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Lights, Action, Jobs! Georgia Focuses on Role as Filmmaking Center

More than 2,100 miles east of Hollywood, the state of Georgia is fast becoming a major player in the TV and film industry.
Rachel Crump, a student at Georgia Film Institute, attends a class on grip and lighting.
Rachel Crump, a student at Georgia Film Institute, attends a class on grip and lighting.Karina Frayter / CNBC

More than 2,100 miles east of Hollywood and almost 900 miles south of New York City, the state of Georgia is fast becoming a major player in the TV and film industry.

With the help of an inventive tax credit, the state's TV and film industry has boomed. Since the tax credit went into effect in 2008, the industry's economic impact has jumped from $260 million to an estimated $6 billion this year, Georgia estimates. The state now ranks third in production, behind California and New York, according to the Motion Picture Association of America. Business shows no signs of slowing, but the rapid growth has brought on some pretty stiff labor pains.

"What we've experienced is, we don't have enough crew to support all of the features and television series that are coming in," said Lee Thomas, deputy commissioner of the Georgia Film, Music and Digital Entertainment Office.

According to a 2014 report published by the office of Gov. Nathan Deal, industry executives said they wanted to hire talent in Georgia but found they were forced to recruit out of state. The governor's High Demand Initiative Report noted the industry needed people trained, among other things as animators, artists, cinematographers, costume designers, forklift operators, plasterers and story boarders.

"It's a lot cheaper for production to hire local talent than to bring folks from L.A. or New York and have to pay their housing and per diem and everything else," said Kris Bagwell, executive vice president of EUE/Screen Gems Studios of Atlanta. "As a studio we've been working with the other studios and the government and the lieutenant governor's office to institute more trade training for film and television production jobs in Georgia."

To help address the labor shortage, the state is launching a certification program at the Georgia Film Academy this academic year. Thomas said the program is a partnership with the university system of Georgia and the state's technical college system. The academy will offer certification programs for entry positions in the industry, through one- or two-semester courses.

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It will also help retrain experienced workers like electricians and carpenters on how they can employ their skills in film. The academy will help place students who complete their certifications, and for the best students it hopes to place them in work-study programs that would provide them with hands-on experience, or provide them with a chance to shadow a professional to get a close-up view of what working in the industry is like.

The academy will complement programs already in place, like those at Southern Crescent Technical College's Georgia Film Institute.

Fifty-year-old Rachel Crump is currently a student there. The widowed mother of four and former restaurant manager decided to go back to school and start a new career after her youngest child started college.

Rachel Crump, a student at Georgia Film Institute, attends a class on grip and lighting.
Rachel Crump, a student at Georgia Film Institute, attends a class on grip and lighting.Karina Frayter / CNBC

Her goal is to become a script supervisor, so to prepare she has taken advanced classes in film and video production. Ahead of her December graduation she is interviewing for a job as a production assistant for a new HBO series "Lewis and Clark," seeing this position as a way to get her foot in the door in an industry that shows no signs of slowing in her home state.

"There is so much work right now … you get a nice feeling that the work might continue for a good while," she said.

Of course, to keep that work, the state needs to give something to the industry, which is notoriously fickle and typically moves where it’s cheapest to film. Tax incentives are the most common way states have attracted production, and Georgia is no exception. Its incentive is slightly different from others though, in that there is no sunset on the incentive. To repeal or alter it would require state lawmakers' approval, and Thomas maintains they are not inclined to do so now given the positive impact the industry's had on Georgia's economy.

Georgia's incentive is also different in that it does not come in the form of a rebate, or cash the state has to take off its books at the end of the year. For a company spending over $500,000 in the state to produce a film or TV show, the state grants them a transferable income tax credit that starts at 20 percent and can increase to 30 percent. If the production company fails to use any or all of the credit, it can sell it to another firm, whether it is in the industry or not.

"Most of these companies, they are not going to have income tax liability in Georgia. So what they do is they sell them to individuals or corporations that have income tax," said Thomas. "And that's how they monetize them."

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The Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts jobs growth in the TV and film industry to be 3 percent through 2022, which would put it below expectations for overall job growth of 10.8 percent. While some of Georgia's job growth in the industry is expected to come from production relocating to take advantage of the tax incentive, and hopefully a better trained workforce, Bagwell said that in general, there is just more work to be had these days.

"Really what you've seen is less stealing from other places, then just a huge explosion in cable television production in general," he said. "With Netflix and Amazon and the 'Breaking Bads,' the quality of television has just gone way up. And you are seeing a lot of television production these days."

The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees expects Georgia's film industry to double in size in the next two years. This month alone, 40 films and TV shows are filming in the state, including season six of the "Walking Dead," and "Neighbors 2," the sequel to the comedy "Neighbors," starring Zac Efron and Seth Rogan.

Photo of EUE/Screen Gems Studios in Atlanta, Georgia.
EUE/Screen Gems Studios in Atlanta, Georgia.Karina Frayter / CNBC

This means there is plenty of work in an industry that directly employs 22,400 workers in Georgia and 77,900 people indirectly, according to Georgia Department of Economic Development.

For Rick Harris Rick, owner of Dallas, Georgia-based Harris Diversified, the boom in the movie business has been a boon for his air-conditioning business. An electrician by training, he went out on his own in 2003, providing power to outdoor events. He got his start in movies in 2007 when he bought two 20-ton air-conditioning units and was hired to cool the sets on the movie "The Blind Side."

"Our revenues increased every year," he said. "We are up to several million dollars now per year. 2015 has been great. It's going to be one of our best years so far."

Harris now owns 130 air-conditioning units and employees 14 people, after starting out with just himself and his son-in-law. Like others in the industry though, he has difficulty finding employees.

"That's one of our biggest challenges — finding staff or people willing to work," he said.

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Harris said most people don't take to working the long days and weekend required on a movie set, even though the pay is good, starting at $20 an hour.

Pay in general in the industry is high. The MPAA said on average workers in the industry make $84,000 a year. But skills are needed to get those jobs, and to keep the film industry coming back Georgia wants to make sure it trains the workers it needs. It also hopes to persuade some of those who come temporarily to stay, with a lower cost of living and other amenities the industry should find appealing.

"In Georgia, you can shoot mountains, you can shoot beach, you can shoot plains. You can shoot pretty much everything except Antarctica and pure desert," said Bagwell. "And we have the busiest, largest airport in the States and really in the world. And it's one flight from the Hollywood. Twelve times a day. And one flight for most cities in the world."