Lee Thomas – Director of the Georgia Film, Music, & Digital Entertainment Division

lee thomas
Pictured: Lee Thomas (Image via: Georgia Dept. of Economic Development)

Georgia has become one of the top markets in the U.S. for filming TV shows and movies over the past few years. Lee Thomas, the Director of the Georgia Film, Music, and Digital Entertainment Division shares more about why Hollywood film companies love shooting in Georgia, and what has been filming in the state.

Can you please tell us where you’re from and how you got started in the film industry?
Sure. I’m a native of Atlanta, which is rare in our city. I went to UGA (Univ. of Georgia) and got my Bachelor’s degree in Radio/TV/Film and from there I went on to obtain a Master’s degree in Film from Georgia State University. After that I enrolled in the Doctoral program for Film at NYU and then returned to Atlanta after the Olympics took place and began working with the (film) office. I initially started out doing administrative work and then moved on to doing location scouting for the office, and then they moved me to my current position.

As the Director of the Georgia Film, Music, & Digital Entertainment (GFMDE) Division, what do you do?
What we do is we try to help movie companies find locations within the state of Georgia to shoot their projects. Our goal is to try and get shows to shoot in Georgia instead of other states or countries. Typically, we’ll get a script from a production company and break it down shot by shot and try to figure out what makes sense for them in Georgia. That includes putting together various location packages and presenting that information to the production company. If they like what they see, they’ll fly in and we’ll take them around the state and show them the sites. If all goes well and they decide to shoot in Georgia, we can help them find a production space, hotels, crew, equipment, and everything else they’ll need.

Also, we recently set up a program called “Camera Ready” through our office where productions can get assistance with municipalities. So if we get a call from a production company that needs something shot in a very specific location in one Georgia’s 159 counties, we can contact our office rep in that area and help the producers get what they need. We now have 89 counties participating in the program.

What are some of the key points of Georgia’s entertainment tax credit program?
It’s exactly what you said, a tax credit, which is not to be confused with a tax rebate. We’re not giving out monetary refunds, but it is a credit against someone’s tax liability within our state. The base tax credit is a 20% for all productions that spend over $500,000 in Georgia within a fiscal year on a qualified project. These include feature films, television shows, and video games. Then, if they include an animated Georgia logo in the end-roll credits of their project they would receive an additional 10% (credit). While the 20% applies to commercials, they do not qualify for the additional 10% because they don’t have end-roll credits on commercials. Most of the companies that come here to shoot their projects don’t have a tax liability in Georgia, so they sell it to someone who does have that liability.

Since 2007 when we raised the percentages on our film tax credit our economic impact in Georgia has gone from $240 Million to $1.4 Billion by the start of our 2010 fiscal year and 2011 will be our biggest year ever.

What improvements has Georgia, as a whole, made in recent years to strengthen its infrastructure in the entertainment industry?
There’s been tremendous growth in our infrastructure here in Georgia since 2007. Many of Georgia’s major universities and technical colleges now offer Film/TV degree or certificate programs because of all the production taking place here. When I first started working here (GFMDE) we use to say we were two crews deep, but now we’re 8 crews deep; meaning we can fully crew 8 different shows simultaneously. There are a number of things that contribute to our (GA) growth, like people coming here to do one show and they end up getting a place and staying because it’s a great place to live and they’ll always be working. Also you see people who possess various trade skills being able to work in our growing film industry. For example: construction workers, caterers, painters, medical personnel, and hairstylists are all able to use their expertise on movie and TV show sets. There are a lot of job skills that translate very easily into the film business.

We’ve also grown tremendously in the area of soundstages and studios. Atlanta has always been home to Turner Broadcast Systems, but we’re also home to Tyler Perry’s 200,000 SQFT facility. EUE Screengems opened up a 37,000 SQFT soundstage in Atlanta last year that BET shoots a lot of shows out of. Sony also shoots their new television series NECESSARY ROUGHNESS at that same facility. Raleigh Studios has a facility near the Atlanta airport. Another big addition to our growth is the opening of panavision’s Atlanta facility. So often in the past we were asked by major film and television companies if we had Panavision here; well, now we do. There are a lot of other new companies, stages, and people coming in who are contributing to our growth.

What area of the film/TV industry would you like to see the most improvement in as it relates to Georgia?
We’d like to see more filming taking place throughout the state and not just concentrated here in metro Atlanta. Several recent movies like THE CRAZIES, WANDERLUST, ZOMBIELAND, and X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, were shot in small towns throughout the state which helps showcase all the great locations that Georgia has to offer.

Learn More About Filming In Georgia >> Georgia Film Commission <<