Georgia has been the location for hundreds of feature films, commercials, and music videos, along with television movies, series, and specials. The state’s diverse geography, moderate climate, transportation infrastructure, modern amenities, and skilled film crews have made it an attractive choice for film companies looking to shoot outside traditional locales like Los Angeles, California, and New York City. By 2007 more than $4 billion had been generated for the state’s economy by the film and television industry since the 1970s.
Once a film or television project has been “greenlit” (industry jargon for a project that is funded and approved for production by a movie studio or production company), it is up to the project’s producer to find a location that fits the needs of the screenplay and is most cost-effective. Georgia competes with many other states and countries for film and television projects, and has representatives who promote the state to industry decision makers.
The 1970s: Burt Reynolds and the Car-Chase Craze
Although various movies have been shot in Georgia since the early days of film, it was Deliverance (1972) that truly brought the state to Hollywood’s attention. Based on the best-selling James Dickey novel and directed by John Boorman, Deliverance stars Ned Beatty, Ronny Cox, Burt Reynolds, and Jon Voight as Atlanta businessmen whose rafting excursion down a remote mountain river goes horribly wrong. Shot along the Chattooga River in Rabun County, the film was a commercial and critical success.
Deliverance was locally controversial in its perceived depiction of mountain residents as backwoods hillbillies. But the production was an economic boon to the state, a fact not lost on then-governor Jimmy Carter. He established a state film commission, now known as the Georgia Film, Music and Digital Entertainment Office, in 1973 to market Georgia as a shooting location for future projects. One of the country’s first film commissions, the Georgia Film, Music and Digital Entertainment Office had recruited more than 550 major projects to the state by 2007.
Production grew in Georgia throughout the 1970s, and it was once again Burt Reynolds who brought a blockbuster project to the state. Smokey and the Bandit (1977) and Smokey and the Bandit II (1980) both feature Reynolds as the Bandit, an outlaw pursued at high speeds across the South by Sheriff Buford T. Justice (played by Jackie Gleason). Shot on various state highways, in such towns as Jonesboro, and at the Atlanta Motor Speedway, these hugely successful films launched a craze of car-chase films at the end of the decade.
CBS was quick to jump on this craze with its hit television series The Dukes of Hazzard (1979-85). Onetime Georgia resident John Schneider and Tom Wopat starred as the Duke boys, rebellious cousins always outrunning the local police in their muscle car, the General Lee. Although Dukes later moved production to California, the first several episodes were shot in and around the city of Covington. The first jumping of the General Lee (seen in the show’s opening credits) took place on the campus of nearby Oxford College of Emory University.
The 1980s and 1990s: Covington, Miss Daisy, and Savannah
Covington would later feature prominently in another television series, In the Heat of the Night (1988-94). Meant as a continuation of the 1967 Academy Award–winning film of the same name, In the Heat of the Night stars Carroll O’Connor as a small-town sheriff and Howard E. Rollins Jr. as his African American lieutenant. Covington stood in for Sparta, Mississippi, where the two characters solved a different crime each episode, frequently overcoming racial tensions and small-town politics. Production of the show became part of everyday life for residents of Covington, with numerous locals hired as extras and several area businesses serving the production crew.
Visitors still travel to Covington searching for locations used in The Dukes of Hazzard and In the Heat of the Night. In fact, the city became so closely associated with The Dukes of Hazzard that MTV returned to Covington in 2005 to recreate the General Lee’s first jump as part of its promotion of Warner Brothers’ The Dukes of Hazzard feature film.
Covington was not the only Georgia city to be seen nightly on the nation’s television screens. I’ll Fly Away (1991-93), an NBC series starring Sam Waterston as a southern lawyer at the dawn of the civil rights movement, was shot largely in historic Madison, as well as in Conyers, Covington, Monticello, Newnan, and other locations. The cast would later return to Georgia for the television movie I’ll Fly Away: Then and Now (1993), which wrapped up the series.
Feature-film production boomed in Georgia throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Sharky’s Machine (1981), directed by and starring Burt Reynolds, caused a sensation in downtown Atlanta when the film crew shot a 220-foot outdoor free-fall stunt from the top of the Westin Peachtree Plaza Hotel. (This stunt still holds the record for the longest outdoor free fall in a commercial film.) Later films such as Manhunter (1986), The Mosquito Coast (1986), My Cousin Vinny (1992), RoboCop 3 (1993), Kalifornia (1993), A Simple Twist of Fate (1994), The War (1994), Scream 2 (1997), Wild America (1997), Road Trip (2000), and Remember the Titans (2000) were shot throughout the state.
If Burt Reynolds was the movie star most identifiable with Georgia in the 1970s, Jessica Tandy was arguably Georgia’s most representative star of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Driving Miss Daisy (1989), based on Alfred Uhry’s play and starring Tandy and Morgan Freeman, was set largely in the Atlanta area. The story of an elderly Jewish woman who develops a close bond with her African American chauffeur, Driving Miss Daisy won several Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actress for Tandy.
Tandy starred in another Georgia production, Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), shortly thereafter. Directed by Jon Avnet and based on Fannie Flagg’s novel, Fried Green Tomatoes is the story of two women in 1920s Alabama who become friends despite their differences and open a restaurant together called the Whistle Stop Cafe. Film crews transformed a local establishment in the small town of Juliette, in Monroe County, into the cafe, where it remains as a tourist attraction for fans of the film.
During this time, many filmmakers began to discover the unique and mysterious charm of Savannah. Though most of the film was shot in other states, Forrest Gump (1994) became forever linked with Savannah because the bench from which Forrest (played by Tom Hanks) tells stories about his life was located in Chippewa Square. (The actual bench now sits in the Savannah History Museum.) The Academy Award–winning film Glory (1990), based on the true story of the first all-Black volunteer company to fight in the Civil War (1861-65), was also shot in Savannah and other coastal areas of the state. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997), Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of the best-selling work by John Berendt, only added to the influx of tourists visiting Savannah because of the book. The period golf film The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000), directed by Robert Redford, was shot on Savannah streets and in nearby country clubs. Savannah was also the location for such films as The Gingerbread Man (1998), Forces of Nature (1999), The General’s Daughter (1999), and The Gift (2000).
A wide variety of films continue to be shot in Georgia, including Drumline (2002), The Fighting Temptations (2003), The Clearing (2004), Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius, about golfer Bobby Jones (2004), ATL (2006), We Are Marshall (2006), and Stomp the Yard (2007). Despite its title, the box-office smash Sweet Home Alabama (2002), starring Reese Witherspoon, was shot almost entirely in Georgia, with the small town of Crawfordville, in Taliaferro County, standing in for fictional Pigeon Creek, Alabama. Diary of a Mad Black Woman (2005), written by and starring Tyler Perry (based on his stage play), was shot in the Atlanta area. Like Sweet Home Alabama, Diary of a Mad Black Woman opened at number one at the box office in its first week of release and spawned the Atlanta-based sequel Madea’s Family Reunion (2006).
In 2006 Perry opened Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta, where he shot the film Daddy’s Little Girls (2007) and films his television situation comedy House of Payne, which began airing on TBS Superstation in 2006. In 2008 the BET network premiered the comedy series Somebodies, written by University of Georgia graduate Henry Cameron “Hadjii” Hand and filmed in Athens. The series is based on Hadjii’s independent film of the same name, which was accepted into the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, and opened in 2006.
During the first decade of the twenty-first century, both public and private entities across the state worked to create new incentives encouraging filmmakers to bring their projects to Georgia. In 2001 the Georgia General Assembly passed legislation exempting the television and film industry from sales and use taxes on production-related expenses, and in 2005 it passed the Georgia Entertainment Industry Investment Act, which offered income tax credits for filmmakers who worked in Georgia. The legislation resulted in a revenue increase for the state from $124 million in 2004 to $475 million in 2006.
In May 2008 Georgia governor Sonny Perdue signed into law a revised Entertainment Industry Investment Act, which gives production companies a 20 percent tax credit for filming in Georgia. The inclusion of an animated logo promoting the state earns filmmakers an additional 10 percent credit. The ceremony for the signing was held at the studios of Turner Broadcasting System.
In addition to such favorable legislation, more than 800 production companies operating in Georgia offer a variety of necessary equipment, trained personnel, and support services. RiverWood Studios, for example, based in Coweta County, began restoring and constructing buildings in historic Senoia in 2007 to create a permanent nineteenth-century-town set.
In addition to major motion picture production, the film industry in Georgia also includes support and venues for smaller independent projects. IMAGE (Independent Media Artists of Georgia, Etc.), a nonprofit media arts center in Atlanta, sponsors two annual film festivals: the Atlanta Film Festival, which presents features, documentaries, and short films from around the world, and Out on Film, which features lesbian- and gay-themed films. IMAGE also offers programs and workshops for film professionals and students throughout the year. In 2006 Georgia Public Broadcasting launched C-47 in conjunction with Georgia State University (GSU), the Georgia Council for the Arts, and the Georgia Film, Music and Digital Entertainment Office. A showcase for short films, C-47 accepts completed projects that were either made by Georgians or filmed in the state, and one submission is selected each quarter for distribution on the organization’s Web site and in other venues.
Several notable film schools also operate in the state. The Film and Television Department at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), which also hosts the annual Savannah Film Festival, offers both undergraduate and graduate degrees, while GSU boasts the largest film production program in the Southeast. Students in the video production program at West Georgia Technical College in LaGrange produce three television series in the school’s state-of-the art studio facilities, and two documentaries made at West Georgia Tech, Soaring with Eagles and Helping to Build Hope (a film for Habitat for Humanity) have won awards. Chattahoochee Technical
Commercial production has also boomed in the state during this period. Both local and out-of-state production companies have shot nationally broadcast spots for corporations with headquarters in Georgia, including Coca-Cola, Delta, and the Weather Channel, as well as commercials for ESPN, Ford Motor Company, General Electric, and the U.S. Army. Much like the music-video industry, the commercial production industry has provided jobs for thousands of state residents and industry-specific businesses.
Music and Gaming Industries
While feature films and television programs have attracted the most attention, a robust music-video industry has also emerged in Georgia. Due in part to Georgia’s growing recorded-music industry and the large number of popular-music artists who reside in the state, music-video production provides jobs to many local crewmembers. Such renowned local artists as Bow Wow, Ciara, Lu
During the first decade of the twenty-first century, the production of other multimedia products, particularly video games, began to compete with and at times surpass the traditional movie industry in terms of profits earned. Georgia has became a well-known center for video game development and in 2007 was home to more than fifty private and public development companies, including Blue Heat Games, CCP North America/White Wolf, Hi-Rez Studios, Kaneva Inc., and Turner GameTap. Large media corporations with video game divisions, like Turner Broadcasting System, have tapped into local technical and arts colleges, including SCAD and the Georgia Institute of Technology, for their development teams. In 2006 the state legislature enacted tax code changes allowing digital entertainment producers, including video game companies based outside the state, to gain new savings on products developed in Georgia. Due to the state’s increased interest in video game development, industry publications have ranked Georgia among the top five states in compensation levels for game developers, which will undoubtedly lead to continued dramatic growth for Georgia’s video game industry.