Movie industry’s bright lights beginning to shine on Columbus area and CSU

Columbus State University students looking to earn a film production certificate work on the set of “Moon Shine Still” being shot at Sweet Home Plantation in Harris County, just west of Pine Mountain, Ga. --
Columbus State University students looking to earn a film production certificate work on the set of “Moon Shine Still” being shot at Sweet Home Plantation in Harris County, just west of Pine Mountain, Ga. --

The Columbus area has had its share of brushes with Hollywood through the years.

They range from “The Green Berets” being filmed locally by movie legend John Wayne in the 1960s, to “Tank,” a comedy featuring James Garner and Shirley Jones in the 1980s, to Mel Gibson’s Vietnam War production, “We Were Soldiers,” back in 2002.

And who can forget “The Phenix City Story,” a history-based film about the mob’s grip on the Alabama city decades ago? Closer to modern history was the detailed shooting of a sports car chase and ensuing crash into the Chattahoochee River from the 13th Street bridge in 2013. That potential cult classic was “Need for Speed.”

Yet the best may lie ahead, with local movie-making prospects looking brighter as part of the Georgia Film Academy’s goal to nurture the training of movie-set crews, screenwriters and logistics people across the state. Columbus State University, the Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Springer Opera House and the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce all are playing a part in the effort.

The forefront of the state’s strategy is fostering the education and training of people for the movie industry in Georgia and setting up as much infrastructure as possible. Some of the progress was on display this week, with Columbus State University students providing assistance with the shooting of a film in Harris County, near Pine Mountain, Ga., as part of the completion of their 18-hour on-set film production certificate.

“We had 48 students in that course in the spring. Then of those 48 we were able to place 14 of those students on “Moon Shine Still” this summer, and this kept them from having to go somewhere else in the state to work on a movie,” said Richard Baxter, dean of CSU’s College of Arts, which oversees the Department of Communication that is offering the film certificate.

“Moon Shine Still,” directed by Takashi Doscher, is an independent film now in production at Sweet Home Plantation, a 100-acre historic property often used for weddings and other special events. The site is just off Interstate 185 west of Pine Mountain.

The movie, a suspense drama, is the tale of a Georgia couple, clinging to secrets, who take in a young hiker at their secluded mountain farm. It stars Madeline Brewer from “Orange is the New Black,” Lydia Wilson from “Star Trek Beyond,” and Nick Blood from Marvel’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”

“We’re looking at bringing another film here in the spring to train additional students who had the first course,” Baxter said.

He explained that there are plans to eventually have a sound stage in Columbus with equipment that can be used by filmmakers. If all works well, investment capital will materialize that will attract productions not only to Georgia, but in Columbus and the surrounding area. Down the road, an associate’s degree in film could be offered at CSU, he said.

“The goal of our program is, by this time next year, to have 50 to 100 certified, trained production workers so that anyone who wants to come to Columbus and film, they’re going to have a workforce already here instead of having to bring people from outside Columbus to work on those movies,” Baxter said. “You won’t have to bring somebody from New York or California or Atlanta here to work on a film.”

The film industry in Georgia contributes more than $6 billion to the state’s economy already, according to the film academy, the umbrella organization for expanding its presence across the state and attracting more productions here.

More than 250 movie and TV shows are being shot in Georgia this year, the academy said. Those include “The Walking Dead,” a popular suspense thriller TV series that has aired several years on the cable network AMC. About 100,000 jobs are linked directly or indirectly to the industry, it said.

“With average salaries at $84,000 per year and many in the industry making more than $150,000, certified on-set production employees are in high demand,” the CSU web page promoting the film certificate says.

While the training and education element of filmmaking is just now kicking off in Georgia, Columbus itself already is fielding prospects for movie and TV productions, as well as commercials and music videos. The city was certified in 2010 by the state as “camera ready” for entertaining potential clients connected to film production.

“The CVB has set itself up to be a one-stop shop so that when a producer or filmmaker is looking at Columbus, we do all the legwork. We help with site visits, we help with hotels, all of the logistics to make a project happen,” said Peter Bowden, president and chief executive officer of the Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“It seems like we’re averaging a call every other week,” he said. “The other day we took a call for a group that’s looking to come to Columbus at the end of the month and do a big scouting trip. So it seems to be heating up, which is great.”

The CVB spent a day and a half with the “Moon Shine Still” production team to find places for shooting. The sites visited included Westville and a couple of other places just outside the city. They were wanting access to a rustic log cabin for an Appalachia-type environment, with meadows and fields.

Another production crew currently is looking for property that has a field with a tree in which a treehouse can be built, as well as a whitewater scene, Bowden said. They also need housing a soldier might live in, as well as a church that’s not too big and not too small.

“We took them to every imaginable size church you could think of in Columbus and in the outlying area,” the CVB chief said. “They were also looking for a place that could double for a mansion that a big-time film producer might live in. So we showed them some houses up in Green Island Hills that might be suitable. They were looking for a roadside grocery store that had a local feel, not your typical Circle K kind of thing, but like those older establishments you see as you head to the backwaters.”

Bowden said such clients typically can be fairly quiet about the storyline or theme of their project until they make a decision on an area in which they will film.

One production that should give the city some spotlight is recent shooting for a Chevrolet TV commercial that wrapped up in July. Featuring a revamped Chevy Colorado pickup truck catering to the millennial market, filmmakers were looking for vistas and scenes with images of a truck loaded with bicycles and kayaks by a lake. But the approach eventually changed.

“When we showed them the whitewater course, they completely altered their concept and fell in love with Columbus and shot most of the stuff there on the (Chattahoochee River) whitewater by the island,” Bowden said. “And then they went out to Flat Rock to do all of these other shots that they needed with mountain bikes. That took us almost two days of showing them all of these different places of possibilities.”

It’s that intense legwork by the CVB and the training ground offered by CSU and the Springer Opera House, where some of the film certificate instruction takes place, that local entities are banking on paying off long term. On top of visibility for Columbus and the area, there’s also payroll for local film crews and spending while production takes place.

“Going back to the television (commercial), those guys bought hotel rooms, they ate in restaurants, they bought equipment, they rented equipment,” said Bowden, noting the producers and director on “Moon Shine Still” have pledged to premiere the movie in Columbus after it has made an appearance at the Sundance Film Festival.