Could Columbus be the third hub for the film industry in Georgia?
Taking a break Friday from production of his latest film, “My Brother’s Keeper,” now being shot in Columbus, Ty Manns expressed confidence that the city can become a thriving mecca of movie-making in the coming years.
“Columbus has everything, the locations, so vast that you can make anything from a period piece here to a modern-day film,” said the writer, director and producer who lives in Phenix City and has made a name for himself with a series of faith-based movies.
The Hollywood hopes of Columbus have long lacked a couple of critical pieces of the puzzle, however, as the economic impact of filmmaking in Georgia climbed in recent years to a cool $9.5 billion annually.
But those missing pieces are about to be put in place. In a collaboration between Columbus State University and W.C. Bradley Co., a large movie production studio that will feature state-of-the-art sound stages — and include training space for the Georgia Film Academy production certificate offered by CSU — is poised to become reality.
“We’ve got a plan together where we’re looking at bringing 10 movies here in the next three years,” said Richard Baxter, CSU’s associate vice president over engagement, economic development and university advancement. “Our goal is to make Columbus the third film hub in the state,” behind Atlanta and Savannah.
Work on the movie and television production facility began early this year. The studio is being set up in a 180,000-square-foot building at 7100 Jamesson Road, in the Midland area of Columbus off J.R. Allen Parkway, or U.S. Hwy. 80. Long owned by W.C. Bradley Co., it previously served as a warehouse for Char-Broil and others, with a portion of it also home to a call center.
“We’ve got a unique environment out there,” said Pace Halter, president and chief operating officer of W.C. Bradley Real Estate. “The building sits on almost 80 acres of property, so it’s very secluded, its private, its gated with a guard, the whole nine yards.”
At stake is a slice of Georgia’s movie-making and television production pie, which has included “The Hunger Games,” “Fried Green Tomatoes,” “Deliverance,” “We Were Soldiers,” and Marvel productions, “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” Popular TV series shot in the state include “The Walking Dead” and “The Vampire Diaries.”
“It’s a $9.5 billion industry,” Baxter said. “Atlanta gets 90 percent of that. Now that’s direct and indirect spending. Savannah gets 10 percent of that. What if we got 3 percent? What if we got 5 percent? What if we got 10 percent?”
Just reaching that middle figure of 5 percent would amount to $475 million in economic impact for the Columbus area and its businesses. That would include crews working on sets, sleeping in hotels, eating catered food, using local transportation and security, and purchasing art and wardrobe items.
A critical component of it all is the development of a production crew workforce that would generally reside in the Columbus area and be readily available for a steady flow of TV programs and movies being shot at the Jamesson Road studio.
CSU’s Department of Communication began offering the Georgia Film Academy certification program two years ago, with 40 students having graduated thus far. Another 100 students are in the pipeline, with plans to ramp up enrollment as classes are relocated in August from the Carpenters Building in downtown Columbus to the new facility on the city’s north side.
“What we’re working on right now is building a workforce of between 200 and 250 trained film set production workers so that we can compete with Atlanta for film productions to come here,” said Baxter, noting the Atlanta-based Georgia Film Academy is providing instructors for the program.
Alex Williams is one of the CSU graduates now working in the film industry, the Macon, Ga., native having graduated in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in theater art and a minor in communications. Aside from the Georgia Film Academy certificate, she also earned a certificate in international studies.
Williams, 23, said her goal is to become a producer. Thus, she is now focusing on work as a production assistance. The entry-level position has her handling administrative tasks and running errands to purchase items for those working on a set, to include bringing back lunch if needed.
Now between jobs, Williams has been involved in a handful of productions, her most recent on a Paramount film. She said CSU’s relocation to the larger studio location for training of film production students is a smart move because of the close proximity students will have to professional working sets.
“I think it will attract more people from Atlanta to Columbus, because that’s one thing that’s holding us back is there are no facilities (locally) that have the equipment or a place where you can easily get the equipment for a film,” she said.
Setting up the production studio on Jamesson Road has been relatively straightforward, Halter and Baxter said. Efforts over the last three to four months have included bringing in filmmaking professionals to seek their advice on how to organize and lay out the large building. A film equipment supplier and a gaffer, or head electrician, that worked on “King Kong” were among those who lent their expertise to the property.
“It was designed by people who designed Pinewood Studio” near Atlanta, Baxter said. “Gaffers, for instance, that worked on Hunger Games came in and said here’s how much weight you’ll need to hang from the steel beams. We had a structural engineer out there at the same time and they determined that for what we were doing initially the steel in that building was sufficient to hold the equipment needed for a sound stage.”
The work, Halter said, has been done with the intention of helping Columbus overcome the major obstacle of not having a quality, professional sound stage and studio complete with office space for production staff. Having the CSU class space nearby will allow students to intern much more easily on productions to gain valuable experience and, hopefully, decide to live and work in Columbus rather than in Atlanta or elsewhere. CSU will pay W.C. Bradley Co. a nominal lease rate for that space, Baxter said.
“Our goal was around this concept of minimizing excuses, if you will, on why a production would not consider Columbus. We tried to make it as easy and plug-and-play as possible,” said Halter of the studio, which will be managed by W.C. Bradley with the hopes of one day becoming busy enough to hire a dedicated studio manager.
While landing a movie production on occasion would be great, Halter said, an “absolute homerun” would be turning the Columbus studio into a draw for series destined for cable TV or Internet streaming companies such as Netflix. The latter’s hit show, “Stranger Things,” also is filmed in Georgia.
“In this world, as I have learned, the goal is to get something ultimately that is a recurring series,” he said. “Major motion pictures are great, but they come in for 60, 90 or 120 days and then they’re gone again. So you get these fits and starts with the facility as opposed to a recurring series. They tend to be much more long-term users of the facility.”
Danna Gibson, a professor and chair of CSU’s Department of Communication, said the prospect of the new facility becoming a one-stop shop for filmmaking and training students is a “very exciting moment” for the university and the city.
She also noted that a database has been set up to keep track of graduates and their various education levels in the program, while there also will be a concerted effort to help students with job placement in the real world.
“I will tell you our students have impressed the Georgia Film Academy and the sets where they’ve worked,” Gibson said. “They say our students stand head and shoulders above the others. They do not come entitled. They just want to work. And it’s amazing as we run the demographic information of those who have graduated from our program and are ready to be placed. Eighty percent of them are working in the industry. The others are still working on their degree ... It’s very promising.”
Aside from W.C. Bradley and the Georgia Film Academy, Baxter said CSU is working with the Columbus Convention & Visitors Bureau and its film office that fields inquiries from prospects that may be looking for locations to shoot a movie, TV show or a commercial. The Springer Film Institute in Columbus also is working to develop filmmakers in the area.
“We’re putting together a film fund, where we’re going to raise $5 million to incentivise movies to come here. We’ll have a grants program run out of the film office,” Baxter said.
In somewhat of a build-it-and-they-will-come perspective, “My Brother’s Keeper” filmmaker Manns said industry proponents in Columbus appear to be doing all the right things to sow the seeds for a solid future in the entertainment world.
“Having that facility, having those classes, putting together a program that’s going to attract people to go into the industry, at the end of the day will benefit the city greatly,” he said. “We will be able to make anything from TV to a big feature film like we’re making right now. So I think that’s a blessing. That’s great for the city.”
Manns points to his own independent film now being shot in Columbus as to what can eventually happen on a routine basis. A crew of more than 50 people and a cast of 23 people have been filming scenes at various locations in the city over the last week. Locations included the Tavern, Rose Hill Church of Christ and a private home.
The crews and actors were scheduled to shoot war scenes in Cusseta, Ga., just outside Fort Benning, into the wee hours of the night Friday. Next week, scenes for “My Brother’s Keeper” will be filmed at a Columbus cafe and hospital, as well as on a downtown street near Mabella’s restaurant.
As to the economic impact, Manns projects that between $280,000 and $300,000 will be spent in the local economy during the nearly three weeks of production. Again, that’s hotels, food, transportation and other expenses needed to get the job done. The budget also has included recreation for the crew, such as whitewater rafting and a golf outing.
And, finally, one element of shooting in Columbus that has proven both a money and time saver for Ty Manns Productions — that he said other larger cities such as Atlanta can’t overcome — is the relative ease of moving from one point to another in the city. It’s a major factor for some productions, he said.
“When you film in big cities like Atlanta, if you have a 15- or 20-day shooting schedule, you have to add at least three days to your schedule because of traffic, and every day you add to that schedule costs money,” he said.
“When you come to a town like Columbus, Ga., and we’ve got 20 days to shoot this movie, you can shoot the movie in 20 days because you don’t deal with traffic. You can get to anywhere in this city in about 15 or 20 minutes. So from a cost standpoint, it’s very advantageous for producers to look at a town like Columbus, because you don’t have to add those extra days and spend that extra money, really, for sitting in traffic.”
With that in mind, Manns said he has plans to produce at least two more movies in Columbus to take advantage of the lower costs and the available scenery and locations that he won’t use in his current film shoot.