Inside Atlanta's Film Industry

Inside Atlanta's Film Industry

For actor Adam Aalderks, relocating from Aplington, Iowa, to metro Atlanta Sept. 24, 2012, was essential to his career in the film industry. It’s also the day he left his corporate job to start living for himself and take control of his own legacy.

“Seven-plus years ago, you had to live in L.A. and pay the higher cost of living until you got your break. Now, young actors, as well as celebrities, have found how beautiful Atlanta is and are finding new ways to break into the acting industry without sacrificing their humanity,” the local actor says.

Aalderks and his wife both appreciate Atlanta’s family friendliness and love their suburban community. “I love everything about Atlanta,” he says. “The historical districts are fascinating. The small-town rural areas are enticing, and the Southern charm hasn’t left. It’s a great place for real estate investments, both personal and for financial gains. It’s a place to raise a family and start a business. Coming from a small town in Iowa, I can honestly say I feel right at home.”

Adam Alderks on set with Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. Adam Aalderks on set with Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.

Living near the city gives film industry workers like Aalderks a leg up in the eyes of Atlanta producers, too, since they don’t have to foot the bill for travel, hotel stays or per diems. “It is the basis of why most actors are living in the Southeast. And now, thanks to the internet, we are in the middle of an industry switch where actors are living in Atlanta and auditioning for roles in London, Vancouver, New York and Los Angeles,” he says.

Aalderks adds it’s a great place for film and TV newbies to get their career started because with all the local tax incentives, movie studios are spending lots of money in Georgia that is helping to solidify the state’s foothold in the industry. “I hit the market at the perfect time, allowing me to build my resume and surround myself with an incredible agent and manager. The abundance of productions coming to town allowed me to build a resume in only three years that has launched me into a professionally competitive market.”

Beyond his small, one-off roles, Aalderks has also worked on a number of feature films, including last year’s comedic drama “Ashby” and the coming-of-age movie “Curveball,” where he had the opportunity to act alongside Mickey Rourke. His television roles include work in VH1’s “Hindsight,” CBS’ “NCIS,” as well as SundanceTV’s “Hap and Leonard” and “Rectify.” In 2015, he completed filming for HBO’s “Ballers” starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

“I love the set life,” Aalderks says. “Being on set puts me in a mindset of fulfillment and relaxation. The most fun crewmembers are always found in the wardrobe, hair and makeup trailers. These people are unfortunately often forgotten, but they know how to keep things fun.”

For anyone in the film or TV industry considering a move to Atlanta, Aalderks says the city’s film industry is very welcoming and has plenty of opportunities for all — as long as you are ready to put in the effort. “If you are willing to professionally indulge the industry and learn with your feet actively on the ground, I believe you will succeed in finding your niche. Stay motivated, stay focused, but most of all stay human.”

Jobs for Georgians

In 2015, Gov. Nathan Deal and the State of Georgia initiated an unprecedented, cooperative effort among all higher education institutions to deliver an industry-recognized professional training program, the Georgia Film Academy.

A collaborative effort between the University System of Georgia and the Technical College System of Georgia, the academy supports workforce needs in the film, television and digital entertainment industries. Approximately 200 students are currently enrolled in the Georgia Film Academy pilot program and this summer, classes will expand to serve students at 11 different higher-ed institutions throughout Georgia.

Academy Executive Director Jeffrey Stepakoff says through a strategic partnership with Pinewood Studios in Fayetteville, the academy has access to a 16,000-square-foot stage as well as a 10-room teaching facility located on the studio campus. Working together with the universities and colleges, the academy provides instructors, equipment and resources, organizes classes and offers college credits, certification and professional training to Georgians who want to work in the industry.

Jeff Stepakoff, director of Georgia Film Academy Jeff Stepakoff, director of Georgia Film Academy

Stepakoff, who graduated from Woodward Academy in College Park and now lives in Cobb County after a nearly 25-year stint working in film and television in L.A., was asked to come on as Georgia Film Academy’s executive director in August 2015. “It’s a chance of a lifetime,” he says. “I left when I was 24 to pursue a career in the film and television industry because those kinds of opportunities didn’t exist in Georgia, so the chance to return home and help Georgia build a permanent, sustainable entertainment industry is a great privilege and something I’m very, very excited about.” His previous work includes writing and producing several shows, including TV classics like “The Wonder Years," “Sisters” and “Dawson’s Creek.”

Stepakoff is also an associate professor of screenwriting at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, where he’s taught for nearly a decade, traveling back and forth from the West Coast for his classes. “The academy is an initiative to make sure that we are doing everything we can in Georgia to put Georgians to work on our sound stages and our sets; and to make sure that Hollywood has the crew here in Georgia that is needed to meet the demands,” he says. “We do that by not only putting our neighbors and our kids and our returning vets to work… but we also do that by training the next generation of content creators and filmmakers and keeping them here in Georgia. We are committed to the full ecosystem of the business, from writers and people who produce movies on our sets here in Georgia, to the financing, representation and the distribution.”

The academy has the ability to train students for an array of positions in film and TV, ranging from jobs in sound engineering and hair and makeup, to video production and camera operation. “There’s all kinds of job opportunities and the Georgia Film Academy is preparing Georgians for those jobs right now.” Stepakoff says.

What is happening in Georgia in the film and TV industry is transformative, Stepakoff adds, with 20 major studio complexes and two of the largest sound stages in North America now located here. Though the industry is largely driven by Georgia’s film tax credit, Stepakoff says that benefit is compounded by the state’s business-friendly political leaders and key infrastructure development. “We have more than 100,000 people working in Georgia in film and television production and Hollywood loves to come here,” he notes, but adds that he’s never particularly liked the ‘Hollywood of the South’ moniker Atlanta has earned, believing the state has its own unique film culture. “We are Georgia — we have our own industry, our own way of doing things and we’re real proud of it.”

City Successes

Just outside of the state’s capitol lies Union City, which is now home to the largest sound studio in North America. Developed by 404 Studio Partners, Atlanta Metro Studios spans 240,000 square feet on 25 acres, which includes 130,000 square feet of sound stages, 60,000 square feet of office space and 50,000 square feet of construction and flex space.

To ensure the movie production complex has plenty of laborers in the pipeline, 404 Studio Partners has partnered with Clayton State University to provide hands-on training for stage and production employees, including a pilot program with the Fulton County School System.

The Union City Opportunity Zone, which was created in 2009, has played a key role in attracting and securing companies like Atlanta Metro Studios and the other companies at the Majestic Airport Central Park in the area, and has attracted many hotels and restaurants.

Film students at Clayton State University Film students at Clayton State University

Atlanta City Council Member Carla Smith says she’s thrilled about the economic impact the industry has had on her city and beyond. “With the growing film industry comes many economic benefits,” Smith says. “It brings jobs, studio space, opportunities for niche training and jobs, and helps promote local businesses where they are filming.”

In 2013, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed opened the Mayor’s Office of Film and Entertainment, which has helped support the burgeoning industry through streamlining filming permit processes, facilitating employment of local talent and — most importantly for those living near film shoots — managing noise complaints and notifying residents of road closures. Smith says her constituents have brought some of their concerns about these issues to her and she’s found the offices to be very “hands-on” in making sure all problems get resolved.

The Mayor’s Office of Film and Entertainment has also partnered with the Atlanta Workforce Development Agency to establish a 17-week internship program that prepares Atlantans — no matter if they are new to the city or lifelong residents — to enter entry-level positions on a variety of productions.

“Whether you are an actor or are part of the production and technical crews in the industry and are planning to move to Atlanta, we welcome you,” she concludes. “Opportunity awaits you. Atlanta is a vibrant city to live in. Come be a part of the excitement.”

Georgia Film Fast Facts:

> Georgia is the No. 1 filming location in the world for its number of worldwide film productions and No. 4 in North America, behind New York City, Vancouver and Los Angeles.
> Industry growth over the next three to five years is projected to generate 3,000-5,000 new jobs in Georgia, most of which will be on-set jobs.
> Georgia-filmed productions generated an economic impact of $9.5 billion during fiscal year 2017.
> Georgia saw record investment from film and television productions with more than $2.7 billion in direct spending in the state in 2017.
> According to the Motion Picture Association of America, the film and television industry is responsible for more than 79,000 jobs and roughly $4 billion in total wages in Georgia. These are high-quality jobs with an average salary of nearly $84,000, 75 percent higher than the average salary nationwide.

Source: Georgia Film Academy and the Major Motion Picture Association of America

Updated by Claire Turner on Jan. 4, 2018