Atlanta needs to develop its own style to remain in the industry

From the Signal Archives

In recent years, the Georgia media industry has seen a tremendous growth due in part to the state’s covetable tax incentives for film production.

Hundreds of productions have amassed billions of dollars for the state’s economy, and Atlanta is now on the map as the No. 3 overall production center for film and TV.

But as the city’s commercial media enterprises continue to flourish, questions have arisen over future sustainability of the industry here and the Hollywood “service space” that Atlanta has become.

Dr. Ethan Tussey, a media industry studies professor at Georgia State, said the “service space” status Atlanta holds isn’t viable in the long run. He said in order for the city to become a permanent mainstay in American filmmaking, it has to become its own recognizable brand, and needs to break out of the “service space” mold to live on as a significant cultural element.

“Atlanta’s the number three media producer in the world right now. We provide an enormous tax credit, which is bringing in a lot of production. We have projects going on all the time, but we’re considered a service space in that this is a place where Hollywood goes to work, but doesn’t stay to live,” he said. “So it is providing a lot of below-the-line labor. What we at the university are really interested is how do you sustain that growth if somebody comes along and gives a better tax incentive.”

And, he said, the potential for Georgia’s tax incentives to be surpassed by another state is very possible. He said although Atlanta has “some advantages,” the loss of tax incentives and film industry production would “be catastrophic” to below-the-line jobs and accessibility for many film students to industry entryways.

“The most immediate effects are going to happen to everybody who’s below-the-line. So, if you are a construction company or a catering company, that would be catastrophic. For above-the-line labor, I don’t know how much it would actually change, except that right now they are much more accessible if you want to work on a project. If you want to start your path to networking and working on and building your resumé, you can do that much more easily here now than if the tax incentive wasn’t here,” he said.

Georgia State film student Cole Henry drew from his experience working in the film industry. Hollywood’s presence in Atlanta seems to be impermanent, and Henry said he thinks many film students are trying to “take advantage of it” while they can.

“Hollywood’s presence in Atlanta, while nice, does not seem manageable in a long-term scale. Students, professors, and everyone in between seem aware of this. It is important to take advantage of these opportunities while said opportunities still present themselves,” he said.

And although future Hollywood presence is currently ambiguous, he said the department helps a lot of students get “hands-on” experience in the industry with programs like CMII, who are focused on building connections “between creative students and the entertainment and information industries.”

“The film department seems deeply entrenched in the ebbs and flows of Atlanta’s blossoming film production scene. The department spotlights internships, workshops, and PA opportunities. Production companies sometimes reach out to the film school for prospective employees, and [Georgia State] offers hands-on specialty classes at Pinewood Studios,” Henry said.

Tussey said that, although many working in the industry view the tax incentive in a positive light, the actual economic impact is “essentially a wash.” He said the sustainability of the Atlanta film industry pivots on whether or not a cultural impact can be made.

“There was a study done here by our business school on the impact in dollars of the tax incentive, and while we make billions on it, we also spend billions to get the productions here, so it’s almost essentially a wash economically. So then, the question is what is the impact culturally? Are you creating the next generation of filmmakers that want to stay here and aren’t going to go to L.A. or New York to make their name?” Tussey said.

In terms of curating a recognizable cultural style specific to Atlanta, Tussey brought up Nigerian film enterprises in Nollywood and Indian film enterprises in Bollywood, which he said are “exportable styles that speak to a diaspora.”

So now, to him, the cultural question of “what Atlanta represents” is more important than ever in terms of creating an enduring media industry.

“You need a place that’s going to economically support a particular style. That doesn’t mean that in India they only make Bollywood films, they make different kinds of things, but there needs to be something that is the cultural understanding that ‘that comes from Atlanta,’” he said.

Pinpointing an “exportable” cultural style is a “major question” facing the industry, mostly because it will determine its economic future. It also falls under the goals of the university’s film department, which Tussey says is “really interested in trying to contribute to creating that culture.”

“We have some advantages, like the airport, infrastructure, Turner’s here. But you have to start to develop a community that’s exportable. The university’s really interested in trying to contribute to creating that culture, to create an above-the line labor that may want to stay here and live here for a while. [We] are thinking of ways to encourage the next group to say that there is an exportable style that we can send around the globe, and are trying to think of all of these ways to say, ‘What is Atlanta’s aesthetic?’” he said.