“Best of Enemies” turns Macon into Durham, North Carolina
Some of Hollywood's biggest stars — Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Margot Robbie and Taraji P. Henson — shot movie scenes in Macon in 2017.
Those stars grab the headlines and catch fans' attention, but it's the crews that come to town for the shoots that help drive up sales at restaurants, hotels and other businesses, while Macon-Bibb County itself also reaps extra revenue.
The group that works to attract movies and TV shows to Macon is Film Macon. And although there have been successes in the last few years, much more can be done to boost Middle Georgia’s potential, two film commissioners say.
Film Macon, recently rebranded from the name Macon Film Commission, is led by volunteers Terrell Sandefur, who handles marketing and social media, and Elliott Dunwody, who helps scout film locations and with production. They are usually the first points of contact when there is interest in filming at locations around the county.
"It’s economic development," Dunwody said. "When a film comes here, they buy fuel, they buy wood, they get extras, catering, venues, parking lots, hotels. These restaurants know when there is a film in town because their business skyrockets."
The industry is booming across Georgia, thanks in large part to the state's tax credit program, and Sandefur and Dunwody would like to see Macon get its share of that business. Film and television production companies spent an estimated $2.7 billion in Georgia during the 2017 fiscal year, according to Gov. Nathan Deal's office. That translates to a boost of about $9.5 billion to the state's overall economy, according to estimates. In all, 320 productions were shot in the state during that period.
"This is a hip town," Dunwody said. "It’s gotten a lot hipper, and we want to bring the film industry here. We have brought the film industry here. We are on the path. They know we are here. We’re doing everything we can to bring more. We just need a little backup."
One of the challenges is that the film commission operates on a shoestring budget, leaving Dunwody and Sandefur to spend their own time — and money — meeting with industry representatives and traveling to events.
The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has contributed funding, which Film Macon used to hire a photographer to catalog prospective filming sites. Other than that, though, there's no budget set aside for Film Macon.
And that's taking a toll over time.
“We have more historic structures than Savannah does,” Sandefur said. “We should be getting more business. Savannah has (the Savannah College of Art and Design). SCAD has pumped in the money. They are supporting their city, and that’s why they have so much film production there.”
If a certain location in Macon doesn't suit what a film or TV show needs, Dunwody will see if there is a fit in a surrounding county such as Houston, Twiggs or Peach.
That's what happened for "First Man" staring Ryan Gosling when the extended flat tract available at the Georgia National Fairgrounds and Agricenter in Perry filled the bill.
Having a studio in Macon might lure not only more films or TV shows, but also generate longer stays, Dunwody and Sandefur said.
In some cases, scenes are shot in Macon, but then crews head back to the Atlanta area to use studios there. Having a studio ready in Macon would require a large building that's soundproof, such as a former manufacturing plant, Sandefur said.
Some cities are taking the next step to boost their presence. Three Ring Studios, a production studio in Covington, now can accommodate larger productions and multiple film projects.
That's where Sandefur and Dunwody would like to head.
"When I’m meeting with other studios around the state, they'll ask me if we have any sites in Macon that can be turned into a studio," Sandefur said. "They’re looking to branch out of Atlanta."
One setback, he said, is that Macon missed out on a Georgia Film Academy, which works with local colleges to train people to become cameramen, grips, and other roles for on-set production. But when those schools didn't join in the effort, academies started in cities including Milledgeville and Columbus.
Having people already in place with certain technical skills is attractive to the industry, Sandefur said, and it would offer a new crop of workers who could gradually move up the ranks.
The film industry has to deal with some higher costs in Macon due to unions, which doesn't impact communities around Atlanta.
A production office can be open within a certain radius of Atlanta, but filming anything farther out can cost more money when filming scenes. It might help if lawmakers could modify that distance, or Macon-Bibb could offer incentives, such as discounts on hotel rooms when a crew of a certain size comes to town, Dunwody said.
"When they’re driving from Atlanta to Macon, as soon as they cross that line they start work," he said. "The clock starts and the clock doesn't stop until they cross that line again. ... So there’s some union things that need to be dealt with."
He added, "Almost everyone that comes to Georgia, the first thing they say is , 'What has Macon got?" They want to come here because it’s so much easier here in Macon. Atlanta is saturated right now in films and (TV) series."
Macon-Bibb County Mayor Robert Reichert said he believes the biggest challenge facing filming in Macon is being outside of the "ring" around Atlanta that leads to a per diem having to be paid for crews. If that isn't changed, then it's worth seeing if there are other ways to financially incentivize filming in Macon, he said.
"I commend the Film Macon group for trying to take the right steps," Reichert said. "It would be wonderful to pair them us with the right governmental agency here. Whether that's the (Macon-Bibb County) Industrial Authority or a different group to work with them on this incentive angle."