipment and lighting on sets, said the company also works on TV commercials and music videos, in addition to independent films.

TerrenceWilliams on setA 30 percent tax cut from the state means that film and TV productions generate about $9.5 billion annually in Georgia’s economy. The rolling effect of each production generations thousands of dollars in the local economy, with working visitors spending money in hotels, restaurants and stores.

“If we were to lose that tax credit, like they have in other states, that would put a damper on things,” Williams said. “We’re actually getting business from Louisiana and North Carolina.”

Williams loves the work and its challenges.

“It’s constantly changing every day,” he said. “Day to day, hour to hour.”

HBO filming brings crowds, business to downtown Macon

MaconStreetIt was a busy day at the Greek Corner Deli in downtown Macon.

An HBO filming crew was filming a pilot on Second Street and blocked off a good portion of it. But onlookers gathered to watch the action, as well as the production’s crew members, had no trouble pouring into the deli at the corner of Cherry Street.

“It was a good bit more than we’ve been doing,” said Rachel Duehring, who works in the deli, about the weeklong shoot. “It has increased the numbers we’ve done. It’s good for Macon, good for business, especially. It brings a lot of attention to the area.”

It’s too early to tabulate how much money the filming of the show — codenamed “Brooklyn” but reportedly an adaptation of the “Watchmen” graphic novel and movie — brought to town. Productions can generate hundreds of thousands of dollars for restaurants, hotels and other businesses.

“It definitely lends a huge economic boost to independent restaurants and shops,” said Priscilla Esser of the Macon Film Commission.


Already, producers had spent $26,000 on permits, said Chris Floore of Macon Bibb County government affairs.

Macon has been a draw for other film and TV shows in recent years, including the Oscar-winning “I, Tonya,” at the local ice skating arena. In November 2014, 10 days of “The 5th Wave” filming brought in about $500,000. And the historic baseball stadium is a frequent draw, having hosted “42,” “Trouble with the Curve” and the series “Brockmire.”

That site recently got a $2.5 million makeover and a new team, The Macon Bacon. The mascot is named Kevin. His number is 6 degrees.

Get it? Hollywood humor on display.

“People are starting to get used to filming around town, but as you can see, it’s still something special,” Floore said in front of the Greek Corner Deli motioning to the crowds.

And who knows? If the pilot gets picked up as a series, it could lead to more filming in Macon on an ongoing basis — like the years-long boom generated in Covington by “The Vampire Diaries.”

“It would be exciting to have something regular,” Floore said.

Unlikely businesses benefit from film impact

Holy Smokes BBQ 1With billions of dollars of economic impact, Georgia’s film industry isn’t a trickle-down effect, it’s a tidal wave.

Around the state, Georgia businesses have felt the film industry’s $9.5 billion economic impact. It’s seeped into all corners of the state and into some unlikely businesses.

Take Dvine Systems GA, for example. It’s a mental health therapy practice located on McDonough’s town square that saw an increase in walk in traffic during the filming of William H. Macy’s movie, “Krystal.”

According to Yaunte Dvine, practice administrator, people from the community who came to watch filming dropped in to see what kind of services Dvine Systems GA offers.

“Since we’re on the square, we keep our services discreet, so people feel comfortable coming to us,” says Yaunte. “With more foot traffic during filming, we were able to spread information about our services and got new patients out of it.”

Holy Smokes BBQ 2Another industry that’s seeing benefits from film productions are small, family-owned restaurants. Holy Smoke BBQ & More, also located on McDonough’s square, doubled its sales during the filming of “Krystal.”

At first, owners Michele and Roger White were concerned that filming in McDonough’s square would hurt their growing business.

“But it turned out to be a blessing,” says Michelle, adding that the restaurant benefited from the crowds hoping to catch a glimpse of the filming and also fed some of the production staff. “We want to thank the Georgia filming industry for selecting small towns like McDonough for their locations. Small mom and pop businesses can actually benefit from the crowds who stop by to see what’s going on.”

Production Sound Mixer makes move to Savannah, experiences immediate impact on career

The move from small-budget films to big-screen productions made the decision to move to Georgia an easy one for Production Sound Mixer Kevin Strahm.

“Once I got here it was much easier to network in the industry,” says Strahm, “Before I knew it I was working on multi-million-dollar films.”TES_0006_master

That’s something he says would have never been possible if he didn’t make his way to Savannah.

You can trace Kevin’s path to the film industry to the Philippines, where his family lived while his parents worked as missionary teachers. While taking a short daytrip with his family, they stumbled upon the set of the 1986 Oscar-winning war movie, “Platoon.”

Watching the action on set that day would eventually inspire Kevin to work in the film industry on the other side of the world.

There were many stops along the way. For the better part of a decade, Kevin lived in Chicago working for Marriott International. His work there included handling audio and visuals for hotel meetings, but on his own time he played guitar and learned more about audio recording. Beyond the technical training he received there, Kevin credits the social skills obtained on the job with getting him where he is now.

From Chicago, Kevin made his way to Charlotte, NC, where he continued to develop his skills until he got his first opportunity. There he worked on small budget films, usually ones that would go straight to video. But that was all soon to change.

After a brief stop to work in Augusta, GA, Kevin finally found himself in Savannah working on exciting projects, such as “Blood Money” featuring John Cusack.

Work for a Production Sound Mixer means working continuously through hot or cold weather, bugs, rain, enduring it all until the movie wraps.

27650355_10156040974624254_697148578_o“To see it all come together on the big screen makes it so cool to be a part of this process,” Kevin says. “I sometimes can’t believe I get paid to do this.”

Kevin also works on personal documentary and storytelling projects that are important to him. Working with the Christian organization Samaritan’s Purse, Kevin has travelled around the world helping communities in need. Currently he is working on a documentary on the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey in Houston.

What next for Kevin?

“I have dreams of starting my own business, helping put to work men and women living in Georgia,” Kevin says. “We all encourage each other to hire local, and I want to continue to do that.”

Savannah resident finds job stability in Georgia film industry

Laura Bryant 1Laura Bryant spent a lot of time searching for a satisfying career. It wasn’t for a lack of trying to find her niche. She worked as an autopsy assistant, Kirby vacuum cleaner sales person, yacht assistant, hotel sales person, just to name a few stabs at stability and satisfaction.

“I worked a lot of whacky jobs and always counted down the minutes until my shift was over,” says Laura, a native of Savannah.

And then came a small job that would eventually lead to big opportunity.

A family friend worked at the Savannah Area Chamber of Commerce and needed someone to scout locations for a Saks Fifth Avenue photo shoot. Laura didn’t think she was qualified but was encouraged to take the job. She did, and she took to location scouting like a duck to water.

“They wanted a rustic environment with horses and a river,” says Laura. “I know Savannah like the back of my hand. I knew exactly where to get that for them. After working 14 hours a day for 10 days, I couldn’t get enough of it. I knew I found my career path.”

At first, Laura worked on commercials, photo shoots and a small-budget movie. She got her next big break from a connection her sister made renting a car to the location manager for “Forrest Gump.”

Working on “Forrest Gump” was a game-changer for Laura. She kept her mouth shut and her eyes and ears open. On set she learned that everything on a production has a purpose. Twenty-four years later, she still loves location management and feels fortunate to find steady work in the Georgia film industry. In the early 2000s productions slowed down but after the tax credit incentives were introduced, the number of productions skyrocketed. So much so that she now has to turn jobs down.

She’s also preparing the next generation of location managers to fill those jobs, and watches for opportunities to add new talent to her team.

“Location assistant Sara Alread was a God-send. She just got it right off the bat,” says Laura. “She was like me when I started out. She saw what was needed, not just verbally but from their eyes and expression. You can’t teach that.”

Laura Bryant 3Location managers do more than scout the perfect site. With the input of the production designer and producer, they break down the scenes to understand the needs of each. Depending on the logistics of the scene — whether it’s a car crash, rain, or special effects — the location manager ensures the police and fire department are involved, a water hydrant is on location and whatever else is necessary to make the production run smoothly. They take a laundry list of issues into consideration, from noisy trains to leaves falling off trees.

Another aspect of location management that suits Laura well is giving back to the local economy. She connects local businesses to the film industry. She hires vendors of all sorts, from tent companies to bathroom rentals.

While filming “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water,” Laura hired a local pressure washer to clean nine blocks of sidewalk. When your star is only seven inches tall, a piece of gum looks like a boulder. Laura knew just the guy to hire to clean all of the debris off the sidewalk.

“These local vendors bend over backward for our productions,” says Laura. “We’ve built these wonderful relationships that are mutually beneficial. We’re thankful for each other.”

What’s your story?

Nurse. Construction Worker. Caterer. Throughout the state, real Georgians are benefiting from real jobs in the film industry.

There are so many examples of how the film industry is greatly impacting the people of Georgia. There’s Rome nurse Erika Crawford Gordon, who helped fund her daughter’s education at the University of Georgia as a baby nurse on film and TV sets. Fayetteville’s Rusty Brown took his trash and recycling business from a one-man operation to an enterprise that has worked with more than 400 productions. And Mary Louise Freeman ditched her struggling career as a Realtor for a job as a locations manager.

More than 92,000 Georgians work in jobs connected to the film industry.

“It allows my family to make decisions we didn’t know would be available to us,” says Mike Neal of Savannah, who turned his love of the water into a job as a marine coordinator for movies like “Gemini Man.”

Catering is one example of flourishing businesses. For example, Joy Merle moved her catering company from her Mom’s kitchen table to a $1 million enterprise with business from Georgia’s film industry.  Box office hit Baby Driver spent more than $730,000 on local catering while filming around the state. Jumanji spent more than $1.4 million on catering.

On any given week, there are nearly 70 productions going on around the state.

“One day I was a fan of ‘The Walking Dead,’ and the next month I was a locations assistant on set,” says Darius Tucker of McDonough, a graduate of the Georgia Film Academy.  “I’m really happy and excited that Georgia is the new hub for film. They’re hiring more and more Georgians on these productions. It gives me hope.”

So, what’s your story? We’re here to tell the stories of real Georgians around the state whose lives are greatly being impacted by the film industry. If you or someone you know has a story to tell, email us at GAStudioAlliance@gmail.com or www.facebook.com/GAstudioalliance/.