The actor’s union (SAG-AFTRA) strike took a 118-day bite out of Georgia’s busy 2023 filming schedule, slowing production to a handful of indie projects and the work from smaller studios not affected by the strike. But that didn’t slow the pace of infrastructure development across the state, where private investment in studios, backlots and other production assets continued steadily.

“Since January 2023, more than 800,000 additional square feet of state-of-the-art stage space has come online, so we can host more projects than ever before,” Lee Thomas, the deputy commissioner of the Georgia Film, Music & Digital Entertainment Office said in a statement. “Companies are also looking to build more visual effects and post-production facilities in the state, and we look forward to that development as well.”

The Georgia Department of Economic Development estimates Georgia already boasts 4 million square feet of stage space, and newly announced or completed projects will boost that figure even higher, looking to capitalize on the state’s generous film production tax credits.

The studios themselves aren’t built using the tax credit, says Randy Davidson, president of Georgia Entertainment, a specialty media company covering film, music, gaming and esports for content creators. “The people that get the credit are the companies that produce the product. For the studios, they just get the business,” he says.

The Georgia Entertainment Industry Investment Act applies statewide – and its windfalls have not focused solely on Atlanta. It’s true that the new crop of film asset investments includes expansions at Cinelease Studios – Three Ring in Covington and the 2023 opening of Gray Television’s Assembly Studios at the former General Motors Assembly Plant in Doraville. Other studios to open in 2023 include BlueStar at the former site of the Fort Gillem U.S. Army Depot in Forest Park, Athena Studios in Athens and Electric Owl Studios near the Indian Creek MARTA station in Atlanta. And Lionsgate Studios in Douglasville is set to open early this year. Other activity stretches as far south as St. Marys in Camden County on the Florida border. Meanwhile, the Savannah College of Art and Design – SCAD – has made a deep dive into backlot development to train film students and serve as a potentially lucrative source of rental income from professional productions.

Animation Studio Project

In Camden County, follow any economic story far enough and you’ll find ties to one of two things – the defunct Gilman Paper Company or Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay. In the case of Pigmental Studios, which announced plans in October to build animation and live action facilities in St. Marys, it has ties to both. Pigmental Studios CEO and co-founder Marina Martins was introduced to the area by Jim Jacoby, the Atlanta-area developer whose company has bought the brownfield site of the old paper plant with an eye toward an upscale mixed-use development known as Cumberland Inlet. (Jacoby redeveloped Atlantic Station, another former brownfield, in Atlanta.) And the studio site Martins has targeted is at the former St. Marys Airport, now being redeveloped as an industrial park.

“Since January 2023, more than 800,000 additional square feet of state-of-the-art stage space has come online, so we can host more projects than ever before.” Lee Thomas, deputy commissioner, Georgia Film, Music & Digital Entertainment Office

Pigmental is primarily an animation studio with locations in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., says James Coughlin, executive director of the Camden County Joint Development Authority (JDA). “Jim has always thought St. Marys was a good location for the film industry, outside the hustle and bustle of Atlanta. You can still take advantage of the Georgia film tax credit, and there’s an existing film workforce in Jacksonville [about 35 miles away in Florida],” Coughlin says.

So far, Martins has leased a former church and a former airplane hangar at the site to house animation work and is poised to close on about 60 acres where she plans to build live-action sound stages, Coughlin says. That land, owned by St. Marys, will go for about $20,000 an acre in a deal brokered by the JDA. With the commitment for that large parcel, most of the land at the former airport is now committed, he says.

How many jobs will this project bring? “It’ll be somewhat project-specific, but there might be 25 or 30 folks who are there permanently, and they might have 100 people at a given time,” Coughlin says.

Projects in the works for Pigmental include an animated feature with a deaf heroine, with Gallaudet University’s involvement.

Expansion Benefits Students and Professionals

Just over 100 miles north of St. Marys, SCAD rolled out the first phased expansion of its Savannah Film Studios this September. Over the next two years, the school will increase its space devoted to its School of Film and Acting by 50,000 square feet – resulting in what SCAD bills as the largest, most comprehensive university film studio in the country.

The first phase of the backlot includes 17 separate street facades totaling 4,500 square feet of dressed set space, including historic Savannah homes, a café, a barber shop, a pub and other versatile locations, along with a base camp, hair and makeup facilities, and classroom and office space.

“It’s a great business move, and then our student classrooms are actual sets an they are learning on an actual set.” Andra Reeve-Rabb, dean, Savannah College of Art and Design’s School of Film and Acting

The second phase, set to open in fall 2024, will bring a New York vibe, with Brooklyn brownstones, a historic financial establishment, a Manhattan coffeehouse, a “Big Apple” subway entrance and even a sketchy-looking alley. A year after that phase opens, the next expansion will include a town square, city hall, small-town street, single-family home, vintage garage and convenience store, as well as a 23,700-square-foot support building to house two sound stages plus classrooms and office space.

While SCAD acknowledges it is a significant investment, the private university declined to disclose the cost.

All of this is, or will be, available to SCAD students – and to professional film productions who will use the facilities and, by design, give students some real-world experience for their resumes.

“That backlot is like no other – four-story buildings with interiors. Every one is a shootable, air-controlled environment,” says Andra Reeve-Rabb, dean of SCAD’s School of Film and Acting. “It’s a great business move, and then our student classrooms are actual sets and they are learning on an actual set.”

SCAD says the concept planning was done in association with Paul Wonsek and Associates, with final building designs and project implementation by SCAD Design Group. Wonsek was the production designer of Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta.

Another asset is SCAD’s LED volume – the industry term for the latest iteration of enhanced-reality filming capability, combining a stage with multiple LED screens that can be used to insert virtually any background. SCAD put one version at its Savannah campus in 2021 and added another to its Atlanta campus a year later.

“It’s where game design meets film. You can be in Paris, France, and five minutes later be in Alaska. Everything is magic hour – you don’t have to wait for the light. It’s making film shoots incredibly accessible,” Reeve-Rabb says.

Magic hour is that brief period near sunset when natural lighting conditions are ideal for beautiful movie shots. For the TV and film industry, magic hour in Georgia – at least at present – appears to be an ongoing condition, with investment undaunted even by an historic strike.

This article appears in the January 2024 issue of Georgia Trend.