What do “The Walking Dead,” “Drop Dead Diva” and “The Vampire Diaries” have in common? Besides the overarching theme of dead people coming back to life, they’re all popular TV shows filmed in greater Atlanta -- and they’re members of a growing tribe.
In a report released last week by the nonprofit group FilmL.A., Atlanta was named as one of the top five locations in North America for TV pilot production. The Southern metropolis hosted 12 projects during the most recent pilot season, surpassing Toronto (eight pilots) and rapidly gaining on Vancouver (17 projects). While it is still far behind New York and Los Angeles (with 35 and 90 projects, respectively), Atlanta is emerging as yet another viable competitor to those longtime industry meccas thanks to a robust package of Georgia tax incentives, an existing infrastructure of studio facilities and a diverse terrain that allows for an assortment of urban and rural backdrops.
“The growth has been pretty staggering,” said Adrian McDonald, a research analyst for FilmL.A., who authored the report. “And they definitely have the ability to house it, so it’s only going to grow.”
In a phone interview Tuesday, McDonald said Atlanta’s production industry really took off in 2008 after Georgia lawmakers upped the state’s tax incentives to 30 percent for all qualifying films, TV series and pilots. That incentive put Georgia on par with New York, which offers producers some of the most aggressive tax breaks in the country.
Dina Peterson, a production worker who moved to Atlanta last year, said the incentives helped draw filmmakers to the area, but city’s facilities and diverse locales keep them around. “It’s absolutely beautiful here,” she said. “You have forests, and nice homes. Downtown, there are parks and really cool buildings and streets. It’s a great variety of locations.”
According to the Georgia Film, Music and Digital Entertainment Office, the film and TV production industry brought $3.3 billion to the state in 2013 -- but Georgia’s gain is California’s loss. Runaway production has long been a concern for Hollywood industry types, beginning in the 1990s when producers discovered they could flee to cheaper locations in Canada and overseas. States got more aggressive with their own incentives in the early 2000s, with Louisiana leading the way in 2002. Today, 39 states and Puerto Rico offer some form of tax incentives to film and TV productions.
Pilot production is seen as an indicator of the industry’s overall health, as TV pilots have a chance at developing into popular series that bring jobs, tourism and a shot of economic growth to the areas in which they film. (In 2013, for instance, tourism in New Mexico hit a three-year growth trend thanks in part to AMC’s hit “Breaking Bad.”) But Los Angeles is losing more and more of its onetime market dominance to emerging production hubs. Six years ago, the city boasted 82 percent of all pilots shot in North America. Today, that’s down to 52 percent. McDonald said California has been trying to play catchup with production incentives of its own, and a bill currently working its way through the Legislature promises to make the state more competitive.
But not everyone thinks increasingly aggressive tax breaks are the best way to lure productions. The nonprofit Tax Foundation has criticized such tactics as “corporate welfare,” while some visual-effects workers say they have caused a “race to the bottom” -- encouraging producers to chase the sweetest tax breaks from state to state and forcing workers to uproot their lives to survive.
McDonald said he’s heard all those complaints before, but he said California has no choice but to step up its tax-incentive game if it wants to stop hemorrhaging production work. “At the end of the day, everybody else picked this as an industry they wanted to effectively subsidize,” he said. “You can call it whatever you want, but it’s the game that’s being played.”