News Column

Coming soon to Columbus: More Hollywood filmmakers?

June 9, 2013

YellowBrix

June 09--With shooting expected to wrap up this weekend, the director and production crews for the upcoming movie, "Need for Speed," will soon have Columbus and Phenix City in their rear-view mirrors.

So, what's next for a community that traded a few days of its heavily traveled rush-hour corridor -- the downtown 13th Street bridge -- for a fast, furious and fiery car-crash scene in the 2014 movie based on a wildly popular video game?

"We would love to have future projects come to not just Uptown, but to Columbus," said Elizabeth Hurst, vice president of community relations and marketing with Uptown Columbus. "I think it's been a good thing to have them here, especially the economic impact. They've got 200 people that are here."

Hurst spoke Friday while taking a break from the set of "Need for Speed." Her task, even before filming started Tuesday on the bridge and at several other locations in Columbus, was to help coordinate the movie's shooting with city emergency personnel as production took place over and eventually in the Chattahoochee River, which also now is a whitewater rafting and kayak recreation area.

In essence, Hurst is part of an unofficial local film commission spear-headed by the Columbus Convention & Visitors Bureau. It's the agency that interacts with the Georgia Film Commission when a movie studio or television production company expresses interest in shooting scenes in any part of the state.

"Our goal is to put the right people together," said CVB President and Chief Executive Officer Peter Bowden. "Like with this particular movie, we knew Uptown had to be involved because whitewater was going to be impacted in some form or fashion. We knew that the city leadership, elected officials, had to get involved because of public safety and closing bridges."

In fact, while Columbus and the surrounding area has taken part in several movies over the past 50 years, "Need for Speed" is the first for the city under a "camera-ready" program set up by the state film commission.

Columbus was certified about two years ago to upload photographs of various city landmarks, venues and scenic areas into a state database that filmmakers scan through for prospective shooting locations.

"In this case with DreamWorks, they were looking for this sort of venue and we showed it to them and put them in touch with the right people," said Bowden of the studio that is making "Need for Speed," which is scheduled for release in March of next year.

"We've always had a great relationship with the film commission. But with this new relationship, it allows us to kind of market Columbus a little more aggressively with the film industry," he said.

It's that type of detailed work and effort that has led other Georgia cities, such as Macon and Savannah, to create groups with individuals dedicated to landing that next Hollywood hit or popular TV series.

Terrell Sandefur, president of the Macon Film Festival and a member of the Macon Film Commission, believes the best approach is to have people in place whose primary purpose is to advocate and push for making movies in a community.

He explained that the film festival, launched nearly a decade ago and held each February, had as one of its initial goals the creation and promotion of a film industry in Macon. The city's all-volunteer film commission started in 2010.

"We have a lot of filmmakers that come to Macon every year for the festival itself," Sandefur said. "While they're here we show them around and try to make them feel very comfortable and welcome and talk to them about coming back to film projects. And we've had several indie films shot in Macon over the past several years."

The city also is now landing some big fish, including several days of filming by the "Need for Speed" crew, which also has spent time on location in Rome, Ga.

Macon also took part in the filming of "42," a motion picture released in April about Major League Baseball legend Jackie Robinson. Scenes where shot at Luther Williams Field, a stadium that opened in 1929.

Sandefur recalled a visit from the movie's location staff to scout the old baseball park. Instead of driving them straight to the field via the interstate, commissioners detoured through downtown, where the filmmakers fell in love with it and decided to shoot several scenes in the area.

"They used Macon's downtown for parts of New York, and different parts of Florida," Sandefur said. "So they transformed our downtown area into different cities. But had we not had the commission show them around, they would have just used the baseball park. That would have probably been a three-day shoot. Instead, they were here three weeks."

Still, not having a local film commission doesn't necessarily have to be a deal-breaker when producers and directors come calling, said Lee Thomas, director of the Georgia Film, Music & Digital Entertainment Division.

She said the incentives offered by the state are the biggest carrot for drawing studios and filmmakers to the state. Those include a 20 percent tax credit on production expenditures of at least $500,000, with an additional 10 percent credit if a Georgia promotional logo is placed somewhere in the show's credits. Movies, TV series, music videos and video game producers are all eligible for the incentives.

"Most of the studios will only look at states that have incentives at this point. It's all bottom-line driven. It's not location driven anymore," said Thomas, pointing out Georgia offers the "whole package" for those looking to shoot here.

That includes plenty of film production specialists, lots of diverse and scenic locations and infrastructure from which to choose, and easy access to the Deep South state through Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta.

It all added up last year to $879 million in direct spending by film crews in the state, with the 333 projects in production generating a total economic impact of $3.1 billion.

Some of that overall impact comes from people visiting Georgia as tourists to check out sites where movies and TV shows were filmed. That includes the town of Senoia, about 35 miles south of Atlanta, where the AMC zombie hit, "The Walking Dead," is shot.

"We're very proud of 'The Walking Dead.' It's the top-rated hour-scripted cable series of all time," Thomas said. "The film tourism involved with hosting that show is bigger probably than the money (studios) spend. They used to have six storefronts in that little town. Now they have 47 storefronts, and a lot of them are dealing in zombie merchandise."

Not that Columbus and Phenix City are looking to become the next zombie capital. But Bowden at the CVB would like to see the movie-making take on some momentum, thus generating dollars and exposure for the city and local area. "Need for Speed," for instance, generated direct spending of about $167,000 in the city by its 200 crew members, he said.

"If Columbus develops this reputation for being a place for film production, then we could truly begin to see some visitation in that respect, like Senoia does," said Bowden, wondering what impact "Need for Speed" might have on the community.

"If this film becomes really hot -- and I think it has the potential because it's based off of a gaming video -- then this could be a pretty big deal," he said. "We'll certainly be watching to see what kind of reaction we get from the viewing public."

As for setting up a local film commission, both the CVB chief and Uptown's Hurst are in favor of it.

"I think that it would be great to have a commission. I think it would open the doors," said Hurst of a panel that could be set up with people that "have that passion and joy and love for this crazy world that is filmmaking."

Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, too, believes such a commission is worth exploring to determine the return on the city's investment of time and resources. She realizes that 13th Street Bridge commuters were inconvenienced for a few days, but the cooperation the filmmakers received and the interest and excitement generated by the film project was a positive experience overall, she said.

"Something like that would be wonderful," the mayor also said of the prospect of movie fans venturing to Columbus for close-up views of sites where movies or TV shows were shot.

"I think we just need to look at formalizing the process we have and decide what we want to go after and what types of films and how many and all of that good stuff," she said. "This has sort of opened the door to the possibilities for us. And we're just beginning to formulate that type of long-term strategy."

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(c)2013 the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer (Columbus, Ga.)

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