The zombies are here

Georgia is one of the top three movie and television production locations in the U.S.

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Those teenagers battling to the death in a post-apocalyptic outdoor arena, and that brilliant athlete smashing the baseball race barrier, and those sexy vampires falling in love, and all of those supposedly real housewives in Atlanta mean job security for Lee Thomas.

“At this moment, we have 34 shows being made in Georgia, and they’re in various stages of production,” says Thomas, director of Georgia’s Film, Music & Digital Entertainment Office. It’s mid-March, and by shows, she basically means big-screen feature films and television programs.

“So, 34 shows is a lot, and I recently gave a speech about it. To give you an idea of how much it’s grown, I gave the same speech in 2007 and at the time we had one two-week episode of a reality show called ‘Yo Mama’ being made.

“Things have gotten a lot better,” she says. “We’ve got zombies now.”

In 2008, the state legislature passed the Entertainment Industry Investment Act, the foundation of which was a 20 percent investment tax credit for companies spending a minimum of $500,000 in a single year. Lawmakers have tweaked the incentives package so that now companies may get a 30 percent tax credit, and it’s made Georgia one of the top three production locations in the country, which means not only is Thomas’ job secure, it’s busier than ever.

“Now, we spend less time trying to attract shows to Georgia and more time taking care of the ones that are here,” she says. “The tax incentives attracted some big productions, but it’s led to tremendous growth in the infrastructure that stays here, new soundstages and service companies. The industry is growing like crazy right now.”

When Thomas, who is an Atlanta native, was studying film and TV, first at the University of Georgia, then Georgia State, and then New York University, she was focused more on the art of filmmaking, “on critical theory stuff in cinema studies,” she says. “That was until I realized that location scouting was a real job.”

She started at the Georgia film office as a project manager during the 1996 Olympics and was a location scout for 12 years, serving as interim director a couple of times before taking on the gig for real in 2010.

“I loved location scouting,” she says. “You’re driving around the state in your car, going to some distant places, seeing little towns, getting on top of buildings and into creepy factories, you see everything. You see stuff that most people never see.”

She’s put down some roots in one of those distant places—Thomas is co-owner of the Laurel Lodge Restaurant, in the woods near Lake Burton, in northeast Georgia. But most of her working life is devoted to big and little screen productions. Her office receives scripts from all over, mostly New York and Los Angeles. Thomas and her crew break down each script, shot by shot, and determine the best places to shoot, using the massive digital database of images they’ve collected or created.

“Everything was location driven when I started, and we’re lucky to have a diverse landscape in Georgia,” Thomas says. “Now, so much of it is about incentives, and it makes us very competitive.”

It also helps that Thomas can pick up the phone and work a deal with her neighbors. That kind of networking can determine how a story will end.

“Last year, getting ‘Catching Fire,’ the second ‘Hunger Games’ installment, was huge, a back-and-forth last-minute thing,” she explains. “There wasn’t a space big enough for a soundstage, so we worked closely with the Georgia World Congress Center, and they were able to move a trade show around to accommodate the production, about 200,000 square feet.

“We had gone to the line with Lionsgate, and we were sure they were taking the production somewhere else. But at the last moment we were able to reel them back in. That was very exciting.”

— Jerry Grillo is a senior editor at Georgia Trend magazine, http://www.georgiatrend.com. This article was reprinted with permission from the June 2013 issue of Georgia Trend, which retains all rights.