SMN: Showtime in Savannah: Film, TV biz may boom

February 29, 2016

By Mary Carr Mayle, as published in Savannah Morning News on February 28

When it comes to enticing moviemakers to Savannah, Stratton Leopold may have said it best.

“A very wise Broadway producer once told me that show business is 10 percent show and 90 percent business,” he said. “You won’t be successful if you don’t take care of the bottom line.

“I don’t think people here really understand how much Savannah’s new film incentives are resonating in Hollywood,” the veteran filmmaker told the group gathered last week for a HunterMaclean Critical Issues Forum focused on the business of film and TV production.

“But I think they’re going to find out.”

Savannah has placed the foundation for what could make its fledgling film and TV production industry a full-fledged pillar of the area’s already diverse economy, Stratton and others in the business emphasized at the Thursday morning breakfast meeting. But to do that, it needs to take its game to the next level.

“Savannah is well-positioned to grow its film and television industry,” said HunterMaclean partner Shawn Kachmar, who moderated a discussion among panelists prominently involved in diverse aspects of the Georgia film economy before an audience of 150 community and business leaders.

“This forum addressed the groundwork that has been done to attract more productions to our area as well as aspects that we as a community need to address to capitalize on that foundation and ensure continued growth.”

Panelists included native Savannahian and well-known movie producer Stratton Leopold; Lee Thomas, deputy commissioner of the Georgia Film, Music & Digital Entertainment office; Trip Tollison, president and CEO of the Savannah Economic Development Authority; Beth Nelson, interim director of the Savannah Film Office: and Bass Hampton, a veteran movie production supervisor and location manager.

That the state of Georgia has many of the qualities Hollywood is looking for is evident in the exponential growth of the industry in Georgia, and particularly Atlanta, Thomas said.

In 2007, the industry had an economic impact on the state of $244 million,” she said. In 2015, that number was $6 billion.

“It’s been a tremendous change for us,” she said. “We’ve seen great growth, a lot of infrastructure growth, with 13 new soundstages in the Atlanta area.”

Sharing the wealth

Now Savannah is poised to experience that kind of explosive growth if it can overcome several challenges.

Determining those challenges and how best to deal with them is something SEDA has been looking at for several years, Tollison said, beginning with a 2011 study that detailed the area’s potential for growth in the film and TV industry.

“Two things that came out of that study were the need for local incentives to add to the state’s tax breaks and an industry expert who could go to bat for Savannah,” he said.

Tackling the “industry expert” recommendation first, the SEDA board in late 2014 retained Hollywood veteran and award-winning moviemaker Ralph Singleton to market the Savannah region as a location for film, television and other productions.

Singleton began selling Savannah to the entertainment industry in January 2015, and SEDA’s decision was quickly validated.

“Of the $204 million in capital investment SEDA brought to the community in 2015, more than a quarter of that — $58 million — was a direct result of movie and television production in Chatham County,” Tollison said.

But don’t take Tollison’s word for it.

“SEDA’s decision to hire Ralph Singleton was nothing short of brilliant,” said Hampton, who served as location manager for the recent Fox Searchlight film “Gifted,” which filmed primarily in Savannah.

“His many years as a producer made him an invaluable asset,” Hampton said. “He arbitrated so many situations — I couldn’t have done the show without him.”

Sweetening the pot

Beginning this year, SEDA has added another lure, funding a three-year, $4.5 million Savannah Entertainment Production Incentive, adding local enticements to the state’s already existing incentive package of tax credits.

The hope is that local incentives, coupled with the state’s already existing perks, will help build a sustainable production industry in Chatham County by increasing both the number of productions filmed here and the number of qualified crew members calling Savannah home.

And that, the panel agreed, is one of Savannah’s two greatest challenges, the other being the need for a soundstage.

“We’re at a critical point in Savannah,” Nelson said. “We can run with this and make it very successful or let it slip away. Crew base is the most critical. We’re hoping some of Wilmington, N.C.’s experienced crew base — people who are out of work since North Carolina allowed its film incentives to expire — will consider coming here to work.”

Nelson also said she is hoping the governor’s Georgia Film Academy, launched last month in three Atlanta area technical colleges, will be in place at Savannah Tech in the near future to train crew members.

“But it’s important to remember that crew involves much more than a person with a camera or a creative type who can write a screenplay,” she said. “We need painters, carpenters, electricians, landscapers — all kinds of trades that don’t need filmmaking experience but just need an understanding of how our industry works.”

She also urged local businesses to list their services on the Savannah Film Commission’s website.

A crew filming a movie or other production is very much like a small town,” Nelson said.

“Any services that a small town would need — a florist, caterer, dry cleaner, a dog-walker — the film industry needs as well.”

If you build it

“The other thing we’re lacking is a soundstage,” she said. “It would make a huge difference here, just as it did in Atlanta, giving production companies an easy space to just move in, a place that has the support they need.”

A soundstage is basically a big warehouse with very high ceilings. It should have at least 15,000 square feet of space, 40-foot ceilings and lots of parking. An outbuilding for constructing props would be a plus, she said.

“Film companies want to come to Savannah — who wouldn’t?” Nelson said. “If we can make headway on those big challenges, we are going to be in great shape.”

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