With Georgia reopening in phases faster than other U.S. TV/film industry hotbeds such as California and New York, the Peach State could actually draw more productions as it continues to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, Lee Thomas said.

However, Thomas, deputy commissioner of the Georgia Film, Music and Digital Entertainment Office, a division of the Georgia Department of Economic Development, added there will be a backlog of projects that must be completed first and some related challenges to address.

“I think that’s going to be tough,” she said. “There were projects that had stages they had holds on starting in late summer, but the projects in those stages beforehand haven’t finished their work yet. It’s going to be interesting how these sound stages can accommodate all the projects coming in, not only the projects coming back but also the new ones scheduled.

“We’ll also get even more projects coming from other states because Georgia is reopening faster than other states. … We also have all these new streaming services’ projects.”

Thomas provided an update on the state’s TV/film industry June 2 at virtual luncheon hosted on Zoom by the Sandy Springs Perimeter Chamber.

May 28, Gov. Brian Kemp signed an executive order that includes allowing public gatherings of 25 individuals or more starting June 1, as long as social distancing remains in place. With that restriction being loosened, some film productions could resume later this month or in July.

Also, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers and two other industry organizations June 1 released a much-anticipated white paper created by their labor-management safety committee task force outlining protocols for safely returning to work.

“We’re talking to production companies and studios all the time. … (The white paper) will set the tone for how things will go in the next couple, three months,” Thomas said. “We are in a good place in Georgia in that we’re opening sooner than New York and L.A. We’re seeing some projects that were going to New York or L.A. that are actually coming here. We do think things will get going here. We have projects that will be coming here in mid-June with pre-production that would start shooting in July.”

When the outbreak hit Georgia, about 20 TV/film productions in the state voluntarily shut down, whether in the early, middle or late stages, she said.

“’MacGyver’ (was) on their 11th episode and will tack on the 12th one when things pick up. Some projects hadn’t started yet. Others, like Netflix’s new movie (‘Red Notice’) with Dwayne Johnson and Ryan Reynolds, were in the middle of shooting,” Thomas said, adding she’s heard all of those productions will return to Georgia once they safe believe it’s safe to resume shooting.

When the pandemic began, the office created COVID-19 resources for the TV/film industry to help those impacted by the virus. Thomas said she doesn’t yet have an estimate of how much revenue the state or the TV/film production companies have lost since the pandemic started but expects to within two months.

Prior to the outbreak, the state’s TV/film industry was booming, but it’s not always been that way. The office was opened in 1973 by then-Gov. Jimmy Carter, a year after the film “Deliverance,” which was shot in Rabun County, was released.

“We were one of the first film offices in the country and the world,” Thomas said. “Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, we built up a production crew. Things were going very well. I’ve been there 22 years. Then the mainstay for our business was scouting films. We would go out with our 35 mm camera and took photos. That worked very well for our industry.”

But in the 1980s, Canada drew some of the TV/film productions that could have come to Georgia when it approved laws with “very aggressive tax incentives,” Thomas said of tax credits that can be as high as 41% nationwide and even higher for some provinces.

“It really put a dent into us,” she said. “Not only did it attract films (to Canada), but we did lose businesses that had been set up here. (After that) we were doing only two or three film or TV projects per year.”

Then, in the early 2000s, when “Ray,” the 2004 Ray Charles biopic was to be filmed in Georgia, where the musician was born, the state lost the movie to Louisiana because of its tax incentives.

“That became the impetus for the state Legislature to change the law,” Thomas said of the Georgia Entertainment Industry Investment Act, which was approved in 2008 and has been a game-changer for the state. It allows filmmakers to transfer up to 30% of their state production expenses into tax credits.

Jeff Stepakoff, executive director of the Georgia Film Academy, said the TV/film industry’s economic impact on the Peach State was $242 million in fiscal 2007. But it jumped to $9.5 billion in fiscal 2018, thanks to the new law.

Thomas gave a similar look at the law’s impact, saying in fiscal 2007, direct spending for the industry was $67 million, but it increased to $2.9 billion in fiscal 2019. Also in the previous fiscal year, she said, there were 409 projects/productions, including commercials and music videos.

Pat Wilson, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Economic Development, May 28 said about 90,000 individuals were employed in film and TV productions before the pandemic closed it down.

In a Q&A following her speech, Thomas was asked by Chris Burnett if the state’s controversial heartbeat bill that was approved in 2019 and another bill that calls for lowering tax credits for the TV/film industry would negatively impact Georgia, since industry leaders had said they would pull out of the state if either was passed.

The heartbeat bill (House Bill 481), which reduces the definition for when a baby’s fetal heartbeat is detectable from 20 weeks to six weeks, meaning abortions won’t be allowed after the six-week mark, is being challenged in U.S. District Court and on hold. But the tax credits bill could be approved by the Georgia General Assembly when it’s expected to reconvene June 11.

“We don’t know, once the Legislature reconvenes, whether that bill will be taken up again or if they’ll concentrate on taking up the budget,” Thomas said. “It doesn’t have to do with the percentages, but it requires mandatory audits. It also has to do with the 10% (tax credit) uplift for the companies (after getting an initial 20% credit).”

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