Hollywood has Georgia on its mind.
After beefing up its film incentive program in 2008, Georgia has emerged among the top five states in the country for film production, attracting such movies as the Academy Award-winning "The Blind Side," the Woody Harrelson horror flick "Zombieland" and the fifth installment of Universal's "Fast & Furious" franchise.
The latest sign of the state's expanding film business: a sprawling 30-acre studio complex that has opened in the former Lakewood Fairgrounds site near downtown Atlanta. The fairgrounds, owned by the city of Atlanta and until recently used as a venue for a flea market, are a local landmark and already a popular filming site, home for such movies as Burt Reynolds' 1977 trucker film "Smokey and the Bandit."
EUE/Screen Gems, a New York City company that also operates studios in Manhattan and Wilmington, N.C., said last week that it would invest $6 million to convert the fairgrounds and its Spanish colonial-style exhibition halls into Georgia's biggest studio. Although it was formerly owned by Columbia Pictures, the company is not related to the Screen Gems production label now owned by Sony Pictures.
The company plans to build a 37,500-square-foot soundstage, to open next year, and refurbish four other buildings on the property that date to the turn of the last century. When the project is completed in March 2011, the complex will encompass more than 100,000 square feet of sound stages and office space, as well as a set construction shop and lighting and grip facilities.
"Hollywood has been working in the state in the last couple of years in a very significant way, but Georgia has a real dearth of viable facilities," said Chris Cooney, chief operating officer for EUE/Screen Gems. The nearest large-scale studio to Atlanta is RiverWood Studios, about 45 minutes outside the city, which is operated by Raleigh Studios of Hollywood.
Cooney said producers, directors and studios asked the company to open a facility in Atlanta, given its central location and the allure of the state's film tax credit, one of the highest in the nation. Among the projects expected to shoot at the Lakewood facility is an adaptation of the Broadway play "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf" from Atlanta-based filmmaker Tyler Perry.
Under the program, producers can receive a credit equivalent to 30% of their in-state production expenses, which they can apply toward any tax liability they have with the state. Alternately, producers can sell the credit to a third party and pocket the cash, thus lowering production expenses. The credit is broad, applying not only to films and TV shows but also commercials, music videos, video game development and animation.
Since the credit was increased to 30% from 20% in 2008, production has flooded into the state. Film and TV production spending tripled to $770 million in 2009, according to the Georgia Film Office. In the last two years, 26 movies have been shot in the state.
"For the last two years we've had a really, really good run,'' said Bill Thompson, deputy commissioner in the Georgia Film Office.
He said the new studio would make the state even more attractive to filmmakers. "We've always known that one of our deficiencies was that we didn't have enough studio space. It couldn't come at a more perfect time."