Georgia’s TV and Film Industry Now Brings in $7 Billion a Year, Fueled by Smart Incentives

And tourists are flocking to the land of The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead helped put Atlanta on the map as a TV destination in 2010.

Hollywood is still the center of the film and TV universe—for now—but over the past few years, Atlanta’s thriving entertainment industry has been rapidly giving it a run for its money.

In the past year alone, big-ticket films like Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2, The Fate of the Furious, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Hidden Figures, Marvel’s Black Panther and Pitch Perfect 3 filmed in and around Atlanta.

The list of TV productions based there is also impressive: The Walking Dead, Stranger Things, 24: Legacy, FX’s breakout hit Atlanta, The Vampire Diaries and MacGyver—plus all of Tyler Perry’s series for OWN and TLC call the Atlanta area home. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg: the full list of film and TV productions currently filming in Georgia can be found here.

According to Georgia’s Film, Music & Digital Entertainment Office, 245 film and TV productions were shot in Georgia during fiscal year 2016 (between July 1, 2015 and June 30, 2016). Those productions spent $2.02 billion during that time and generated an economic impact of $7.2 billion. (Much of the state’s production is located in and around Atlanta.)

That’s double from just three years earlier, in fiscal year 2013, when 142 movies and TV projects were filmed in the state, spending $933.9 million with an economic impact of $3.3 billion. (A decade earlier, in fiscal year 2007, the total value of all 48 production budgets was just $93.1 million, which helped generate an economic impact of $241.5 million.) Georgia’s film and TV industry is now third in the nation, behind only California and New York.

Netflix's Stranger Things took place in Indiana but was filmed in Georgia.

Thanks to incentives, ‘every studio is booked’

While Atlanta residents might be excited about the influx of big movie stars in their town, its production boom “is about the 1,000 people that are behind that actor. It’s the hotel rooms that get booked out for months. It’s the caterers. Nobody can get studio space, because every studio is booked,” said Matt Thompson, executive producer of the animated series Archer (which moved from FX to FXX for Season 8), who has been Atlanta-based since 2001.

According to the Motion Picture Association of America, the film and television industry is responsible for more than 85,300 jobs and nearly $4.2 billion in total wages in Georgia, including indirect jobs and wages. More than 25,700 people are directly employed by the film and TV industry in Georgia, and there are more than 2,700 industry-related businesses in the state.

Georgia “has crew depth, the infrastructure of the film office and the support of the government. When I go to Georgia, it’s something I know we’re going to be able to get there, which doesn’t always happen every place else,” said Stefan Reinhardt, co-head of AMC Studios, which will film four productions in the Atlanta area this year, including The Walking Dead and Halt and Catch Fire.

Georgia’s film and TV industry is now third in the nation, behind only California and New York.

While industry execs and producers credit the area’s geographic flexibility (“Georgia has a lot of different looks and feels. You can see anywhere from parts of New Jersey to parts of L.A.,” said Reinhardt), a climate that supports year-round shooting and travel ease via Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, that’s not the main reason that Atlanta has become one of the world’s fastest growing TV and film destinations.

Instead, the surge in Atlanta production has primarily to do with—what else?—the bottom line. Georgia’s robust incentive program offers up to a 30 percent tax credit for all film and TV productions shot in the state: 20 percent, plus an additional 10 percent for productions that embed the Georgia logo in their program or participate in other promotional marketing for the state.

“It starts at the governor’s level at any state. You can look at North Carolina and say, their governor changed and with it went the tax program,” said Jim Sharp, evp of production, 20th Century Fox Television, which films three series and a medical pilot in Atlanta. (Former Gov. Sonny Perdue was in office when Georgia’s incentives were first passed in 2005, and Gov. Nathan Deal succeeded him in 2011).

After a rocky start to its production incentives in 2005—credits were offered on a tiered system that was “pretty convoluted and too hard for producers to budget for,” said Lee Thomas, deputy commissioner of the Georgia Film, Music & Digital Entertainment Office‚ the program was revised in 2008 with the current system, which was tightened up again in 2012.

After featuring Atlanta in Season 1, Walking Dead's production team set up shop in nearby Senoia.

And companies have flocked to take advantage of those money-saving opportunities. Since 2010, 16 film and TV studio facilities announced plans to locate or expand in Georgia, led by Pinewood Studios, which opened its first U.S. studio in 2014 and is already expanding its massive space there.

Those new soundstages, which circle Atlanta, have enabled the state to attract bigger productions, like the last three Hunger Games films (the state didn’t have the space to accommodate the first movie). “Now, Marvel has set up shop here, and we’ve seen one Marvel [film] after another. That’s been a game changer for us,” said Thomas.

Trendsetting zombies

On the television side, The Walking Dead, which is TV’s most-watched series among adults 18-49, helped put Atlanta on the map as a TV destination in 2010, when the zombie drama shot Season 1 in and around the city.

“We both help each other,” said AMC Studios’ Reinhardt. “The show helped Atlanta be seen in a different light and elevate some of the things that are shot there, but they helped us a lot in allowing us to get certain efficiencies of production that some other places might not have done for us,” including getting streets and parks shut down.

A year later, The Walking Dead’s production moved to Senoia, 35 miles outside of Atlanta, where it has been located ever since. The Walking Dead’s presence in Senoia has transformed that town into a tourist Mecca, and executive producer Greg Nicotero and star Norman Reedus opened a restaurant/bar, Nic & Norman’s, on Senoia’s Main Street last summer.

With TV series that cost in the vicinity of $3.5 million to $4 million per episode, for a full season shot in Atlanta, “you get up into the $50 million range,” said Sharp. “Just like it is in Los Angeles, these states and cities draw a 30-mile zone around a center point, and so, the butcher, the baker, the print shops, the gas station and the hotels, they get an immediate influx of money, and it’s noticeable.”

Georgia’s incentive program has succeeded where others like Michigan and Florida’s have failed, in part because the state already had solid infrastructure in place. Prior to the program’s launch, movies like Sweet Home Alabama, Remember the Titans, Road Trip and Scream 2 had been shot in the state, and Tyler Perry set up shop in Atlanta in the mid-2000s, as a hub for all his film and TV productions. (All Georgia-filmed productions since 1972 can be found here.)

“When you see people try to put incentives in a place where really there’s no infrastructure and no crew base, they may put a higher incentive in—like Michigan had over 40 percent. But they didn’t have the crew or equipment to support that, so two things happened: it makes the productions have to bring in all their stuff, and it doesn’t do Michigan any good,” said Thomas.

Also, Georgia’s program “was built with longevity in mind. We don’t write a check at the end of it or have a fund; it is tax credits,” said Thomas, who said that states like Louisiana give cash back to productions, but how quickly that occurs is dependent on the health of that state’s economy. “So if you go shoot a movie there, you might not get your money back right away.”

That Georgia touch

The stability of Georgia’s incentive is essential for studios who need to know that they can reliably expect to receive the credit each year on their TV shows.

“Unlike a feature film that might shoot there for four or five months, we hope to stay on the air for four, five, six years. So you need to go into a tax benefit state and know that if in success, your show is working, that program doesn’t go away after a year or two and your economics change dramatically. It’s one of the biggest reasons for companies like ours to look immediately in that direction,” said Sharp, who is overseeing four TV shows in Atlanta: 24: Legacy, Star, Sleepy Hollow (which relocated from North Carolina after that state’s incentives dried up) and a medical drama pilot, The Resident.

That program has been a lifeline for Archer’s Thompson and the show’s creator, Adam Reed, who together established their animated production company Floyd County Productions in Atlanta in 2009.

“The animation industry has almost disappeared in the United States. It’s largely in Canada and places like Indonesia and India and China, where they can have cheaper labor. And that 30 percent tax break allows us to stay competitive,” said Thompson, who currently employs around 150 employees at Floyd County Productions.

Donald Glover stars in his hit creation, Atlanta.
Quantrell Colbert/FX

Thompson, whom Gov. Deal appointed to serve on the 10-person Georgia Film, Music and Digital Entertainment Advisory Commission in 2015, said Deal has used a portion of the state’s entertainment-related revenue to establish the Georgia Film Academy, which focuses on getting residents trained to work on TV and film sets.

“It makes sure that [a Georgia resident] doesn’t graduate from college and think, ‘I’ve got to go to L.A. if I want to be in the movie business.’ You don’t have to go. Would you like a job making Black Panther? It’s shooting right across town!” said Thompson.

As Georgia’s film and TV business continues to flourish, the state says it’s less concerned with catching up to California and New York than remaining competitive and spreading the state’s film and TV production boom beyond the Atlanta area.

“The market is ever-changing, and we want to make sure that we stay competitive and that we have the kind of facilities where new media is being created,” said Thomas. “And we always try to get projects to consider shooting outside of the Metro area. The more that we can make sure all the communities benefit from this, the better.”