Where the 'Action' Is

Emory alumni star in the true story of Georgia's rise to the third-busiest production location in the country

By Scott Henry

White

Ann Borden

BIG BREAK After four years in L.A., Ben White returned to Atlanta to take advantage of the explosion of opportunity in the film industry. His credits as assistant director include The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, 24: Legacy, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul.

In fall 2007, Ben White 08C was a few months away from earning his bachelor’s degree in film studies at Emory, but something was missing. He enjoyed studying world cinema and its themes and genres, but what he really wanted to learn was how films are made—and, by extension, how could he get into the movie business?

During his senior year, the Department of Film and Media Studies offered its first filmmaking course. It was an introductory, 101-style look into the basics of what happens on a film set, and it helped confirm White’s desire to go Hollywood—literally. That next spring, he and ten of his classmates decided to move out to Los Angeles after graduation in order to break into movies and TV.

Four years later, with dozens of screen credits on his resume as an assistant director and crew member—including several feature films with budgets in the tens of millions—White, a Seattle native, decided to pursue his career back in Atlanta. That’s partly because he developed a liking for the city during college, but also because—thanks to Georgia’s film-production tax credits and the ongoing construction of new TV and movie studios—this is where the work is.

With metro Atlanta now the third-busiest production location in the country behind L.A. and New York, White is among a growing number of Emory alumni working in the industry locally. Set against the leafy, green backdrop of the state’s 30 percent tax break, nearly 250 films and TV projects were shot last year in Georgia—double that of about five years ago, according to the state Department of Economic Development. Included in that tally are some of the most complex and expensive productions around, such as Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War and upcoming entries in its Spiderman and Avengers franchises, as well as top-rated TV shows like The Walking Dead.

Back at the ranch, Emory’s film studies program has added a number of production classes to its curriculum, as recent graduates and some from decades past continue to be lured by the energy, excitement, and exploding career opportunities of the socalled Hollywood of the South.

The bounty of opportunity helps explain how Meredith Stedman 16C was able to make the transition from college campus to movie set in less than a month.

“I realized about halfway through my Emory experience that I wanted to work in film production,” says Stedman. Shortly before she graduated with degrees in film studies and English, she was referred by a professor to a local extras casting director who had contacted Emory in search of candidates for an opening as assistant.

Stedman’s background as a student adviser and president of her sorority, as well as her communication skills, won her the job, which involves keeping track of hundreds of extras and making sure they show up when and where they’re supposed to.

“My production classes prepared me for being on set,” she says. “Casting isn’t where my heart lies, but it’s been a great introduction to the industry.”

Within weeks of graduation, Stedman was working on big-budget Marvel shoots like Spiderman: Homecoming at Atlanta’s huge new Pinewood Studio in Clayton County and Black Panther at EUE Screen Gems in Atlanta’s Lakewood neighborhood. She’s even found herself in production meetings with directors and stars like Jason Bateman. After she gains more experience, Stedman plans to enroll in film school with an eye toward eventually writing and directing her own movies.

stedman

Ann Borden

FAST TRACK Meredith Stedman was able to land a job as a casting assistant within weeks of graduation, working on big productions like Spiderman and Black Panther.

Atlanta’s film industry has grown so much that it’s even pulled in earlier graduates who left Emory on a seemingly different career path. Margaret Burke 00MPH was already helping to oversee industrial hygiene for Delta Air Lines when she earned her master’s degree from Rollins School of Public Health. About ten years ago, she began working as an occupational health consultant for some of the country’s largest corporations, developing safety protocols, conducting compliance audits, and investigating environmental hazards.

A couple of years later, she began getting jobs reviewing on-set health and safety compliance with some of the Hollywood studios—and found the movie bug had bitten. Last August, she joined 21st Century Fox full time as director of production safety for the eastern US, and has overseen fifteen ongoing film and TV shoots in Georgia and along the East Coast, making sure regulations are followed and precautions are taken. Recently, she worked on the Oscar contender Hidden Figures, and such TV shows as Star, 24:Legacy, and Sleepy Hollow.

“Working on movies is so exciting and fulfilling,” she says. “I’ve worked with pharmaceutical firms, railroads, and oil companies, but the film industry is by far the most challenging because you’re always changing locations, dealing with temporary construction, and working with potentially untrained day players.”

Even when a production isn’t moving around, a movie set presents a constantly changing set of risks—pyrotechnics, constant construction work, smoke and fog, tall cranes, exploding “squibs” that mimic bullet hits, and dangerous stunts. Then there are the less glamorous potential hazards of heat stroke, electrocution, fatigue, and even makeup asphyxiation. Add in the fact that states have different safety and environmental compliance standards, and Burke has a lot to stay on top of.

“Early in my career, a director on a big-budget movie came up and told me, ‘Every minute you delay production costs $60,000,’ ” she recalls. “There are a lot of judgment calls in this industry, and we’re working under pressure to get things done fast.” That pressure can come from all sides—not just directors anxious to shoot a scene, but from union reps arguing against crew members taking unnecessary risks. Fortunately, she says, the studio gives her the authority to make tough decisions.

Typically Burke works from home, preparing for upcoming filming by reviewing scheduled stunts and special effects, but she regularly visits sets for complex or dangerous scenes. In recent months, she’s overseen movie scenes shot in Atlanta’s Stone Mountain Park that involved moving box cars and fire effects for a young adult sci-fi thriller and a scene in a different production that had a car crashing into a tree.

Burke worked out an arrangement with Fox that allows her to live in Atlanta rather than Hollywood, and with so much shooting going on in Georgia, there’s plenty to do. Ideally, she’d like to spend the rest of her career working in the entertainment industry. “It has energy and creativity and new challenges,” she says. “I’m learning something new every day.”

***

The reason Georgia has become such a mecca for filmmaking are the generous tax credits that apply to every production shot within the state—adding the Georgia Film Commission’s official peach logo to the end credits can boost the savings to a full 30 percent. First adopted in 2005, the Georgia Entertainment Industry Investment Act was rewritten three years later in part to make credits transferable, meaning a studio could turn around and sell them—not just to another studio, but virtually anybody—making them more valuable. Those financial incentives, combined with Georgia’s temperate climate and a growing workforce of experienced film crews, have helped push the local production industry into the stratosphere.

One of the forces behind all this is Stephen Weizenecker 88Ox 90C, who used his background in entertainment law to play a key role. Now, in addition to helping major studios, cable networks, and video game companies take advantage of production incentives, he serves as a consultant to other states and countries that want to build up their own entertainment industry.

Weizenecker’s path started at Emory, when he was managing a friend’s band that played fraternity parties. “Although I’d fallen in love with music and entertainment, I saw that our lawyer worked regular hours,” he says. “I realized that, rather than manage rock bands, I really wanted to work on the legal and finance side.”

After graduating, Weizenecker earned a law degree in Michigan, but returned to Atlanta, where he helped an acquaintance draw up a financing plan for using Wall Street investments to fund a new film production company. That was Legendary Pictures, one of the most successful media companies of the past decade—think Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, Jurassic World, and the Hangover films (the latter were coproduced by another Emory grad, Scott Budnick 99B).

Weizenecker came up with the idea for transferable credits when he was tapped by the governor to serve on a commission tasked with simplifying Georgia’s tax incentives to make them more appealing to film studios. He later was part of a delegation sent to London during 2012 to help woo the prestigious Pinewood Studios into opening what is now Georgia’s largest soundstage complex, located in rural Fayette County.

Along the way, Weizenecker also has leveraged his connections on Emory’s behalf, bringing in top filmmaking talent to talk to classes and hosting a convention for film commissioners from around the world at the Michael C. Carlos Museum.

Last year, Weizenecker was appointed to another legislative study committee to explore how to foster growth in Georgia’s music industry. That work led to Weizenecker’s drafting of the Georgia Music Investment Incentive Act, which was signed into law by Governor Nathan Deal on May 9.

“This is a huge milestone for Georgia’s music scene, and will afford many new opportunities to artists and companies that operate here,” he says.

moviefest

Ann Borden

WE KNEW THEM WHEN Campus MovieFest founders David Roemer 02B (from left), Dan Costa, Michael Seminer 05B, and Vijay Makar 02B work across media platforms, keeping the focus on good storytelling.

This June, the Terminus Conference and Festival is expected to bring as many as three thousand filmmakers and game developers to Atlanta’s W Midtown Hotel for four days of workshops, networking, screenings, and demonstrations focused on content creation.

That’s nearly double the attendance at last year’s inaugural convention, which cofounder Dan Costa 01B largely attributes to two factors: Atlanta’s newfound status as a media capital, and the vanishing divide between film and video games—at least from a production standpoint.

Costa was a business major at Emory when he and three classmates started a weeklong moviemaking competition between dorm halls to capitalize on the iMovie editing software that had just hit the market. Now, sixteen years later, the four run a company that oversees film festivals at schools across the country, as well as a creative agency that has produced marketing campaigns for Starbucks, Google, the Weather Channel, and other big-name clients.

After a successful launch at Emory—which drew a crowd of about one thousand to Glenn Memorial Auditorium to watch thirty-five student-made short films—Costa and his partners took Campus MovieFest (CMF) to Georgia Tech, where it was met with similar enthusiasm. Armed with funding from Delta Air Lines and other corporate sponsors, they rolled out CMF nationwide, bringing filmmaking equipment and know-how to colleges and universities, where they hold competitions for five-minute films. So far, CMF has visited eighty-five schools in the US, Mexico, and the UK, and facilitated the production of about seventeen thousand films.

Six years ago, after the founders realized that many of the one-time CMF participants had gone on to follow careers in film and TV, they established We Make, a network of the most promising writers, actors, and directors they’d encountered, drawing upon this talent pool to shoot commercials for a range of corporate and nonprofit clients.

One of those rising talents was Evan Kananack 09C. After graduating from Emory with a history degree and then interning with CMF, he moved to Los Angeles to become a production assistant on Silicon Valley, Up All Night, and several reality TV shows. He returned to Atlanta to become a producer with Ideas United, the combination agency/studio that Costa and his partners founded to create marketing campaigns.

“I really love it in Atlanta,” Kananack says. “It’s incredibly exciting to see film shoots everywhere. There’s a lot of great crew that we can draw from.”

Promoted to the position of creative director last year, Kananack and his team specialize in producing what is known in the industry as “branded content” but could also be called “non-commercials,” which have the look and feel of short films—often with a narrative and characters—but little overt connection to the clients that commissioned them, apart from a credit at the end or a web link.

“Traditional ways of advertising are changing,” says Costa. “At the end of the day, it’s all about storytelling.”

In fact, the lines between film and TV, commercial work, video games, and even internet graphics are becoming ever more blurry as content often plays across multiple media platforms. To those involved, they’re all aspects of the entertainment industry, often requiring the same skills and union memberships.

Ben White, the assistant director who came back to Atlanta from L.A., finds himself continually shifting between TV and film gigs, having worked on movies like The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, 42, and Diary of Wimpy Kid and shows like 24:Legacy. His job is focused on set logistics—corralling actors and extras and making sure the production stays on schedule.

“TV is a little more of grind because of the accelerated shooting schedule, but I like the challenge of looking for jobs all the time because there’s so much variety,” he says.

White has kept tabs on his ten Emory classmates who made the trek out to Hollywood after graduation in 2008. “Almost all of us still work in film, but maybe not in the ways we envisioned,” he says, recalling that some have stayed in production while others entered the business side and other roles.

With increasing numbers of Emory graduates entering the film industry in Georgia and California, the support network and web of connections will only continue to grow, drawing ever more folks into the burgeoning entertainment business.

“I see more and more Emory graduates on set,” says Jessica Hershatter 11C, who earned a bachelor’s degree in film studies. After starting out on student films and low-budget indie productions, she’s since earned her union card and has worked as a camera assistant on The Walking Dead and The Vampire Diaries. She’s also begun shooting local music videos in order to eventually make the transition to cinematographer.

Hershatter’s advice to today’s students who want to get into the film industry is to apply for internships, volunteer on friends’ films, and basically look for any opportunities to make connections and gain experience.

Bottom line, she says: “Do whatever you can to get on set.”

PRODUCTION VALUES

Emory’s Department of Film and Media Studies, take two

barrancano

Ann Borden

WE'RE ROLLING Rob Schmidt Barracano (right) has added production classes to the film studies lineup.

As he walks through the gallery of the former Visual Arts Building, Rob Schmidt Barracano points to the high ceiling, envisioning its transformation into a multiuse studio for art, media, and film production classes.

As Emory’s first full-time faculty member in film production, Barracano plays a central role for a department in the midst of a bold remake. The goal: Tap into the ongoing revolution and evolution in the media industry.

“To be literate in the twenty-first century, you need to be literate in media, especially moving image media,” says Barracano, the director of several feature films, who attended the American Film Institute as a directing fellow and has taught courses at New York University, the New School, and Champlain College. “We want Emory to be a place where students are excited about media, can get a great liberal arts education, and also get a great production education.”

Barracano’s arrival two years ago allowed the Department of Film and Media Studies to expand courses in production. Next up are fundraising for building renovations and launching a recently approved undergraduate concentration focused on documentary filmmaking and study.

“The advances in digital technology mean that our students have experimented with media making on their smart phones and computers. With the college’s support, we are able to teach Emory students to create films and videos in a way that was not possible twelve to fifteen years ago,” says Matthew Bernstein, Goodrich C. White Professor and department chair. “We regard this as a form of research, comparable in many ways to writing papers.”

The department also teamed up with Associate Dean Andrea Hershatter and Goizueta Business School in 2010 to launch a concentration in film and media management, the first such collaboration between Goizueta and Emory College. The management concentration connected the business and creative aspects of the industry just as the Georgia production scene was exploding.

“Where most other undergraduate programs keep film and media studies and production separate, and business studies entirely apart, we insist on integrating them,” says Bernstein. “We designed the concentration courses to train not just those students who aspire to write or direct, but to open students’ eyes to the roles of creative executives, producers, agents, production assistants—positions many of our alumni currently hold.”

Barracano began in independent film before making his name as a writer and director of horror films and thrillers. But as he kept trying to juggle projects, he realized he has a passion for teaching.

“People think that because they have dreams, they can make a film,” he says. “My job as an instructor is to let them make a terrible film, and then teach them what they need to really tell a story.”

Leila Yavari 18C took that message to heart. She was required to take Barracano’s production class as a film and media studies major, even though her career goals had focused more on generating ideas than generating content. In class, Yavari’s idea was a short documentary that asked female students their thoughts on campus “hookup” culture. She wound up as the writer and director of the finished project, Hooked. It went on to win a Jury Award at the Emory Campus MovieFest and was later screened at the national Campus MovieFest event in Atlanta.

“I could always write an essay on a film, about what it means, and get a good grade, but I was uncertain about my abilities to create,” Yavari says. “Then when I was filming, I could hear Professor Barracano saying in my ear, ‘I want a story, and give it some drama and some entertainment and some conflict.’ ”—April Hunt

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